Thinking Big: Hamza Choudery

Two Pakistani brothers, Hamza and Haroon Choudery, immigrated to Brooklyn, New York from rural Pakistan in 1998. Years later, all grown up and excelling in their respective careers, they co-founded a nonprofit called A.I. for Anyone, an Artificial Intelligence education resource that aims to make AI easy to understand. Their organization has grown exponentially since launching in 2017, and was recently featured in CNBC as well. The NewsRun interviewed A.I. for Anyone co-founder, Hamza Choudery, to learn more about this unique initiative that simplifies AI, even for people who don’t have a background in computer science!

According to Hamza, AI will have a disproportionate impact on underserved communities, the same communities that lack access to proper education materials. Haroon, Hamza, and their friend, Mac McMahon, set out to increase the accessibility of effective AI education resources.

At the end of the day, our mission isn’t to create more data scientists (although, that may be a byproduct of our work). Our mission is to democratize AI education, so everyone, irrespective of background, has a voice in guiding when, where, and how the technology is deployed, said Hamza.

Like most nonprofits and startups, turning an idea into action can be challenging. Hamza said establishing credibility early on was difficult.

We exerted a lot of energy into cold calling principals and getting them to agree to bring us in for a workshop. After we delivered a few workshops, we were able to build on our momentum and scale more quickly, he said.

24-year-old Hamza works at WeWork, and 26-year-old Haroon works at a healthcare company. Hamza himself doesn’t have a technical background in AI, but he helps spearhead the business development function, and finds creative ways to scale their impact. However, Executive Director, Haroon, and Director of Programs, Junaid, have technical roles in the AI space. As a result, they are able to offer subject-matter expertise and thought leadership on the AI front.

A.I. for Anyone is based in New York City. We were curious to know how much of the Pakistani diaspora has applied to the AI for Anyone workshop. Hamza said he doesn’t have exact figures, but they have definitely seen a large amount of Pakistani support. When asked if they plan to expand A.I. for Anyone workshops in Pakistan, Hamza said yes! A few academics from Pakistan have already reached out to collaborate.

Haroon and I always look for ways to give back to our homeland. Developing a strategy around how to most effectively bring this content to Pakistan is on the roadmap for 2020, he said.

Hamza and Haroon are still juggling their full-time jobs while running their nonprofit. Since we are total nerds when it comes to schedules and to-do lists, we asked Hamza how he manages to stay organized:

1. Remember why you started. When you’re working a full-time job, it’s easy to want to stray away from other priorities. To remain consistent, it’s important to remember why you started in the first place. If you don’t start with a genuine passion, it’s hard to fake it.

2. Invest in infrastructure. Our team at A.I. For Anyone did the heavy lifting of setting up systems and processes to make our operations as smooth as possible. I recommend making that investment upfront, so you minimize growing pains.

3. Don’t try to multitask! It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to multitask. I try to block off my calendar and devote all of my energy to the task at hand.

Since AI is also uncharted territory for The NewsRun, we had to ask: What is the key to making AI material easy to understand? Hamza said:

With a diverse team, composed of individuals with backgrounds in computer science, philosophy, and business, we’re able to sense check the content to ensure it doesn’t include jargon or nebulous concepts. We also apply the following test to our workshop curriculum: ‘Could a child understand it?’ If the answer is no, we iterate. Ideally, we strive for our content to be analogous to Pixar movies, which are entertaining for children and adults alike. We not only want to make the content easy to digest for people without a technical background, we want it to also provide interesting perspectives for the more advanced consumers of our content.

Hamza and the team at A.I. for Anyone don’t want students to be intimidated by AI. After teaching students the fundamentals of AI, the team encourages them to consume news about AI and maintain a pulse on the technology. According to Hamza, students should also try to predict how AI may impact the industry or role they eventually want to pursue. Hamza thinks this foresight can help guide students towards a career path that is “less prone to disruption.”

Many of us think about whether AI will have a more positive or negative impact on our lives. Here is what Hamza has to say:

Although the AI revolution is virtually inevitable, the net impact is hard to predict. Where AI sits on the spectrum between “good” and “bad” is to be determined, so it’s our responsibility to try to guide the direction. Developing responsible AI will require widespread participation; we will need input from all groups and communities.

Toxic households amidst a global pandemic

Op-ed writer: Rameen Shakil recently completed her Bachelor’s in Social Development and Policy from Habib University. She is the official blog writer at Primary Skincare and is also currently working as a full-time content writer. She hopes to become a clinical psychologist in the future. 

Pakistan has fallen victim to COVID-19 since 26th February 2020, when a student in Karachi University tested positive after returning from Iran. From February till July, the Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO) reports that there has been a staggering increase of 200% in violence mainly against women and children.

