Bridging cultural differences
Disaster relief effort revitalizes student league
File photo/Associated Press
By Matt Kelly
Anatural disaster in their homeland recently pulled U.Va.’s scattered Pakistani student community together to raise around $10,000 for earthquake relief through direct contributions, a fund-raising concert and T-shirt sales.
The Oct. 8 earthquake in the Pakistani Himalayas killed about 80,000 people initially, with another 80,000 still at risk, according to press accounts. A primary concern is getting food and shelter to hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors now facing a bitter winter.
The Pakistani Students League, which had existed in name only before the quake, became a driving force in the relief effort. “We needed a shock like this to get this thing together,” said fund-raising organizer Muzammil Saya, president of the Pakistani Student League. The Pakistani students at the University, five from Pakistan itself and 25 to 30 Pakistani-American students by Saya’s estimation, have had no social events together and were not organized. The week before the quake, Saya, a 20-year-old Karachi native, had brought together four other Pakistani students, including Maha Kausar, to revitalize the organization.
Kausar, 21, a political and social thought major from Karachi, heard about the earthquake when a friend instant-messaged her at 3 a.m. on the Sunday of the quake. No one in her family had been hurt, but she felt compelled to act.
“It was really scary and frustrating” to be far away from the devastation in her homeland, Kausar said. If she had been in Pakistan, she said, she would have gone to the earthquake site, as her mother had, to help. “I thought I could be more use if I was there rather than here.” But she also knew she could help from afar.
She was one of six Pakistani students who set up a meeting for that Wednesday and sent e-mails to all the South Asian students at the University. When Saya arrived at the meeting and found 35 students, a much larger crowd than expected, he thought he was in the wrong place.
“I lost my words,” he said.
The Pakistani students were not alone. They received help from Indian students, the Student Council, Hindu and Sikh students, the South Asian Leadership Society and the Virginia Service Coalition. They also received donations from academic departments, and from Daisy P. Rodriguez, assistant dean of students, and Dr. Leigh B. Grossman, vice provost for international affairs.
“It is fantastic what they arranged,” Grossman said. Many small efforts had started and the league pulled them together into one coordinated effort. Students arranged donation boxes around Grounds and set up collection tables for 10 days. Kausar said students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, were among the most generous.
Students organized a fund-raising concert, called “It Shook Me, Too,” with a cappella singers and dancers from many different cultures, including an African dance and drum class. After the show, they held a silent auction accompanied by U.Va. Dining-donated refreshments.
More than 15 local businesses donated items to the silent auction and National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry donated three signed posters of his famous 1983 portrait of a young Afghan girl in a Pakistani refugee camp.
Students designed and sold T-shirts with a Pakistani flag surrounded by a green teardrop on a white field, and solicited donations from local houses of worship — raising $3,000 from Charlottesville’s Muslim community. The fundraiser, Kausar said, occurred during Ramadan, when devout Muslims are supposed to perform good works and support charities.
Kausar feels she could have done more, but also believes the students encountered “donor fatigue,” following fund raising from a series of natural disasters in the past year. She plans more fund raising in the spring term, noting there will still be a need.
The money is going to two Pakistani charities — the Citizens’ Foundation and the USA Edhi International Foundation. Saya said they would be more effective in using the donations.
While there are tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani students worked together to raise money for the victims of the earthquake, which extended into India, he said.
Grossman said it was easier for students to unite over a natural disaster.
“It doesn’t have religious or political overtones,” she said. “People of all races and all cultures and all nations came together to make this a success.”
“We have a common culture and language,” Kausar said. “Far from home we get along real well.”
|To give directly to the aid agencies that have the greatest presence in the region, please use the websites below. The first two are respected Pakistani NGOs, and are registered with the U.S. government for tax deduction purposes.
The Citizens Foundation
Kashmir International Relief Fund
International Federation of the Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies