The second day of March in 2009 started off like any other for Dr Shainul Waljee, a Vancouver optometrist. But late that night, she lost her home to a fire.
At 11:30 PM, her family of four rose to action as the fire alarm went off in the lobby of their apartment complex. “At first we thought it was a false alarm,” says Dr Waljee, who along with her parents and brother decided to evacuate the apartment as a precautionary measure.
“It was when we tried to get into the elevator that we saw what we were up against,” she recalls. “The elevator was full smoke. We knew then that this was the real thing.”
The smoke detectors inside the apartments did not sound, so Dr Waljee and a few others started knocking on neighbours’ doors, urging them to wake up and evacuate. When the group made their way downstairs through the staircase, they were horrified to see the lobby of the complex engulfed in flames. Fire was spreading rapidly and it soon blocked the front entrance of the wood-frame building.
When the fire fighters arrived, they were met with total chaos. Several residents — some of whom were Ismaili — were elderly, frail or in ill-health, and had found it difficult to flee. Dr Waljee’s mother, Jenny, who had always maintained good relationship with her neighbours, was instrumental in providing the fire fighters with the precise head count of people in some of the suites. “Her quick thinking and presence of mind was instrumental in saving precious lives that day,” says Dr Waljee.
Responding swiftly to the emergency, the municipal government sent volunteers to support the victims of the fire and provided them with emergency shelter and food. The victims were also given CAD $200 each in emergency allowances for food and clothing. Focus Humanitarian Assistance’s Regional Disaster Management Team met with families affected by the fire to ascertain their wellbeing.
“The volunteers met with us and made sure we were well provided for,” says Dr Waljee. “Many of the elderly victims were very comforted by their presence.”
Although their apartment didn’t suffer much damage, the Waljees decided to move to a better residence. Their renter’s insurance paid to move their belongings and even paid a year’s rent for their new apartment.
Dr Waljee took away a few good lessons from the ordeal. “We have always had housing insurance,” she says. “Most people don’t know how helpful that is, but at a time like this, you realise the value of it. Secondly, make sure you know your neighbours well enough so that you can count on each other in times of emergency.”
The third lesson is the one that Dr Waljee feels would have helped make their ordeal a lot easier. “We realise now that we didn’t have a plan,” she says. “Now with disaster preparedness training being provided by Focus Humanitarian Assistance, I feel that we would have benefited, at the very least, from having an emergency kit at hand to take along when we evacuated.”
Mississauga’s Almas Jiwani, president of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Canada, is being honoured for her work in improving the status of women around the world.
On Wednesday in Greece, Jiwani was one of six people to receive the Euro-American Women’s Council’s (EAWC) Goddess Artemis Award.
The award was given to Jiwani for her, “continuous and exceptional work in eliciting awareness of equal rights for women and encouraging the empowerment of women.”
Loula Loi Alafoyiannis, founder of EAWC, said Jiwani is deserving of the recognition.
“I’m fully aware of Almas’ global achievements, especially her contributions to the United Nations, developing countries and her professional work as well,” said Alafoyiannis. “Almas’ strong leadership in connecting women worldwide of an enabling environment is unique.”
Jiwani is the second Canadian and first UNIFEM member to win the award.
The accolades continue for Jiwani this Tuesday, when she’ll be inducted into the EAWC’s Women’s Hall of Fame.
“I’m humbled by the honour conferred on me,” said Jiwani. “I will continue to strive to work tirelessly for gender equality and women’s empowerment and to further the platform of building bridges of mutual understanding, promoting pluralism, cultural harmony and…making a profound difference in the lives of the underprivileged and victims of ignorance around the world.”
Earlier this month, the United Nations created a new entity that incorporates four previous organizations – UNIFEM, Division for the Advancement of Women, International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women and Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. Jiwani lauded the move and, although she isn’t positive how it will affect her organization’s mandate, she believes it will likely be asked to take a leading role.
“I wholeheartedly applaud and embrace the United Nations General Assembly’s recent decision to establish the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women – to be known as UN Women,” she said. “It’s a historic move that represents a significant victory for the cause of women and gender equality organizations such as UNIFEM Canada.”
In Tajikistan, the Aga Khan’s philanthropy and investment has raised hospitals, hotels, colleges, crops – and in some quarters, suspicion. Fifth in a series.
by Sarvinoz Akram 22 September 2010
This is the fifth story in a series of articles on philanthropy in TOL’s coverage area.
DUSHANBE | On a sunny day in late October 2006, Shah Karim al-Hussayni, better known as the Aga Khan IV, stepped on to the newly built Ishkashim Bridge over the Panj River and made a speech that was heard simultaneously in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the countries on either side.
