Monday, May 18, 2009

Young Pakistanis Inspire With Public Service

Alongside the usual negative and depressing coverage about Pakistan that fills the electronic media and newsprint in the West these days, I am really happy to see a rare but hopeful and inspiring story from Lahore about public service and volunteerism in today's New York Times. The youth group epitomizes what it means to be a responsible citizen of Pakistan. It fits right in with my posts encouraging Pakistanis to light candles rather than curse darkness. Here is the NY Times story:

LAHORE, Pakistan — The idea was simple, but in Pakistan, a country full of talk and short on action, it smacked of rebellion.

A group of young Pakistani friends, sick of hearing their families complain about the government, decided to spite them by taking matters into their own hands: every Sunday they would grab shovels, go out into their city, and pick up garbage.

It was a strange thing to do, particularly for such students from elite private schools, who would normally spend Sunday afternoons relaxing in air-conditioned homes.

But the students were inspired by the recent success of the lawyers’ movement, which used a national protest to press the government to reinstate the country’s chief justice, and their rush of public consciousness was irrepressible.

“Everybody keeps blaming the government, but no one actually does anything,” said Shoaib Ahmed, 21, one of the organizers. “So we thought, why don’t we?”

So they got on Facebook (Responsible Citizens-Zimmedar Shehri group) and invited all their friends to a Sunday trash picking. Trash, Mr. Ahmed said, “is this most basic thing. It’s not controversial, and you can easily do it.”

Pakistan is a country plagued by problems, like Islamic extremism and poverty. But these young people are another face, a curious new generation that looks skeptically on their parents’ privilege and holds mullahs and military generals in equal contempt.

“The youth of Pakistan wants to change things,” said Shahram Azhar, the lead singer for Laal, a Pakistani rock band, reflecting an attitude that is typical of this rebellious younger generation.

“The reason the Taliban is ruling Swat,” he said referring to a valley north of Islamabad where Islamic extremists took control this year, “is because they are organized. We need to organize, too.”

“The only answer to Pakistan’s problems,” he added, “is a broad-based people’s movement.”

The trash movement, which calls itself Responsible Citizens (Zimmedar Shehri), does not yet qualify as broad, but it still drew a respectable crowd on a recent Sunday, considering the heat (above 90 degrees) and the time (around 4 p.m.). Mr. Ahmed and his friends were doling out trash bags they had bought for the occasion. About 40 people had gathered. Some were wearing masks. All were carrying shovels.

They set their sights low. The area of operation, Ghalib Market, was modest, a quiet traffic circle in central Lahore encircled by shops, a cricket field and a mosque.

It was not one of the dirtiest parts of the city, but the group felt attached to it, as they had cleaned it in the past, and wanted to see if their actions were having any effect.

The first time they cleaned there was like raking leaves on a windy autumn day.

“We collected, like, 30 bags, but there was no visible difference,” Mr. Ahmed said.

But they talked with local shopkeepers, in a kind of trash outreach, asking them to walk their garbage to the trash bin. Those connections, Mr. Ahmed said, were actually the point of the cleaning — setting an example for others to follow.

“The major problem people have here is that there are no bins,” said Murtaza Khwaja, a 21-year-old medical student.

Actually, the problem was deeper. A long-term cycle of corrupt, weak governments interrupted by military coups has caused Pakistan’s political muscles to atrophy, leaving Pakistani society, particularly its poor, hopeless that it will ever receive the services — education, water, electricity, health — that it so desperately needs.

“People say, ‘This is nice, but things will never change,’ ” Mr. Khwaja said, pointing to a hamburger seller who he said was particularly pessimistic. “There is a hopelessness.”

That is where the trash cleaning comes in. Locals find it perplexing and helpful in equal measures. One enthusiast who met the group on its first outing in March, Muhamed Zahid, has come to every one since. One man passing by in a rickshaw dismounted to help them shovel for a while.

The men in the mosque, on the other hand, were picky, wanting the young people to clean the mosque but not the surrounding area.

“They said, ‘We already have Christians doing that for us in the morning,’ ” Mr. Khwaja said. Christians are a minority in Pakistan, and those who have no education often work in the lowest-paid jobs, like collecting trash, sweeping streets or fixing sewers.

On Sunday, Malik Waqas, a 16-year-old who was driving by on a moped, stopped to watch a cluster of young people shoveling what looked like old food.

“It’s good,” Mr. Waqas said shyly. When asked why, he said, “Because people care.”

But that also confuses passers-by, many of whom stop to gape at the young people, who, in their jeans, T-shirts and sunglasses, look more New York than Pakistan. On Sunday, three men in flowing, traditional garb leaned on a fence staring at the students while they cleaned.

Mr. Khwaja’s mother, who had also come to clean, was commanding like an army general, trying to get them to join in.

“Most of them just mock us,” she said. “ ‘What are you women doing?’ ”

But the youngsters seemed to understand the men’s perspective.

“They’re like, ‘Why are these rich people cleaning this up? It’s probably a college project,’ ” one student said.

That brought the students to the most serious discussion of the day, one that is arguably Pakistan’s biggest problem: the gap between rich and poor. Generations of poverty and a system of substandard education that keeps people in it have created fertile ground for Islamic militancy, which now poses a serious threat to the stability of the country.

“Here, if you’re poor, you’re not even a human being,” said Pavel Qaiser. “It’s the culture we have — one landlord and the peasants working under him.”

And here was a revelation: the trash picking, which the students had intended as an example for shopkeepers and residents, was actually an exercise for themselves.