A compilation of the national and provincial data broke the numbers down into 8 basic categories: early child marriage, child abuse, child labor, domestic abuse, kidnapping, rape, violence against women (VAW), and murder. 90% of these crimes were committed against women and children. This problem is not just confined to Pakistan. In fact, a spike in domestic violence around the globe has caused the World Health Organization to urge “governments to put women’s safety first” during the pandemic.

Policymakers need to realise that while lockdowns are necessary to curtail the spread of Coronavirus, the home is not a safe space for all. The virus has caused essential services such as helplines, shelter homes, medical facilities, and the police to become redundant. Countries like France have designed unique code words to be used at pharmacies by domestic abuse victims who are forced to quarantine with their abuser(s). This has triggered immediate intervention by the police, helping hundreds of women escape their toxic households. However, no such intervention has been seen by the Pakistani authorities.

One might have thought that the structural power imbalance within Pakistan could not get any worse, but the lockdown has further curtailed the mobility of VAW survivors, making it increasingly difficult for them to seek help. A sharp decline in economic activity has caused women to be forced out of their jobs and once again dependent on their abusers for survival. This has made them even more vulnerable to violence. The slightest disagreement over domestic matters, finances, or children could cause all hell to break loose. Furthermore, men who have been dismissed from the workforce are more likely to release their frustrations and aggression by physically, mentally, or emotionally abusing their partner and offspring.

Alongside women, children stuck in toxic households have become victims of child abuse. There is no denying that children are more vulnerable than adults to experience heightened emotional distress in the face of adversity or when their routines are disrupted. Being susceptible targets, children face the brunt of adult anger. Violence at home towards women causes a negative effect on children who are known to be good observers. Their mental health can be significantly affected, leading to trauma, anxiety disorders, and depression as they grow older.

With numbers rising each day, the future seems bleak. There seems to be no end in sight concerning the pandemic. Most children and young adults have been stuck within the confines of their toxic households for 24-hours-a-day since early March. This means that in cases where a parent or guardian tests positive for the virus, children are sent away to homes of relatives or acquaintances. We are already aware that most of the time, perpetrators of sexual abuse are acquaintances of the children. This puts them at risk of rape and sexual violence with no one to seek help from in the absence of their primary caretakers.

That being said, children are also at high-risk for mistreatment and abuse within their households. Child welfare organizations around the world, such as UNICEF, have sent out an alert, warning countries about a rise in child maltreatment. This includes sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. In Pakistan, it is not uncommon for parents to be the prime perpetrators of rape or physical abuse. Let’s not forget Maryam, the 13-year-old girl living in Korangi Town who was repeatedly beaten up and raped by her stepfather, and his brother. Maryam’s mother knew what her little girl was going through, but could not stand up for her. Whenever she confronted her husband, he threatened to divorce her and kill all her children.

While Pakistan has never been a safe space for women and children, it is time for the government to devise robust legislative frameworks, policies, and programs that protect vulnerable children and women stuck in toxic households. A multi-faceted, holistic approach needs to be adopted on both the national and provincial level if we wish to rid our society of this menace.

Pakistan Needs To Stand In Solidarity With Its Own Black Community, Because Silence Is Compliance

Op-ed writer: Ushah Kazi is a Pakistani culture buff and writer based in Canada. She has written for a number of Pakistani and Canadian publications. She has also published a book about Pakistani cinema titled, The Pop-Culture Junkie's Guide to Pakistani Cinema, which is available on Amazon.

The tragic, final moments of George Floyd sent shock-waves around the globe. Just the latest in a burgeoning list of Black Americans who had been killed, his death was a painful reminder of everything that still hadn’t changed. Right down to the anguished words, “I can’t breathe.”

In the wake of the now viral video, protests were organised across the US, in turn inspiring protests and shows of solidarity around the world. Among this outpouring, were open calls from the global South Asian community, to stand in solidarity with Black Americans.

Pakistani celebrities also joined the conversation, almost immediately followed up by call-out culture. Zara Noor Abbas shared a gut-wrenching video of a young girl, breaking down as she talks about her experiences with racism. Someone responded that Zara’s dissent against racism was interesting, given that she had starred in the commercial for a fairness face wash. Zara’s reply was rather scathing. Literally ending with, “a face wash is killing no one.”

Following this, my Twitter feed was flooded. On the one hand, I saw videos of activists on the ground, hurting, and chanting; a powerful show of strength in the face of systemic injustice. On the other hand, I saw some prominent names in Pakistan either lauding celebrities for their stance on racism, or ridiculing them for tweeting “Black lives matter” when they’d endorsed fairness creams in the past. And, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a gap in this cascade.

