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Pehla Qadam… towards a better Pakistan

Pakistan’s devastating floods in July of this year brought many well-intentioned NGOs and charitable organizations to the forefront. Some of them enthusiastically collected cash donations during the initial days, but slowly began to peter out and fade away when it was time to actually get down to the hard work. Other individuals and organizations, however, sincerely worked day and night to try and alleviate the pain and misery their fellow countrymen were suffering as flood waters rose to dangerous levels throughout Pakistan. One of these admirable organizations was PEHLA QADAM, founded by two young individuals in their early twenties, whose main focus was providing food to the displaced flood-affected. The organization has garnered much regard over the last five months and its scope of charity has steadily diversified. Xpozé recently met with AMAR ABBASI, 21 and twenty-three-year-old MUHAMMAD JIBRAN NASIR, the duo that began it all, to talk about the floods, philanthropy in Pakistan and Pehla Qadam’s future endeavours.

Tell us about yourself and your families. Where were you born and raised? What schools & university did you attend?

Amar: I was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. My grandparents however hail from Sehwan Sharif, Hyderabad & Hala respectively. A doctor by profession from SMC, my father also spent a good deal of his youth in Hyderabad and later moved to Karachi where we have lived ever since.
The best 11 years of my life to date were spent undertaking my core education at The Mama Parsi Girls’ Secondary School in Karachi, following which I did my A-levels at The Lyceum School. Currently, I am a final year Law student at The University of Manchester, England. Hence, my major is an LLB, with my core interests focused on Human Rights, Constitutional Law, Medical Law & International Law.
Jibran: I was born and raised in Karachi. I attended St. Michaels’ for O Levels and then The Lyceum for my A Levels. After that I joined L’Ecole to do my LLB from the University of London External Programme. I completed my LLM in International Commercial Law from the University of Northumbria, followed by the College of Law of England and Wales where I completed my Legal Practice Course and concluded my academic vocational training to become a Solicitor. The focus of my studies has been Banking & Debt Finance, Mergers and Acquisition and World Trade Organization Law.

Were either of you involved in any kind charity work before the July floods?

Amar: As an active Red Crescent Society member during my time at Mama Parsi, I undertook a number of small charity activities here and there. However my first proper interaction with charity projects was soon after the Pakistan earthquakes as part of a school charity drive a couple of friends and I initiated. The small relief drive that was initiated within the school eventually grew to become a huge project in which every student and staff member took an active part. Medicines, first aid kits and cooked food items were what we concentrated on back then.
My second major experience in charity work since then would have to be the projects I have undertaken as a Student Ambassador for the United Nations’ World Food Programme in Manchester, a position I still currently hold. Having prior founded and presided over the UNWFP’s Student Society in Manchester, I have had the experience of organizing fundraisers and socials to raise money for charity. Moreover, my experience as a WFP Ambassador has provided me with extensive practical experience from direct feedback, conferences and discussions that the WFP’s London headquarters organize.

Jibran: I have been involved in charity work but nothing near the scope of Amar’s experience. I worked as a relief work volunteer at the PAF Base during the Earthquake crisis. Following that, via a student society in Manchester, I organized five different events to raise funds for the World Food Programme. That was my first major exposure to understanding the functioning of a charity. A charity to function successfully, does not only have to carry out the work it promises to do, but it has to market and sell its cause like any commercial entity to raise the required funds. It’s sad but true.

Most of us think about “doing something” and “making a difference” at one point or another in our lives, but seldom act on our “plans”. What instigated you to actually get up and just do it, that too at such a young age?

Amar: Life is too short to hypothesize about plans and to then wait for ‘tomorrow.’ I lost a very dear childhood friend in the Air Blue plane crash a few days before the floods struck. It was one of the most jolting experiences of my life. My friend Rabab Naqvi had plans. She had a vision and wanted to do so much for the country – and it all came to a screeching halt. However, the only thing that helped alleviate the anguish of our loss at that time was the knowledge that she had not wasted one day of her life. She had indeed lived each day to the fullest, facing each dawn with determination and purpose.
I guess things like the spirit to execute one’s plans come individually and naturally, and cannot be attributed to one particular event or mentor. However, I have always believed that the ‘get up and go’ spirit was instilled in me during my time at Mama Parsi. We were always taught how precious every passing minute is, and I guess that habit has stuck. What can be done today does not have to wait for tomorrow. However, I believe that age has nothing to do with such determination. Sixty-four years ago, it was individuals our age, if not younger who were the driving force behind revolutions and change. Just the fact that we have to question why today’s youth don’t have the same drive and zeal, signifies our failure as a nation. Just the simple fact that we at a young age are best capable in terms of energy, opportunities and time to make a difference is enough reason to just get up and actually do something.