“The rich don’t care, the poor can’t do anything, so it’s up to the middle class to make the change,” Mr. Khwaja said, as a group of friends standing near him nodded in agreement. “We have to lead by example. To change it from inside.”

He continued, his voice urgent, as if he were giving a speech: “We want to tell everyone, ‘You have the right. For 60 years everyone has told you that you don’t, but you do!’ ”

Then he bemoaned the small number of friends they were able to gather for the trash cleaning. For those who didn’t come, he had a message. “You want to do something? Pick up a shovel.”

Related Links:

Light a Candle, Do Not Curse Darkness

Facebook Group-Zimmedar Shehri

Helping Children Become Responsible Citizens

Orangi Pilot Project

Three Cups of Tea

Volunteerism in America

Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan's Vision


Anonymous said...

Glad to know that the initiative which started by MQM in Karachi some time before with 'Don't blame Govt, Own your city' motive has started in other cities as well. It is a time to awake the awareness of the public towards their responsiblities in order to keep the healthy civic standards in their localities.

Sher said...

This is a good "beginning". If this effort goes any further, it can be called a beginning. The workers must have some recognition, such as a group picture in the local newspaper with the names and current occupation of the participants, published weekly or monthly. It may be a good idea to have your article published in Pakistani newspapers. Also the rich people should donate garbage bins and garbage collection tools for the neighborhoods.

Najam said...

Cleanliness is one ,very weak aspect of our (Pakistani)way of living.

It makes me feel ashamed ,as we have been made to understand since childhood that cleanliness is an element which comprises the half part of Muslim faith.

I remember, that one of our neighbour used to throw her children Pampers outside her window,which could fall anywhere.

This also reminds me of a personal experience.

We were living in Wembley area London.Everyday except Sundays,the garbage collection van collected garbage placed in bags outside the houses.On Sundays ,we had to deliver it ourselves at the garbage disposal centre,which was about a KM away .One Sunday,I took the two garbage bags and started walking towards the centre.After some time I realised that it is a deserted road and no one is visible around.I looked around and quietly put the bags down and started my brisk walk,happy that I have avoided that aweful journey. After about 3 minutes a car stopped by my side and a man came out and addressed me

Can I have a talk with you Sir,
I was definitely nervous,and had sensed by now as to what he wants to speak.
Yes,yes ,why not?
How long ,you have been living here Sir,
As he was continuously addressing me by Sir,I had gathered courage and replied casually.
Well around 4 months.
Can you give me your home address please?
Now,my fear was correct.It was coming.
No,but why do you want my address.I was very nervous now
Because ,Sir,you have just dropped two bags full of rubbish on the road.
Oh ,Sorry, I did not know the rules. I uttered politely.
You have just said ,that you have been living for four months here.By now ,you must be knowing all the rules.Can you give me your address please?
I am sorry,I promise not to do it again.
I trust you ,but I wanted to know your address,so that if you do not want to carry ,your bags to disposal point,I will collect it from you on Sundays.It will be pleasure for me.
Unable to speak,I thanked him and started walking.
He again interrupted me,Sir,I believe you are going to Wembley Tube Station.Can I give you a lift.
I accepted it,and as sat on the front seyiat beside him,tightening the seat belt,smelled a foul smell.I looked back.
Lying on back seat,the two garbage bags were visible.

Friends might also recall that in it's early days ,MQM was very active in clean ship activities.It's leaders including MNAs ,MPA s , even ministers were seen cleaning roads,clearing garbage,even cleaning choked gutters.
Alas, now they are more interested in cleaning "Human Beings"

Threshold said...

Civic engagement is the pillar of a society. And yes, there are Pakistanis (young and old) who do care about "owning their cities".

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an Express Tribune story on community service requirement at elite schools in Pakistan:

The Social Service Society of Foundation Public School’s (FPS) A-Level campus is working on making this kind of work mandatory for all A-Level schools in the city.

According to Muneer Iqbal, the chairperson of the society, he and his peers are already in touch with students from other schools to push for this demand. Meanwhile, the school’s society plans to publicise the cause at events in different schools. “As youngsters, we should contribute to the society by helping those who are in need,” Iqbal said.

At the FPS A-Levels campus, all of the 120 first-year students have to do mandatory community service of 30 hours to be able to pass to the second year. They are free to choose what kind of work they want to do.

They can, for example, teach at government schools, tend to the elderly at shelter homes, or spend time with the mentally or physically challenged or those suffering from life-threatening diseases.

“Community service is greatly needed at government schools because they are in a deplorable state,” said Iqbal. “If educated people like us step forward, we can make a huge difference.”

Another student, Hamza Masood, also at FPS, believes that community service also gives students applying to universities abroad an edge. “Foreign universities prefer students who have done social service,” he said. “Even the top universities in Pakistan, like the Lahore University of Management Sciences, give credit to social service.”

But Masood does not do charity work because it will get him admission to a foreign university. According to him, at the end of the day it is satisfaction that one gets from helping the people that matters.

“I went to Dar ul Sukoon five months after I did community service there,” he said. “I was delighted when two children recognised me and called me by my name. They made me realise that our visits meant a lot to them.”

It seemed like students of other A-Level schools feel the same way. Saba Basit, who studies at Nixor College, believes that students should be made aware of how important serving the community was.

“Community service should be made mandatory but students should know what they are doing is important for the community rather than it being imposed upon them,” said Basit. “Social service does not only mean going to hospitals or old homes. It means that we can also help others in our neighborhoods as well.”....