I pointed out as much when I tweeted something along the lines of,

"Dear Pakistan, Lyari, which is where most of Sindh’s Black community (Sheedis) reside is undergoing gang-violence, and you’re tweeting about how racist fairness cream ads are. Check your privilege.”

One Step Back

Now, with a grand total of twelve Twitter followers, this was very much a shot into the abyss. I didn’t expect a response; it was much more of an outlet for my own anger.

Growing up in Sindh meant that I was cognisant of the Sheedi community. I vaguely knew that their lineage could be traced to Africa, but had very little information about their history, or why it mattered. Then one day, my mother, who was conducting a seminar on Sindhi language and culture at my high-school, gave an impassioned speech about Sindh’s forgotten heroes. She mentioned the names of our own hidden figures, comparing them to international stories that Pakistanis drew inspiration from. She spoke about the civil rights movement in the US, and how while we were inspired by the Black leaders risking their lives, we didn’t even know who Hoshu Mohammad Sheedi was.

That name stuck in my head, because I had at approximately seventeen, been completely unaware that a Black man had played a significant role in Pakistan’s history. I discovered that Hoshu Sheedi, as he is affectionately called, was a general in the Talpur army, who was most remembered for his military campaign against the British forces of Charles Napier. At the battle of Hyderabad in 1843, he died uttering the words, “we will die, but not give up Sindh.”

It dawned on me that his calls for anti-colonial dissent had preceded the ‘great Indian revolt’ of 1857 by fourteen years. And then another thought; I had read about the battle of Hyderabad before. In a history book, for school in fact. But, while this book mentioned Napier and his forces, the name of Hoshu Sheedi was not included on those pages. It should be noted that this was a history book approved for a British Council GCE course. So, years after independence, we were still being instructed in the colonial versions of our own stories. And, there seemed to be no place for Hoshu Sheedi in that narrative.

Lessons and Erasure

In the words of Czech writer Milan Kundera, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In the culture of Sindh, storytelling has a very special place. It is the cornerstone of not just cultural preservation, but life itself. So, I have to wonder, when we take people’s stories away from them, what is the extent of our injustice?

My family is rather prominent, with longstanding ties to Sindhi media and journalism. So, some months later, as I sat across from a prominent journalist (also a family member) I was really excited to be quoting the story of the brave, Black general, who had given Sindh one of its most powerful slogans. His response took me by surprise. Not only did he discredit Hoshu Muhammad Sheedi’s influence, but he dismissed the idea that slavery had ever existed in Sindh. No explanations were given for a community that was carrying the burden of our collective past. It wasn’t a conversation; it was a delineation of what was important in contemporary Pakistan, and what wasn’t.

Some years later,  in a Canadian dorm, I discovered yet again how unfair this wanton disregard was. Reading a blog about our history, I discovered that Pakistan housed the largest population of Black South Asians, and that many traced their roots back to the slave trade. (Although, not all. The history of the Sheedi community is very complex and interesting.)

There is something to be said about how uncomfortable the region’s tryst with the slave trade makes contemporary South Asians. When popular narratives insist that all ‘people of colour’ are natural allies, how exactly can South Asians come to terms with the actions of their own ancestors? Perhaps then, the erasure is to be expected. But, it is born out of convenience, and hurts a community that deserves our support.

Color Blind

In 2008, Dawn did a feature on the Sheedi community, where they interviewed Yaqub Qambrani. At the time, he was one of the organizers of the All Sindh Al Habash Jama’at. When I read the article, one of his sentiments struck a particular chord, “we have the attached stigma of slavery; people still tell us we are slaves.”

I didn’t understand the extent of what he had said. Later, I realized that there are so many gaps in the documentation of the Black Pakistani experience, that an answer would be difficult to find. But more than a decade later, I did find one. Tanzeela Qambrani made history in 2018, becoming Pakistan’s first Sheedi lawmaker. When speaking about her journey, she was very candid not just about her own struggles, but about the history that she had inherited.

A promising and energetic student, she rose in the ranks of a political landscape. When she became a councillor in 2015, social media was ablaze with comments about how she would, of course, support the most monied, and powerful candidates. Because, as the “daughter of a slave”, this was a given.

Tanzeela Qambrani’s father was an advocate. Her mother, an educator. Her siblings have careers in the corporate sector. In her own words, she had a typical middle class, Pakistani upbringing. Save for one difference.

In an article detailing racism’s structural persistence in the US, Robin DiAngelo comments on various aspects of what she calls “white fragility”. It wouldn’t be fair to connect her research about systemic racism in the US to Pakistan, but I would like us to consider something. DiAngelo comments on the notion of “colour blindness”, and it should be noted that, “the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.”

