Last December's trip was the fourth trip of mine to Lahore, Pakistan--the birthplace of my parents. What brought me to Lahore each time was weddings--extravagant, costly and grand. This is overwhelming, I remember thinking to myself as I joined the stage for photos in Pearl Continental Hotel during my brother’s wedding in 2011. I was blinded by the camera flashes as I sat there stunned by the grandness of the hall and the guests dressed in their very finest. Just a few hours before I was running errands at an outdoor mall while being approached frequently by people, young and old, asking for money. This scene clashed vividly with the one in these wedding hall doors. I was acutely aware of the enormous gap between those of us here and the many people outside on the street. The desperation outside and the extravagance indoors was so stark it gnawed at my conscience. Could I truly enjoy this wedding? Was it wrong? There was something about sitting contently on one side of a large socioeconomic gap that kept me perplexed as to what my place is here. But I knew it wasn't here, in this wedding hall. I thought to myself, the next time I come to Pakistan it certainly won't be for a wedding.
Well--the next time I came to Pakistan, it was for a wedding. What can I say, we have many relatives in Pakistan of "marriageable age". These things are just unavoidable. However, this time, I would not be placated by my privilege. I reached out to Khalid Butt of Taba Foundation. My cousin had told me about the amazing work Taba does. I asked Khalid how I could help. Khalid, who is Taba's "Lead of Operations", met with me and talked to me with great love and passion for the work that Taba does.
Taba's mission, in particular, is uniting all welfare entities in and out of Pakistan on one platform. What follows is more efficient and coordinated welfare efforts from disaster relief to education, direly needed in Pakistan but found to be scattered and disconnected by Taba's founders. Taba Foundation is a vision of Naim Un Naseer. Naim Un Naseer Welfare Trust is a Lahore based non-profit platform that sustains free educational and medical programs (and more) without external help. Khalid emphasized that the welfare trust receives no help at all from the government. It is self-sustaining and driven by people who cared and collaborated.
I was inspired by the magnitude of the endeavor the founders of Taba set out to achieve--and that they were achieving it. These endeavors were comprehensive--encompassing the realms of not just disaster relief but healthcare, education, self-improvement, women's empowerment and so on. I love that Taba employed a holistic approach to welfare, but most of all I loved Taba's principles. Living for others is the rule of nature.
Khalid then invited me to see them in action. He told me Naim Un Naseer would be holding its monthly health camp in a village called Ismailpura in a few days. He urged me to come and document. I could not wait to see the principles of Taba at work.
As we drove to Ismaiilpura, my eyes were glued to areas i have never seen before in Pakistan. This was rural life--shops were closer together, there was one big open sewer next to vendors selling undergarments and raw meat, the roads were narrower. It was definitely more humble and less developed than city life.
What I saw at the health camp was stunning. Hundreds of village people, who otherwise do not have access to healthcare, were lined up to be checked by competent doctors from all across Lahore. There were gynecologists, ENT, eye and skin specialists as well as a table of donated medical supplies.
"There is actually alot of wealth in Pakistan but people do not give back. People in power should care about those less fortunate. We are people too..." Rukhsana, my aunt's housemaid's mother articulated to me. We brought her and her daughter, Mariam, to the camp to have Mariam's eye examined. Rukhsana's words were powerful and are a testimony to how we have failed. I was glad to listen to her and I wondered how seriously people listen to and consider voices like hers. Her lived experience is valid. 60 million Pakistanis live under Pakistan's newly established poverty line. This poverty did not come from a void. There are just as many political actions as humanitarian that can be taken to diminish poverty. I wondered how powerful it would be if the government allocated funds to replicate Taba's methodology toward relief and welfare. Would Pakistan's people be better off? Would they be able to thrive beyond relying on somebody caring enough to inquire about their health and offer services from their limited resources?
As I sat in the car going home next to a relieved Rukhsana, happy that Mariam finally had the opportunity to have her eye examined, I was overwhelmed with feelings for the people of Pakistan. I hoped that Taba could become even more successful in achieving their objective to be a strong uniting force of relief and welfare to all of Pakistan's people. But concerned, kind and independently wealthy people can only do so much. I was angered that poverty was such a pervasive problem in the first place. Maybe these were the same thoughts gnawing at my conscience at my brother's wedding 5 years ago, only more defined now. There was no more romanticizing Pakistan and how fun its wedding experience is. My adolescence had afforded me much comfort in my ignorance. As an adult, I now noticed the people on the side taking care of the guests' kids, serving us our tea and tending to our every whim. Could they ever have a moment to enjoy? Do they have any opportunities to learn? How far do they have to travel for their health? Why did Mariam have to rely on our help to finally get her longstanding eye condition examined? I thought about my place in the midst of these realities. Maybe my place is to complicate our perception of what being a visitor or tourist is in "developing" nations. Are we imposing our way on others or truly listening? Are we sacrificing our privilege? Are we changing the status quo? Are we working in harmony? Are we collaborating? My place was definitely not in a wedding hall or as a perpetual shopaholic in Lahore's famous shopping developments. As a storyteller, I exist in a space where I document and help elevate the work of those already doing good--those who recognize that human beings from all walks of life have the inherent right to health, education, safety and fulfillment. I no longer asked myself where my place was--there was still thousands of miles to go to get to that place. As long as the playing field was profoundly unequal, I did not have a place. So with no cushion to rest on, I will work.