Jibran: I suppose it idealism, naivety and a stupid belief that I can actually change the world around me and inspire people to do the same was the drive. I think being young is a blessing. We have not yet been hardened by fruitless experiences to believe that everything we do in this society will go to utter and complete waste. Hence, after we had started the relief work and set up our camps during the flood crisis, men in their 50s and 60s came to our stalls and asked us: How would we manage gathering volunteers? How would we get the packing material? How would we get it transported? How would we ensure it would get to the deserving people and how would we ensure that the victims would actually use these goods and not resell them? Perhaps these gentlemen were genuinely concerned, but concern can also become a sort of fear, and fear bogs you down. I believe in trying times like these a little faith and an approach like “Jo jai hoga dekha jayega” (“We’ll deal with whatever happens”) can do wonders for you. It did wonders for us. The fact of the matter is my idealism, naivety and belief in the youth of our nation made Pehla Qadam a fruitful effort.

What’s the significance behind the name Pehla Qadam?

Amar: To respond to this question, I’d have to continue from Jibran’s last answer. The youth of today takes its own leisurely time to respond to incidents that shout out for their attention; and perhaps they aren’t to be blamed. Due to the way things have been going on in Pakistan for the longest time, denial and insensitivity have become second nature if one has to survive through the tumultuous number of deaths each day. Only a huge jolt awakens us as a nation and reminds us we have to stand united.
The significance behind the name Pehla Qadam was simply we feel that the initiative we took was the first step towards a better future. As time has proven, the initiative turned out to be the first step towards many other organizations bringing the change they also wished to see. Pehla Qadam isn’t the first initiative being made towards changing Pakistan for the better; many other NGO’s and charities that already exist have done their bit. However, Pehla Qadam was a movement fuelled by the youth, a step forward towards not just tackling the floods, but towards any cause that our country may need us for, to ensure its stability and an even better life for our children than the one we have seen.

Jibran: It is my personal belief that social welfare is about taking initiative. Initially our aim in operating Pehla Qadam in the long run was to inspire people. We are working on new schemes like sports scholarship in which the purpose of the aid is to ensure that those receiving the aid take their first step towards living an independent life. At the same time we want to work with the youth through youth mentoring conferences and see a new Pehla Qadam story unfold in every town of Karachi.

Tell us the details of how it all began, and what were your initial reservations, if any?

Amar: It began almost overnight as we sat in our respective homes watching the increasing devastation on TV. Fearing that the response in the aftermath of a disaster of this intensity would be even worse, we decided to help in our own little way. We wanted to help pull back however little number of lives we could from the mouth of death caused by hunger, starvation and a lack of relief efforts.
We contacted the Royal Rodale Club, and the club’s managing director, Asghar Rangoonwala kindly gave us space within his premises to launch our relief camp. Overnight, Jibran and I sat working on posters; launching a Facebook event page and group, and titled our initiative ‘Pehla Qadam’ to symbolise our first steps towards helping the society around us; motivating the youth around us; and proving that with determination and willpower a positive change is really not impossible to bring about. I do not recall having any initial reservations as far as the idea of launching the efforts was concerned except the fact that on the first day of launching our camp, we raised only a meagre amount of approximately Rs.1700. This was of course a discouraging beginning and we feared on going apathy from everyone we had contacted. At the end of that first day, Jibran and I decided that should we manage to raise Rs. 1 lakh by the end of that week, we would be content at having made a sufficient difference. A week later we had crossed Rs.1 million!

What have been your major achievements since the inception of Pehla Qadam?

Amar: I don’t think we’ve achieved our best or most major achievement as yet. However, taking into account our experiences up till now, it would definitely have to be the total number of families we have managed to reach out to in terms of immediate relief; 4390 families overall, spread over Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtun and Punjab. We wish we could have catered to more people, but within the timeframe and resources available to us, we applaud our generous donors and volunteers who made it all possible for us.

Jibran: Networking! In order to survive in this country you need to network. We foresee networking as an important element in establishing Pehla Qadam. One needs to have face value, be it with donors, owners of different venues, volunteers, transporters or the media. Credibility, like we all know is currency. Hence it has not only given us the encouragement to do more but also bestowed upon us the responsibility to do more now that we have the capacity and capability to do so. Furthermore, what stands out for me is the fact that we distributed aid to all the four provinces. On Pehla Qadam’s first day in public we were accused of being racially biased. To be honest I do not blame the cynics in this country. They have seen so much discrimination so as to judge everyone the same. But our widespread distribution efforts added to our credibility.

Did you ever feel like you were being pressed down by some of the larger charity players as you underwent your activities? Any incidents that de-motivated you?