In Sindh, a majority of the Sheedi community resides in Lyari, which also happens to be engulfed in gang-violence. Throughout their history, the community has been faced off against poverty, and struggled to empower itself. People like Tanzeela Qambrani showcase the fruition of their struggles. But that we had to wait until 2018 for a Sheedi lawmaker says a lot about how deep rooted racism in Pakistan is. And how far we still have to go.

In the Dark

Since I asked all of Pakistan to check its privilege, I think it’s only fair that I return the favour. As a fair-skinned Pakistani, I do not ever want to suggest that colourism is not damaging. Nor will I ever disregard the impact of fairness products. To respond to Zara Noor Abbas, no, a face wash never killed anyone (at least I hope not). But, making Pakistanis believe that something is wrong with the natural colour of their skin is a disgusting prejudice. And profiting off of it is shameful.

But, my sentiments remain. The murder of George Floyd raised questions about police brutality, systemic injustice and corruption. All of these apply to Pakistan’s own Black community. And, that we would shift the narrative to something a bit more controllable, is serving our own self-indulgent desires. But, it is also hurting an opportunity for us to know, and do better.

And, yet, when the violence is so long-standing, what exactly are we supposed to do?

Well, consider the story that I just told you. Like I said, given my minuscule Twitter presence, I wasn’t expecting anyone to listen to my words. I just set them out, because it was a truth that I was aware of. But, someone did listen. A day later, I got a message from Anam, the editor of The Newsrun. She asked me if I’d be willing to write about Pakistan’s Black community, because, “I want to educate myself and my readers.”

Today, you all are reading this rant (I mean think piece). And, I hope that the chain continues to grow. While I wrote this article, my younger sister said to me, “a story stays alive when you tell it.” And I think that’s a good place for all of us to start.

The Next Crisis

Op-ed writer: Bilal Mustikhan is a fourth year student studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University. He has interned as a sub-editor at the Dawn News business desk and is currently preparing for the civil services exam. He has a keen interest in international relations and world history.

Governments around the globe are struggling to strike a balance between saving lives and livelihoods. The Coronavirus has impeded routines, and is deepening both the health crisis and economic crisis. To add insult to injury, other crises are transpiring due to the status quo of the pandemic-stricken world. According to the World Food Programme, the virus, which has weakened healthcare systems and generated massive unemployment, may also lead to multiple famines.

Last year, approximately 135 million people faced food insecurity. The global pandemic could push approximately 265 million people to the brink of starvation. Massive political and social unrest will make it increasingly difficult to maintain fragile lockdowns imposed by developing countries. Protests have already erupted in parts of Africa and India, which are witnessing food shortages due to the disrupted global supply chain. An emerging swarm of locusts in global agriculture hubs has further exacerbated food security.

The onslaught of locusts can be traced to shifting weather patterns. An increasing frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Peninsula has dumped enough water to create an ideal breeding ground for locusts. Another cyclone hit northeastern Somalia and Ethiopia in December 2019, and set the stage for locust breeding grounds to flourish.

Grasshoppers and locusts come from the same family. However, grasshoppers prefer solitude and lack the ability to travel far. A certain species of grasshoppers transforms into locusts when they are brushed up together. This grouping allows serotonin to develop within grasshoppers, who then undergo certain behavioral changes, develop wings, turn yellow, and grow larger. Once they transform into locusts, they become egregious and eat everything in sight. They possess the ability to fly more than 100 kilometers while aided by wind, making them a dangerous migratory species. Their constant movement makes it logistically difficult to eradicate them.  

Locust swarms have ravaged thousands of acres of land in parts of East Africa, seizing the spotlight from Coronavirus related distress as the risk of losing food poses a larger threat. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization fears that a  second wave is likely to occur in late June-July due to favorable breeding conditions throughout May. The second locust outbreak will likely be much worse, since it will further destabilize food security and destroy livelihoods. 

Authorities have struggled to tackle this locust invasion due to trade disruption. Coronavirus linked lockdowns and world-wide travel restrictions have obstructed the delivery of pesticides. As a result, farmers in a village bordering Kenya are trying to combat locusts with traditional methods, such as banging metal pans, whistling and throwing stones. According to Ethiopia's agriculture  ministry spokesman, a wave of locusts is emerging in new areas - the damage caused by locusts has driven Somalia to declare a national emergency.

While ravening locusts flutter through parts of Pakistan, the government is handing out rations and donations to address the plight of the pandemic-stricken poor. However, the provincial and federal governments have failed to organize a joint pandemic response, and continue to be distracted by internal politics. In Sindh, the public health crisis  has kept local officials pre-occupied as they grapple with the virus. As a result, the provincial govt has neglected the influx of locusts that are devouring standing crops in parts of Sukkur, Kandhkot-Kashmore, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, and Dadu. While the world is facing a grim recession, any damage incurred to agriculture, which accounts for approximately one quarter of  GDP, will be detrimental.

