Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Puzzle Project VII: Fast and Furious

December 12

Jibran would always finish the math assignments really fast, toss it our way and then proceed to dance around the room, poking and prodding the other children who were still trying to finish their work. He was five years old when I first started volunteering at the SOS Village, and over the next couple of years I learned that he was the sort of little boy I needed to give two math worksheets while most other kids got one, he was the one I had to get on my side to help hand out sweets so that he wouldn’t wreak havoc running around, grabbing as much candy as would fit in his tiny palms.

I started volunteering at the SOS Village in Lahore in my freshman year, which also happened to be the year the terrible earthquake struck across Pakistan, devastating individual lives and entire communities. A few families sought help with the SOS Village – children who had lost either both or one parent were sent through a series of SOS locations, till finally they came to rest in Lahore. Not quite the beautiful mountainous area these kids were used to…

I think of the literature and research I have been immersed in for the past year, what the academia knows about children who have been through traumatic events like natural disasters, losing their loved ones, and then the added trauma of being removed from everything you know to a foreign environment. I think of the “behavior problems” that this trauma manifests in and I wonder how those beautiful children at the orphanage survived. The almost complete lack of mental health facilities, or even recognition of what they had been through and the long term impacts of it – and yet. Yet Jibran was the most wiry little resilient creature ever. He was at the center along with his elder sister and two elder brothers. He was small but man, he had a big temper.

He would get really angry and his eyebrows would furrow and he would run away, or mess things up, or he would shout and say he didn’t want to do anything with us. But he was also the sweetest little boy who would help out with the activities, and every now and then, say something that would just melt my heart. And I have to admit, when the grumpiness was the result of a missed visit, I would always feel a guilty happiness. “Why didn’t you guys come last Sunday?” and a stalk out or refusal to partake in that day’s activity would ensue till amends were made.

Jibran loved to run, and play cricket but you should really let him bat first. Like most of the kids, he wanted to be the “captain” when we played kho-kho and then choose the first teammate. He would of course choose his buddies Talal and Ikhlaq first, even though I always wanted to split the three up because together they were quite the terrible trio. Jibran was the obvious leader in the group and if I wanted the other two little ones to listen, I really only had to concentrate on Jibran.
Jibran was really smart, he loved math and his coloring would always stay in the lines. He did well in school and he was good with the other kids. And in so many ways, he was just another adorable kid. He loved paints, he loved it when anyone got a camera out and there would ensue a battle to be in front of everyone else even if that meant a face mushed right into the lens, he loved Shahid Afridi, he liked cartoons and it was not always easy to convince him to play kho-kho. When we brought in hardboiled eggs to paint over, he was one of the little boys to peel the egg and eat it.

Jibran lost both his parents in the earthquake and he lived with several of his peers in that center. He was still young enough to sleep in the rooms with the elder girls, and if he wanted, he could put up some of the artwork he made on the room walls.

I wonder how the kids are. It has been a while since I saw them. The last time my friends and I visited, about a year after graduation, the kids seemed so mature and mellow, so happy to see us.  
I miss them, and especially Jibran, in all his fast and furious energy. I hope he grows up to be a dynamic young man who dreams big and makes those dreams come true. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Puzzle Project VI: A Pick-Up

December 2

When I saw Mai Sakina’s face peering down at me from behind green bushes, I thought she was an angel. A wrinkly, kind-faced angel with few teeth but a lot of white wispy hair, streaked with the orange of henna. “Where did you come from?” she was surprised and amused to see me standing there on a wide edge of the mountain, sharing the space with a couple of sturdy goats.
“I’m doing a survey,” I explained lamely. “And I kind of got lost. I’m not sure how to get up to where you are!”

I was in a beautiful, isolated village on the side of a mountain in Balakot, in northern Pakistan. We were conducting surveys to assess earthquake relief efforts, around three years after the devastation that occurred in 2005. Houses – or huts or shelters – sprouted out of the ground like they were a natural part of the environment, there were around 5 to 10 homes in one cluster and these clusters went all over and around the mountain. My trekking partner had conveniently parted ways when he came across a villager who wanted to show him some houses, and he waved me on in the general north direction. “Just go on up and find a different cluster!”

I had gone on, and found myself stuck on a narrow path that led to the goat feeding patch. I could see the houses a couple feet above but I wasn’t sure how to get there because there were a lot of thorny bushes in my way. When the angel lady appeared, I was quite relieved. She grabbed my hands and pulled me up through a small partition in the bushes. “Come, sit, you must be tired!”

She led me to the rest of the family on a charpoy under a thatched shade, near the edge. The wind blew lightly and there was soon a crowd of six to seven, mostly women, some children and one young man, around me.

I had nothing to offer Mai Sakina and her family. I was, in fact, asking for their time to participate in a long conversation that they had probably already had with other personnel in shalwar kameez, joggers and baseball caps. But she answered everything in detail, with her daughters, daughter-in-law and son chipping in frequently. She was in her late 50s, maybe early 60s and the household head since her husband had died before the earthquake.

“I lost two of my grandchildren, and one of my sons injured his leg,” she told me. Her voice was calm, but the wrinkles around her eyes deepened. They had also lost friends, other relatives, and most of their belongings.

Mai Sakina used to have two homes, the winter home was located further down the mountain while the temporary shelter they were currently living in was made out of the remains of their summer home. The temporary shelter had been home for more than three years now.

There was a light breeze as the family talked about all they had lost, without much bitterness. They had accepted their fate calmly, not in a fatalistic way but in a realistic, brave manner that realizes natural disasters are beyond our control. They blamed the government for its lack of empathy and help (they had received some money, but around 1/3rd of what was promised and the house the government was helping them build was behind schedule) but they were not angry.

Mai Sakina had three daughters and three sons. Two of the daughters were there with us, both married, while the third lived in the city of Gilgit. Her injured son had gone to Gilgit as well, in hope for better treatment. She had 15 grandchildren, several of them sat or ran around us. One of the chubbiest, cutest baby was plopped against two cushions near me, her green-grey eyes twinkling as one or the other aunt poked her tummy or kissed her head. The two grandchildren who had been buried between the debris of their school were nine and eight years old.
“There is no pain greater than that of seeing your children die,” Mai Sakina told me.

I spent almost two hours with the family, finding out about the lack of economic opportunities and the abundance of hospitality, resilience and love that existed on that mountain. I was offered water and then one of the younger boys was told to run and fetch plain cake from a neighbor.
“I’m sorry we don’t have too much to offer,” Mai Sakina had apologized when the cake was served on a small plate.

When I had to leave, a few children accompanied me so that I would not get lost. As I walked down the dirt path I turned and waved – a complete survey in my bag and a heart replete with gratitude.

If I could choose one reason to stay in Pakistan and work to make the country a better place, it would be Mai Sakina and millions of others like her who teach us how to be resilient, strong and thankful.