Bridges are powerful symbols, the imam of the world’s Ismaili Muslims said as he opened the span, the fourth built across the Panj by his Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). “When harmony breaks down and conflicts ensue, destroying bridges is usually among the most urgent targets. But when peace and healing come, then it is the construction and rehabilitation of bridges that marks our progress.”
The Tajik songwriter Lidush Habib has likened the Aga Khan himself to a bridge, connecting the shores of Islam and the West, Asia and Africa, rich and poor. Known in the West not just as a spiritual leader but as a philanthropist, horse breeder, and one-time stepson of 1940s Hollywood star Rita Hayworth, the Aga Khan is revered by many Tajiks for his massive aid to the country during the period of civil conflict, economic collapse, and widespread starvation in the 1990s.
In Badakhshan province, to which the Aga Khan sent hundreds of tons of food, clothes, and medicine to poor locals and refugees during the civil war, grandmothers tell children bedtime stories about angels sent by the imam to carry suffering people from the bloody battlefields into the Pamir Mountains. In Dushanbe and Khorugh, drivers display his picture on their cars. When he comes to Tajikistan, people gather in the streets by the thousands and try to kiss his hand.
The Aga Khan IV (far right) looks over the site of the University
of Central Asia’s main Tajik campus in the Pamir Mountains.
“Tajiks are really grateful to the Aga Khan,” said Marat Mamadshoev, editor-in-chief of the Tajik news agency Asia-Plus. “He saved thousands of lives during the Tajik civil war in 1992-1997, when many, if not all, Tajik Pamiris fled the scenes of the war and found shelter in the mountainous Badakhshan province.”
Through AKDN – one of the world’s largest development networks with some 60,000 employees and turnover of nearly $2 billion in nonprofit and business activities – and the related Aga Khan Foundation, the Aga Khan has remained a major force in this Central Asian republic, and at times a controversial one. Given that ethnic Pamiris from Badakhshan (officially the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, or GBAO) figured heavily in the 1990s revolt and that the region has seen flare-ups of separatist activity since, Tajikistan’s political leaders keep a wary eye on his activities there.
There is distrust, too, on the side of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom believe the Aga Khan’s philanthropy heavily favors his own Ismaili sect, a branch of Shiism. “He’s giving one or two bags of rice to the Sunni people in Rasht or Khatlon but spending $10,000 to $15,000 to take a Pamiri student to Oxford, preparing cadres for the long-term future,” said Muhammadazim, a student at the Islamic University of Tajikistan, echoing a widely held sentiment among Sunnis here.
Still, it is a topic on which people publicly tread lightly. Of some two dozen people contacted for this article, only a few agreed to speak on the record. Many were suspicious that the story would focus on AKDN failures, or exacerbate sectarian tension, a sensitive issue given Tajikistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officially the government cooperates on a number of projects with Aga Khan institutions, and in October President Imomali Rahmon accompanied the imam to open the AKDN-built Ismaili Center in Dushanbe, praising him for his investment in the country.
BUILDING THROUGH BUSINESS
If the Aga Khan is a sectarian figure, it’s hard to imagine a more multicultural and cosmopolitan one. The son of a Pakistani prince and an English noblewoman, he was born in Geneva, raised in Kenya, educated at Harvard, and now lives in France.
His imamate stems from a lineage Ismailis believe goes directly back to Mohammed. Ismailism separated from what is now mainstream Shia in the seventh century, and its practice is less ritualistic than that of most Shiites.
Ismailis make up a small fraction of Tajikistan’s population of about 7.6 million – some 230,000 in the GBAO and several thousand scattered elsewhere in the country, which is about 85 percent Sunni. But many of the world’s 20 million Ismailis, including large communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, consider Badakhshan the spiritual nerve center of the faith. Ancient legend posits the Pamir Mountains as the place Ismailis found shelter after fleeing persecution in Mesopotamia.
The region was the focus of the Aga Khan’s humanitarian efforts during the civil war. Since the 1997 peace agreement between the government and the mainly Islamist opposition, his institutions in the country and across Central Asia (AKDN is also active in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) have increasingly focused on the emerging private sector, aiming to strengthen free-market values and fill the gaps left by the collapse of the Soviet system.
The vehicles have been varied – urban and rural development programs, microfinance, health care and social services, large-scale construction, civil society projects, and education (including the three-nation University of Central Asia, the world’s first internationally chartered institution of higher learning).