The UN's trepidation over this locust phenomenon, along with the World Food Programme’s warnings, call for a prompt response. Pakistan’s provincial and federal governments should seriously address the locust issue in conjunction to avoid a future food crisis that will not only lead to social unrest, but also massive unemployment.

Thinking Big: Mahira Munir

Over the past few years, event management/wedding planning businesses in Pakistan have sky-rocketed. People hire event managers to organize lavish blow-outs for birthdays and weddings.

However, with the coronavirus, all that seems to be at a standstill. Big halls that draw crowds are still closed, which means weddings have been put on hold as well. Big parties at home are also being discouraged, since that gives the highly contagious virus ample opportunity to spread. 

We reached out to Mahira Munir, a successful event planner in Pakistan, to get her insights on what COVID-19 means for entrepreneurs who were driving lucrative and widely popular event planning businesses before the virus outbreak. Speaking about her own business, Mahira said she has four weddings and one corporate event on hold. She’s waiting for clear instructions from the government regarding protocols and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

According to Mahira, COVID-19 lockdowns have dramatically affected the event planning business. The biggest impact can be seen with vendors. Besides a small percentage of permanent employees, the event management industry largely depends on daily wagers. Flower growers, transporters, chefs, serving staff, and a variety of retailers also come together to assemble an event. Now that upcoming Spring events are canceled or postponed, several workers that provide event services don't have jobs. These people rely on daily income and have little-to-no savings. They haven’t had any work for the past two months.

Implementing social distancing at weddings is hard since Pakistani weddings are very cramped and crowded. We are assuming there’s not much event managers can do to enforce social distancing. They can’t go up to every single guest and tell them to stay 6 ft away from each other. However, we asked Mahira what precautions she would have control over as an event manager. She summed up some key safety measures:

  • Encourage a fewer number of guests so there isn’t a packed congregation. This involves making use of large spaces per square foot.
  • Make sure props, equipment, decorations and layouts are thoroughly sanitized. 
  • Suggest customized masks for guests so they are more likely to wear them at the event.

Mahira thinks weddings are an inevitable and ongoing process. However, she predicts they will be more intimate with smaller gatherings going forward. “The weddings may not be as lavish, but will still demand formality and customization,” she said. 

Weddings and big engagements are on hold at the moment. However, once halls open up for events, will people still be hesitant to attend functions, or will they welcome the chance to attend weddings again and make a beeline for the next event? Here is Mahira's response: “Generally, I feel that if there are no other social events, people will surely attend weddings as a means to socialize with relatives and friends after the lockdown."

In conclusion, Mahira hopes the issues brought on by COVID-19 are resolved all over the world, and that humanity heals from the repercussions.

President Trump’s recent immigration restrictions; A blow to the U.S. and global pandemic response

Op-ed Writer: Amber Jamil is an international relations professional with a focus on South Asia. She is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. She has a Master of Arts in international relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

President Donald Trump’s recent executive order restricting immigration for 60 days is characterized as a short-term measure during the coronavirus crisis but may be a harbinger of tighter restrictions on future guest worker programs. The executive order applies to people seeking green cards for work, as well as spouses and children of legal permanent residents, and the parents, siblings, and adult children of U.S. citizens.There is concern the order will be extended indefinitely and become more restrictive.

Although Trump describes the order as temporary, it is an open-ended measure to remain in place until the administration determines the U.S. labor market has improved. A reevaluation in 60 days may extend restrictions as states reopen. This decision only accelerates the recession which is already all but a certainty.

There is overwhelming consensus by economists and the business community that immigrants fuel long-term economic growth. In fact, immigrants contributed to roughly two thirds of U.S. GDP expansion between 2011 and 2018. Nineteen percent of the nation’s 14.6 million self-employed workers are immigrants and responsible for a good share of the jobs created, hiring workers at virtually the same rate as the U.S. born.

A case study of Pakistani American physicians illuminates the critical role of immigrants in America and the reality of an intrinsic interconnectivity of social systems. The U.S. physician supply is strained in meeting the increasing health care demands of an ageing population. U.S. medical schools do not produce enough graduates to meet the needs of the country. Current forecasts expect a shortage between 40,800 and 104,900 of physicians by 2030. Without foreign doctors, the U.S. healthcare system would collapse, especially in rural communities.