Jibran: None of the bigger players were involved in pushing us down. Usually ego subsists between equals. Hence, other newly-formed youth organizations at times harassed our donors, tried to fight with us, insisting we distribute donors amongst ourselves. There were even threats of political pressure. But that all ended in the first week. We knew that they could not operate on the work policy they had instituted so we let them die their own death.
Furthermore, I do not have any sympathy for these other youth groups because all they were trying to do was work in specific areas to appease the political vote banks of their families.
But like the middle-class of this nation I think we were always resilient. I do not feel hesitant in drawing that analogy. To be honest, we enjoyed such challenges because it made us realise that youth organizations like us actually do have a significant presence in our society.

In your opinion, which other organizations are actually doing good work in Pakistan (especially in relation the floods) rather than just collecting money and promoting themselves?

Amar: -Rahnuma and the Students’ Council at The Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture are doing some absolutely fantastic work. They’re another organisation that has managed to unite the youth on a common platform and raise awareness about the floods. Then there’s Edhi sahib. Mentioning him is just obvious, yet whatever credit is given to him is too little. Other organizations and institutions include Pukar by Imran Khan; Abbasi Welfare Organization; Karachi Relief Trust; Help in a Box (IBA); Szabist; Asian Institute of Fashion Design(AIFD); Rotaract Club of Karachi Karsaz and United Pakistan.

Jibran: I’d mention the same organizations as Amar. However I would like to add Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation. Please note I am not I am advocating the politics of the MQM but I am giving due credit to their Social Welfare wing. I have seen the work with my own eyes hence I am a witness.
Similarly many may not like the rash and blunt politics of Imran Khan but no one can deny the wonderful work being done by Pukar and the separate Insaf Welfare trust.
The organizations who worked very closely with us and for whom I can totally vouch include United Pakistan; Mission Rescue Pakistan; volunteers from AIFD and the Rotaract Club of Karachi Karsaz

How helpful has the Pakistani Media been in helping your cause? What about the government? Any recognition from them as yet?

Amar: The Media was extremely helpful to some extent in helping raise awareness and calling out to donors and volunteers. However, in my personal experience I have to confess that I found the Print Media a better mode of communication and encouragement for us. We gave numerous interviews over the phone and emailed many magazines, newspapers and radio channels. Almost all of them replied promptly and were supportive in their acknowledgement of our work. Although we gave a number of TV interviews, I have to admit GEO TV did not even bother playing the one hour coverage they had recorded of our efforts! A majority of the TV channels also ended up playing our segment after midnight, when perhaps the viewership is halved.
Nonetheless, it would be unfair to say we received no attention from the Media, because we did receive a lot. As far as the Government is concerned, we had Dr. Fehmida Mirza (Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan) visit our camp, speak with volunteers and encourage their efforts. She is one of the few genuinely hardworking and charming personalities from the Government and it was very motivating to have her visit the camp. However, beyond that, the only affiliation we had with the Government was increasing incompetency on their part which worked in direct proportion with our increasing realization for a need for better efforts on our part.

Jibran: The following TV channels, radio stations and newspapers were helpful including Aag, Samaa, Sindh TV, Mehran TV; Fm 107, Fm 94.6, Fm 93; ‘Express Tribune’ and ‘The News.’ A majority of our volunteers and donors came to us after reading an article about us by the ‘Express Tribune’, which may have to do with the paper’s popularity amongst the youth. As for the TV channels I would disagree with Amar about how they portrayed our efforts and about their airing of our coverage. All the TV channels came to us on their own accord. I am sure they had many relief camps to cover and many relief stories to tell. Hence, their presence at our camp itself was very encouraging. As for the Government, I am not at all disappointed with the performance of the Federal and the Provincial governments. I never had any expectations from them to begin with. We neither needed any recognition from them nor any logistical support. It is unlikely that they would have provided us security or logistical support upon a genuine, simple application without any political backing. Who needs a government like that!

Do you think the Establishment played any part at all in alleviating the initial shock felt by the flood-affected?

Amar: In terms of emotionally, financially or morally uplifting the flood-affected, I think the Establishment played no part in any sphere. The Establishment as a whole never united during this time of hardship. If anything, the only thing this disaster managed to do was sift through the horde of our government officials, leaving behind a handful of individuals who in their own personal capacity took initiatives. Therefore it would be correct to mention that a few selected individuals from the Establishment may have played a part in alleviating the shock accompanying the floods. However, I am all ears to hear what the Establishment claimed to do. If it did something I am still unaware of it.

Jibran: The army could cut down its insane defence budget and allocate half of it to the flood victims but that would still not help alleviate anything. If we call Pakistan a democracy then the people’s hopes are vested in its Government and not its military forces. The ‘symbol of our federation’ was wining and dining in the South of France and the United Kingdom which only worsened the initial shock caused to the flood-affected. To be absolutely honest, it was our President’s trip to the UK that was a major catalyst behind forming Pehla Qadam. We were just fed up of bashing the Government over its continuous parade of stupidity and we just decided to do something ourselves.

