A letter to my muslim community | published on february 14th, 2016

The first anniversary of the shooting deaths of Mustafa Mattan, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha just passed. I wrote the following piece about a week after it happened last year, however, I did not make it public. The sentiment behind this piece was an intense feeling of grief after having my heart broken open for the community of believers I call my brothers and sisters. Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, Mustafa Mattan, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha were all murdered for being Muslim within a span of 3 months. In December 2014, 15-year-old Somali-American Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was hit by a car and ran over outside his mosque in Kansas City, MO by a known islamophobe. About two months later, 29-year-old Somali-Canadian Mustafa Mattan was shot and killed through his front door in McMurray, Canada (unfortunately, the news of Mustafa and Abdisamad’s murders were not widely disseminated and mourned). Only a day after Mustafa’s murder, Arab-American newlyweds Deah and Yusor along with Yusor’s sister Razan were shot and killed in their homes in Chapel Hill, NC. Muslim communities across the country were shaken. In the days following the Chapel Hill shooting, multiple Muslim families and Islamic schools/mosques were attacked. The media’s coverage of the Chapel Hill shooting, in particular, brushed aside the murders as a “parking dispute”, relegating it to the margins of the 24-hour news cycle. It was in this vulnerable time as a Muslim that I turned to write a message to turn my grief in to love somehow for my Muslim brothers and sisters. I just had to speak.

The time for silence is over.
If you love something,
Speak loud & speak often.

— Mark Gonzalez, “In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty”

It’s a valid thing — the fear and anxiety. This feeling in the pit of our stomachs. The grief over lives taken from us so violently. Lives that are an integral part of our collective body and soul. Mustafa Mattan, Yusor Abu-Salha, Deah Barakat, Razan Abu-Salha and Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein. Though the names of our martyrs are held tight in our hearts and memories, we still want our pain to be acknowledged. We want to know that the rest of humanity has enough moral courage to bear witness. But the climate we inhabit is not conducive to bearing witness. Those with large reach, power and platforms are in the business of sanitization, erasure and propaganda. Islamophobia takes root in this very erasure. It is not surprising then, that inherent to this erasure — is violence. As a result, the U.S. is a nation that cannot look at itself, at the harm it inflicts and the faces of its victims. And so here we are, with this fact laying at the pit of our soul.

How are we to survive in a climate that refuses to acknowledge our truth, let alone our grief? When terrorist acts are not named as such if the names of the dead are in Arabic? There is little serious meditation in mainstream media on the tangible threat of Islamophobia. A threat so realthat it has accumulated a body count and regularly inflicts trauma on entire communities. A serious national inquiry would reveal this nation’s power structure in which racism and xenophobia incubates under the protection of whiteness until it finally enacts its violence. This country has nation-wide conversations on the perceived threat of Muslim “radicalization” but not on the actual, tangible suffering of the Muslims that reside here. There was no national uproar or mourning over our dead. Instead, we valorize the legacies of fallen racist cartoonists whose caricatures of Muslims contributes to the very dehumanization that gets us here in the first place. Profit-driven, white-owned media cannot truly see us. It is no wonder why distrust of Muslims settles over this country like smog, distorting the functioning of people’s critical faculties. And so our condition is stripped in to bits and pieces of isolated incidents. We should no longer be content with being apart of someone else’s puzzle. We refuse to be arranged within a narrative that caters to structural injustice and racism.

It’s okay to be frustrated. We just want to be visible in all our complexity as human beings. For injustices done to us to not be seen as afterthoughts, petty drama or self-inflicted. But let us also rid ourselves of any notion that we must give up something that is uniquely ours just to be considered worthy of living. Because this is how, we too, play in to our own erasure. We will dare to be unapologetic — starting from the deepest depths of our souls.

“A culture that is not in control of their own narrative will forever live at the mercy of another’s pen.” — Mark Gonzalez, “In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty”

Wemust never forget. It is imperative that we remain alive — not just in body. To do so we must remember. Because our fallen have not died in vain. Their deaths did not happen in a vacuum. Remember the ethereal & unbreakable content that make up our souls. The content that pushes us toward justice. It is this rich content, in full bloom, that shames and pushes back against hate. Reclaim. Reclaim our narratives so that we may truly know ourselves and what we are capable of. It is the time to be overtly demanding and unabashedly us. We refuse to be pawns in a reductive discourse that only seeks to indict us. Grieve. Grieve over scorched earth, death and oppression. It gives us deliverance from the passive depositories that this power structure depends on us to be. Our cries are natural symptoms of a sick world and if we muffle them — how will others hear us? How will we hear ourselves? Be a witness. Demand and push for better with the force of your voice and the vibrancy of your identity. Love. A love that provides more than just one purpose. A love that conquers hardened spirits, nurtures life and demands accountability. Speak. The wounds are innumerable, but if we don’t speak of the pain, how will we begin to resolve it? Tell your story. Not only do we have the strength, we have the reparative power to grow beyond ourselves. We hold worlds inside of us — worlds that have been held captive to fear for too long.

Our collective grieving, remembering and loving will provide healing. We will not be spectators to our lives. And we will not spare the world our God-given breath. We will make it so they cannot help but see, hear and feel us.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
- Arundhati Roy

finding my place in lahore, taba foundation and access to healthcare in rural areas

Badshahi Mosque in Lahore was commissioned to be built by the 6th Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb from 1671 to 1673. 

Badshahi Mosque in Lahore was commissioned to be built by the 6th Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb from 1671 to 1673. 

      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. We're like royalty, 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
Khalid Butt, Leader of Operations for Taba Foundation. He brought me to Taba's offices and talked about their plans for expansion in addition to the mission of Taba itself.

Khalid Butt, Leader of Operations for Taba Foundation. He brought me to Taba's offices and talked about their plans for expansion in addition to the mission of Taba itself.

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?

Mariam (in the black dupatta), my aunt's housemaid came with me to have her eye examined. Khalid writes a note for a doctor at a nearby hospital regarding Mariam's eye condition. 

Mariam (in the black dupatta), my aunt's housemaid came with me to have her eye examined. Khalid writes a note for a doctor at a nearby hospital regarding Mariam's eye condition. 

ENT specialists 

ENT specialists 

Table of donated medicines and supplies

Table of donated medicines and supplies

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.