“Philanthropy to me is not an endless distribution of money,” the Aga Khan said in 2002 in Moscow, where he met with Vladimir Putin to discuss opening institutions in Muslim regions of Russia. The goal of most AKDN initiatives is to develop self-reliant commercial businesses.
According to the AKDN website, private firms founded by the network generate $1.5 billion in revenues a year (the organization says the money is plowed back into further development work). Munir Merali, head of the network in Tajikistan, notes that it has “built several hotels in GBAO and the largest one in Dushanbe” to boost tourism, and launched a telecom that introduced 3G technology to the country.
The Aga Khan meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
during a tour of Central Asia last year.
The network also spent $26.8 million to modernize the Pamir-1 hydroelectric plant and the GBAO’s power grid. While much of Tajikistan suffers winter power shortages, Badakhshan is the only region in the country with uninterrupted electricity supplies year-round.
The potential knock-on effect of both aid and investment is key to AKDN’s work in the area. For example, the Panj River bridges, built with cooperation from the Tajik and Afghan governments, spawned lively markets on both sides, helping reduce food prices in the remote region. Hailing such developments, the Tajik-Afghan interstate economic commission eased cross-border trade restrictions. Last month, visa rules were loosened to allow seriously ill people from Afghanistan to go to AKDN-funded hospitals and clinics for treatment.
Merali boasts that “practically every project” of the Aga Khan foundation and development network in the country has been successful.
Such a claim is unsurprising coming from the network’s Tajik chief, but noted economist Hojimuhammad Umarov also praises the its effectiveness.
“There are two factors that distinguish these institutions from other international NGOs that are active in Tajikistan,” Umarov said. “First, it is the wise combination of business and philanthropy, and second, the [organization] is built on religious unity.”
A CALLING TO GIVE
While AKDN is secular by its own statutes and takes promoting cultural tolerance as part of its mission, the Aga Khan has explicitly affirmed the organization’s roots in faith. “I am fascinated and somewhat frustrated when representatives of the western world – especially the western media – try to describe the work of our Aga Khan Development Network in fields like education, health, the economy, media, and the building of social infrastructure,” he said in a 2006 speech at a German evangelical academy:
“Reflecting a certain historical tendency of the West to separate the secular from the religious, they often describe it either as philanthropy or entrepreneurship. What is not understood is that this work is for us a part of our institutional responsibility – it flows from the mandate of the office of Imam to improve the quality of worldly life for the concerned communities.”
Those roots can be seen in some AKDN activities. In Tajikistan, the network works most directly with Ismaili villages and towns, and its volunteers on the ground are primarily drawn from the faithful. The health committees AKDN has established in recent years are structured similarly to Ismaili religious organizations.
The network’s close bond with Ismaili communities gives it a measure of independence from central and local governments and allows it to implement its plans more effectively than other international agencies. It has also fostered fears that AKDN has a specifically Ismaili and Pamiri agenda, a perception that touches a nerve among Sunnis.
“The religious violence between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq and Pakistan is awful. We pray to keep Tajikistan far from these kinds of hatred, but the Shia Ismailis are trying to expose their views more openly, challenging the Sunnis,” said Domullo Mirzo, a Sunni worshiper who teaches at the Mavlono Yaqubi Charkhi Mosque in Dushanbe. “For the majority of the Tajik population Ismailis are from a different cultural and historical dimension.”
Over the years the network has sought to address those concerns. In 1998, after several years in which the Aga Khan’s work in Tajikistan consisted primarily of humanitarian aid to Pamiris, opposition and Islamic leaders met with him in Geneva and asked him to broaden his focus beyond Badakhshan. The meeting produced results: the Aga Khan widened the map of his activities to include the Rasht Valley and Khatlon province, two regions also devastated by the civil war. The Aga Khan Microfinance Bank, which opened in 2003 and has given $20 million in loans to thousands of small businesses, has branches in the north of Tajikistan as well as the south, where most of the country’s Ismailis live.
Ashratsho Haqdadshaev, an Ismaili pastor in Khorugh, quotes a fatwa issued by the Aga Khan calling on his followers to practice religious tolerance. “He asks us to be close to our Sunni brothers, to make our rituals similar to theirs. We decided to pray five times [a day] as Sunnis do, instead of three, as Ismaili belief prescribes,” Haqdadshaev said.
He adds, “There haven’t been any incidents between us, at least so far.”
The hope remains in Tajikistan that, like the bridges he and his organization have built between their country and Afghanistan, between philanthropy and profit, the Aga Khan can build a bridge that links different Muslim communities – and benefits both sides.
Sarvinoz Akram is a pseudonym for a journalist in Dushanbe. Photos by Gary Otte, courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network.