Would you like to recount any heart-wrenching or inspiring incidents that you witnessed while working with the flood-affected?

Amar: The most heart-warming experiences would have to be the visits members of Pehla Qadam made to relief camps in Interior Sindh (namely Sukkur); to Balochistan; and to a relief camp housing 1200 people on the outskirts of Karachi (on the Northern Bypass connecting Karachi to Balochistan). It was at the latter that members of Pehla Qadam distributed Eid gifts including clothes a couple of days before Eid, as well as boxes of sweets on the third day of the auspicious Muslim festival. Meanwhile, food and utility boxes were distributed in Sukkur and Balochistan. The trip to Sukkur will always be a fond memory as well; almost every person from the Pehla Qadam team ended up having a fight with one another! It was an eye-opening experience that brought us face to face with some of the many problems that exist not only in our system of governance, but also in our people; ranging from corruption, dishonesty, laziness, as well as a major clash of egos and cultures. The truck-driver carrying our goods to Sukkur conveniently took a detour near the highway and napped for a good four to five hours without informing us! As a result, our truck of relief goods to Sukkur arrived seven hours late. Eventually all the distribution had to be carried out in pitch darkness by Jibran, and our volunteers Hamza, Talha and Shoaib!

Jibran: Yes, that trip to Sukkur! It was not the destruction we saw on the way or the misery of the people we met that truly saddened me. It was the culture of corruption, dishonesty and all sort of social ills which are still prevalent amongst officials and the feudal lords we met. It feels like corruption and dishonesty is like AIDS in our society. No devastation, punishment, misery or spiritual healing can cure it.
During one of our trips to a relief camp set up on the outskirts of Karachi we were distributing Eid gifts. I remember a little girl, perhaps not more than eight or nine years old came to us to return the clothes we had just given her She complained the outfit we had given her was not her size and that she wanted one in her size to wear on Eid. This incident illustrated that a proud mind does not compromise on self-respect under any circumstances. She reminded us that these clothes should not be seen as aid, but it was her right to receive them from her fellow countrymen. We owed it to her.

What activities is Pehla Qadam involved in right now?

Amar: We are strengthening our roots in Pakistan as well as abroad; continuing to unite our country’s youth at a ground level and in other activities in order to bring them face-to-face with experiences that may change their outlook on life, and their own future plans.

Jibran: We are busy right now with ‘Project Warmth’, for which we hope to collect/purchase 10,000 blankets for the flood-affected for the on-going winter season. We have purchased around 1200 blankets so far, so in a way the cycle has already begun. Each blanket costs Rs. 575. All blankets are brand new, soft on the skin, cause no allergies and are made as per United Nations Refugee Specifications to be fit for adverse conditions. We’re also working a on video promotion for Project Warmth, which should go on air soon. Beyond that we plan to launch a Sports Scholarship Programme. We will set out in the search of all the amazing talent in squash, tennis, boxing and wrestling that belong to humble backgrounds. The aim is to arrange funds for their training, kits and participation in international events. At the same time we will be paying them a monthly stipend to support their families. In the long run we wish to arrange for work placements for them. We wish to involve all the large multinationals, especially from the telecommunication industry who for many years now have been earning big bucks. It’s time for them to spend and spend well in the social welfare sector of Pakistan and support not just our lucrative cricket stars but other not so commercially viable ones as well, and show that they are as Pakistani as their ads suggest.

Any messages you’d like to pass on to the Pakistani youth?

Amar: God does not change the state of a nation that is unwilling to change itself. Our ancestors left us a patch of land to freely walk and breathe on. However, it is now up to us to ensure we make it homely, secure and comfortable enough for our children to live in. This change must come and it must come now. The entire future of our nation rests on us right now. With great responsibility also comes great power. Let’s take a few steps back and reflect on the potential we have to change things around us and to channel our energies towards something positive. The future of a whole generation yet to come depends upon us. Let’s not let our children down even before they step into the world. Do what you can to ensure they open their eyes to a free, happy and content Pakistan!

Jibran: Either you can spend your life thinking what could have been, or you can just go out there and achieve your goals. Only once you have achieved your goals will you realize how small a task you had initially set for yourself. There are no limits to the human mind or body.
In a society like Pakistan, where one fears of political pressures, security issues and economic responsibilities, we made our Pehla Qadam story come true only to realize how much remains to be done.There is a quote by Hazrat Ali (R.A) which inspires me every day:
Kamyabi hoslon say milti hai
Hoslay doston say miltay hain
Dost muqaddar say miltay hain
Aur muqaddar insaan khud banata hai