About a quarter of all doctors in the U.S. are foreign-born and must secure a J-1 visa, a nonimmigrant exchange visa conditioned on an individuals return to their home country for two years at the conclusion of the program. Pakistan is one of the top sources of foreign doctors to the U.S, second only to India. There are approximately 17,000 physicians and health care professionals of Pakistani descent in the United States and Canada. Medical College of the University of Karachi Pakistan has one of the largest number of graduates actively licensed in the U.S.

Trump’s executive order restricting immigration will lead to a sharp increase in Pakistani visa denials and narrow the pipeline to citizenship. After completion of residencies, many international medical graduates seek Conrad 30 waivers from the requirement to return home for two years. In exchange, they are required to work for three years in underserved communities. Participation in the Conrad 30 program creates a pathway to citizenship and as a result, many foreign-born doctors launch their careers serving rural communities and economically disadvantaged populations.

Members of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) embody the best of pluralistic America, adding to the rich fabric of the country by serving in public, private and civic life in their home country, as well as mother country.

In recent weeks, APPNA chapters across the U.S. raised funds and implemented COVID-19 relief projects in local communities. APPNA distributed personal protective equipment to hospitals and clinics across NY, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Florida and Texas. Other activities include distributing food to those in need, meals for first responders, staffing counseling helplines, conducting community awareness seminars, providing COVID-19 testing and volunteering in overwhelmed hospitals. In addition, APPNA members are contributing to Pakistan’s COVID-19 relief efforts through technical assistance as well as fundraising. 

Across the country, American's know Pakistani Americans as their doctors, employers and neighbors. Contrary to rhetoric on the topic, immigration contributes to economic growth and expansion of the labor market. Looking ahead, the current level of economic pain means the U.S. will emerge from the pandemic with millions of debt-saddled workers in need of work. All critical engines of growth will be needed for a stable public health and economic future.

Space is a privilege

Op-ed writer: Kazi Akber is a writer based out of Karachi. He studied writing and philosophy at the University of Toronto. He presents written and oratory commentary on social and political issues. He also hosts a podcast called Kiya Kahe Ga Kazi.

As of April 23, 2020, the novel Coronavirus has infected 10,927 people in Pakistan, and 230 of those people have died. In the face of public outcry, the government recently extended a lockdown that had been in effect for 17 days.

The lockdown will be extended till April 30th. At that point, the government will conduct another evaluation to determine if the situation can be safely normalized. Social distancing appears to be the best way to slow the virus's spread. Extensive global media coverage has shown us the disastrous results of delayed lockdowns. We have already seen 17,671 people in New York City die from the virus over the past 30 days.

However, if the primary solution is to stay home, what seems to be the problem? A majority of urban working class people in Pakistan cannot afford to stay home, due in large part to concerns about mental sanctity and economic strife.

Numerous people who fall under Pakistan's poverty line live in slums, which are located in megacities like Karachi. Karachi is known to be one of the densest cities in the world, with more than 16 million people. The 2016 world population review quotes a staggering 24,000 people per square kilometer. This figure is understood to be greater now.

Karachi’s residents mainly live in cramped locales that are only fit to be inhabited for a few hours. While I sit in my 500 square yard house and wonder why it's so hard for people to follow stay-at-home orders, I have to remind myself that a large percentage of the population risks suffocation and lasting mental health damage if they stay indoors for an indefinite amount of time.

Psychological studies have pointed out that social isolation and confinement can lead to lasting mental deterioration. The studies were conducted on sample groups from first-world suburbs. This raises the following question: If social isolation in presumably comfortable living situations can cause mental deterioration, what kind of damage will the residents of Karachi's slums, with their confined spaces and limited rations, incur during this lockdown?

Adding to the strife of the working class are concerns about employment. Approximately 72% of Pakistan’s population is employed in the informal sector. That means no contracts, no healthcare packages and certainly no prior notice when employers prioritize the bottom line over the worker.

A lockdown may feel exhausting to some people who are obeying guidelines. However, a large portion of the population can't adhere to social distancing laws, for reasons that surpass mere exhaustion. Even the great equalizing power of a global pandemic only partially mitigates the evident economic disparity in cities like Karachi, where those with privilege possess commodities they don't even understand the value of, such as the liberty to stay at home, or the space to do so.

Unprecedented world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns often shift the paradigm of reality in some fundamental way. In one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it has dawned on an exhausted police force and Karachi's frantic wealthy minority that a multitude of people in the working class simply do not have the privilege to comply with lockdowns. Space is essential for social distancing. Space, much like everything else, is a commodity that is not available to the downtrodden.

Thinking Big: Aurat March

Thousands of women, men, transgender people, and children attended the nationwide Aurat March on March 8, 2020, which coincided with International Women's Day. Organizers pulled through despite facing threats and petitions to stop the march.

Multan organized its first Aurat March. On March 7, women in Sukkur also held a torch rally. Assailants tied to a religious group threw stones and sticks at Aurat March participants in Islamabad, but that didn't stop the marchers.

In honor of International Women’s Day, The NewsRun interviewed Aurat March (AM) organizers to learn more about their mission, impact, and future efforts.

The first Aurat March in 2018 followed closely after the global #MeToo movement began. In many ways, the Aurat March was a response to mounting cases of harassment, and the need to release years of pent-up anger. The march was also carried out in solidarity with non-men in Pakistan, and around the world. The key message they wanted to convey was “unity.”

Each year, AM organizers release a manifesto that pushes for justice, accountability, and inclusion for women. This year, their manifesto also demanded an end to forced conversions. When asked where they have seen the most visible impact of their manifestos, organizers said:

“Open dialogue... it has fostered at home and in the media. It has brought contentious issues like transgender rights, forced marriages, marital rape, and bodily autonomy to the living room. TV programs across a range of networks have become increasingly willing to discuss formerly taboo topics regarding women’s rights, as well as key demands from our manifesto, such as economic justice and an end to violence against women. We’ve also seen a number of gender-inclusive safe spaces springing up online, which offer support and guidance to disempowered women and LGBTQIA+ people.”

The AM team also created Aurat Haq, a diverse intersectional political platform that focuses on women and gender minority issues in Pakistan.

Since launching their movement, AM organizers are most proud of giving people a chance to be heard in the public sphere. The point is to promote dialogue, even if it’s contentious. They are also thrilled to see women and non-binary people take to the streets every year to raise their voices for themselves, and for others who are unable to make it.

In their opinion, the biggest hurdles for women’s rights in Pakistan are:

"Hierarchies of caste and class that commoditize non-men in a gendered manner, violent barriers in the path of women’s right to education, economic justice, and safe public/private spaces.”

When asked what women can do outside of the march to protect their rights, empower themselves, and confront imposed gender roles, AM organizers suggested:

"...Women and non-binary folks should develop a strong network within themselves, one that supports and lifts them up. Reclaim public spaces and retain visibility. We will not recede once the March is over.”

There are also women in Pakistan who oppose the same Aurat March movement that is trying to give them a voice. While trying to wrap their heads around this backlash, organizers explained that:

“Women in Pakistan have often had no choice but to eke out what power and privilege they can within the patriarchy. In doing so, they've been persuaded that these are all the rights they are ‘allowed’ and deserving of. They worry about losing what they have if they were to protest. In a sense, they pick a vaguely defined honor over their fundamental human rights.”

When asked how they cope with ongoing threats and harassment, organizers said they have found great support systems in each other. Volunteers are also encouraged to take breaks if “it gets too much.”

AM organizers also started a dedicated support group to protect march participants in case they’re dealing with cyber harassment or other forms of abuse. Their social media team is “poised and ready” to help victims of online harassment. Plus, organizers advise participants to wear masks or cover their faces if they’re worried about being photographed.

“At the end of the day, we’re aware of the risks, and each of us is making informed decisions in their personal capacity about how to deal with them,” they said.

AM organizers will continue to confront opposition to their movement. They intend to keep the Aurat March relevant as long as there is oppression and harassment in Pakistan. In order to make the march an enduring institution, they will also work towards increasing legal and societal support.

Another long term goal is to make sure every marginalized person undergoing oppression has a space to air their demands.

Nashra Balagamwala’s Experimental Show of Peace and Solidarity

Op-ed writer: Ushah Kazi is a Pakistani culture buff and writer based in Canada. She has written for a number of Pakistani and Canadian publications. She has also published a book about Pakistani cinema titled, The Pop-Culture Junkie's Guide to Pakistani Cinema, which is available on Amazon.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Nashra has found her creative niche by designing experimental and playfully political board games. No stranger to controversy, Nashra has in the past turned both Pakistan’s panache for arranged marriages, and the country’s political landscape into entertaining spectacles.

In the wake of rising tensions, Nashra once again wanted to use her craft, while at the same time appreciating the sensitivity of the situation.

In a bid to represent this struggle, Nashra paired up with an Indian volunteer named Akansha Gupta, and staged a demonstration outside the consulates. Titled ‘disconnected’, it offered a creative expression for anyone on either side, who longs for peace. Both women wore red, showing their solidarity with Kashmir, and were connected in some way, for the duration of the process. They held hands, had their backs against each other, or were linked by a string. In their hands, they held flags of both India and Pakistan, fashioned into peace signs, to encourage, “an end to the brutality, and future conversations of reasonable peace.”

Despite her artistic vision, Nashra, like most young Pakistani’s witnessing the worsening situation, is not oblivious to its severity. She is particularly frustrated about the political circles that have turned their backs on discourse and diplomacy. “On the governmental level,” she says, “…I think there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. I think Imran Khan has made great moves towards this, but with the current Indian government, it seems unlikely in the near future.” A sentiment that, sadly, has been echoed by many.

Regardless of the grim reality, which we all have to accept, an artist also has the capacity to encourage hope. And, Nashra hopes to continue doing this. She is currently working on a game that will take inspiration from shared Pakistani and Indian pop-culture, and encourage camaraderie. As the young designer explains it, “this board game will allow players from both countries to come together, play, and laugh at the things they hold nearest and dearest to their hearts.”

Apart from this, she is also planning to launch a non-profit organization called, ‘Make Chai Not War’, the proceeds for which will go towards relief efforts in Kashmir. In her own way, this vibrant young talent wants to encourage peaceful dialogue, as a means to move forward. And, if all of us take just one thing from her, it has to be the resolution to push forward.

When times are as grim as this, it is tempting to forsake hope itself. But, we owe it to those worst impacted by the tensions, and to our own humanity, to hold on to the promise of better days.

Thinking Big: Be The Change

In today’s Thinking Big Interview Series, The NewsRun talks to the founders of Be The Change to learn more about the organization’s mission, services, impact, and future plans. The founders also walk us through the steps they took to launch their charity. As an added bonus, the interview includes some helpful advice for aspiring nonprofit founders.

Launched in May 2018, Be The Change is a nonprofit organization that raises funds for low-income families and marginalized groups in Pakistan. The organization is based in Lahore. It was Ramzan when both founders decided to do some charity work. They started distributing bags of grocery rations to roadside labourers every Friday, and quickly realized these men are amongst the most needy - and most overlooked - part of society:

“...They have to work in the scorching heat, hazardous smog and freezing cold to earn a daily wage, and the days they don't work, they can't provide for their families. We were very moved by their stories and decided we wanted to continue this work even after Ramzan was over,” they said.

The founders started fundraising to buy and distribute a week’s worth of grocery rations for 50 families every week. They received a great response from family members and close friends. From there, they pursued small scale projects and drives while continuing to distribute rations. They eventually decided to formalize their work under an umbrella initiative called, Be The Change, which could give people outside their immediate circles a chance to donate and get involved.

The nonprofit aims to help labourers and alleviate their plight in whatever way it can, because:

“It's their broken backs and calloused hands that have built the walls and roads of urban Lahore…they have no paid leave, no environmental protection, no health benefits or insurance, no retirement packages. They catch dengue, pneumonia, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid and a host of other diseases. So many of the labourers we have come across have lost an eye or a limb due to the nature of their work. They have no steady income or job stability, and have to take on whatever work comes their way, being paid a mere Rs. 700 for a 12 hour shift. Now, with inflation skyrocketing, it's almost impossible for them to make ends meet,” they said.

The founders also pointed out that no real government bodies or civil society organizations take care of these men, it’s just the kindness of everyday Pakistanis they can rely on for a little relief.

So far, Be The Change has managed to fundraise for 50 labourer families every week for the past year and a half. They want to draw attention to labourers and marginalized groups that aren’t on everyone’s radar. Every Christmas and Easter, the organization will make care packages for hundreds of Christian families, which include grocery rations, warm blankets, sweaters and socks, school bags, toys, and even bicycles.

Last summer, Be The Change fundraised for Ganga Ram Hospital’s Pediatric Thalassemia Centre in lahore, a fantastic initiative that provides free care and medication for thalassemic children from low-income families. During Ramzan, the nonprofit also built eleven hand pumps in the drought stricken Thar desert, providing clean water to approximately 350 families. Their next endeavour is to buy ambulances and NICU units for a hospital outside of Karachi.

Even though running a nonprofit is fulfilling work, the founders talk about one sinking realization they constantly grapple with:

"There’s always so much more required. It's been very humbling and heartbreaking to come across so much poverty and need, but it's been incredibly overwhelming to see the kindness and generosity with which people donate.”

Fundraising has been their greatest challenge and goal, because all of the work is donation based:

"We are both private people, so it's been a bit tricky to step out of our comfort zone and ‘market’ our work, but we try and do so anonymously on our social media accounts, more as a means of ensuring we are as transparent as possible with our donors via photographs and informational updates,” they said.

When asked what advice they have for people who want to start their own charity, the founders said:

“If you want to help, just start. Roll up your sleeves and start today. Be consistent and make time. No cause is small enough.”

At this stage, Be The Change needs more people to help spread the word and accumulate funds so they can take on more projects. The nonprofit wants to continue helping as many people as possible.