On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, residents of Darul Sukun recognise James Nadiya S Abidi, better known as Jamie, right away as she enters their building. A woman wearing a headband over her short cropped hair, beckons excitedly with the playfulness of a child. Another woman on a wheel chair, who has short grey hair and a toothless smile perpetually pasted on her face complains, after the usual niceties, that Abidi still hasn’t snapped a picture of her with her iPad. For her part, Abidi seems completely at ease and comfortable as she greets the residents offering a smile here, a hug there.
She is equally comfortable with Morris Khurshid, the caretaker who sits in an office and who has himself been a resident of Darul Sukun since 1992 when his family deserted him. She drops by his office and asks him to say hello from her to Sister Ruth Lewis, the administrator of the facility who isn’t in her office at the time. She continues with the ease that comes from a frequent visitor, someone so familiar with the organisation that she is welcome around the kitchen and in the wards that house the residents.
Abidi has spent her Ramazan collecting donations for Darul Sukun, a home for the mentally and physically disabled, which was established in 1969 by Dutch nun Sister Gertrude Lemmens. The home, which started off in a small donated house with only eight disabled children as residents, now has a modern building and a pleasant garden — thanks to donations by the Australian Hockey Federation. Darul Sukun takes in children who are left at its gates, found abandoned in hospital beds or sometimes even found chained in their own homes and elsewhere, punished by those who should have been caring for them; punished for the crime of not being born ‘normal’.
“I started coming here in the first week of Ramazan,” says Abidi, correcting my assumption that she is a regular volunteer. Darul Sukun wasn’t her first choice when looking for a place to help out. “I first went to another, very well-known charity organisation and was disgusted by the state of affairs there. It was dirty and smelly. The chain of command is so vast there that problems and complaints don’t even reach the middle management, let alone the people at the top.” Then her aunt, Iffat Rizvi, herself an avid social worker, asked her if she would accompany her to Darul Sukun. Abidi consented.
It wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, recalls Abidi, it was downright frightening. Women and children, many physically disfigured and some with serious psychological problems, freely walked through the corridors unrestrained and approached her.
But soon Abidi realised how warm these people were if one got close to them, and she noticed how clean the place itself was. She points out the nice smelling pink washrooms, unmarred by even a hint of dirt. She was impressed by the children who wore clean clothes, were bathed regularly and sprinkled with talcum powder. She was also quite taken by a wheel-chair-ridden woman who asked her, “Hello! Can I give you a hug? You look like a doll.”
For Abidi, Darul Sukun fills what she felt was a void in her life. By the age of 24, she has walked the red carpet at dozens of fashion events, partied with the who’s who of Pakistani society, launched her own western prêt line, modelled for shoots, painted and will soon even get her collection of poems published. She thought she had lived life to the fullest.
But despite this impressive list of accomplishments, there was always the feeling that something was missing. “I don’t want to become like other models and have my face on billboards everywhere. I enjoy spending time with people who get something from me, even if it’s just a smile. That is something that makes my day.”
And so, she has been making regular appearances at Darul Sukun, decked in chunky jewellery, sunglasses perched on top of her head and wearing clothes fit for a true fashionista. But this isn’t some kind of publicity stunt and there are no cameras, hidden or otherwise, to broadcast her efforts to the world. With only her Facebook page to help spread the word, Abidi launched a charity drive aimed at collecting donations for Darul Sukun. And she doesn’t want cash. “I am only asking for supplies for Darul Sukun because people are not very open about giving charity through money,” she says. When it comes to what kind of items she’s looking for, Abidi says that every little bit counts. Anything from toys and used clothes to even bangles or a slightly used mehndi cone, she says, would go a long way in making the residents of this home happy.
“After the ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ scandal, I went abroad and heard things from people that hurt me as a Pakistani,” she says. She found that foreigners and Pakistani expatriates alike were wary of making donations to any local cause as they thought it would be fraught with fraud and corruption. Abidi had fierce debates with them, arguing that an entire country would not be tarred with the same brush of suspicion just because a few people broke their trust. “Do you know they [western charity organisations] no longer take Pakistani volunteers abroad?” she asks, exasperatedly.
She then turned to social media and good old-fashioned networking to promote her cause, looking largely to family and friends for support. Abidi posted her appeal for donations as her Facebook status, urging her friends to give generously for the cause, and to spread the message further. What followed were streams of ‘likes’ and supportive comments.
“Everyone is going on liking my status. If you go on my Facebook page, you will see 50 odd likes,” she says. “I then changed my status, saying ‘I appreciate everyone liking my status. Please don’t mind me being a bully, but stop liking my status and actually commit to donating!’”
With Eid just round the corner, Abidi says she actually had to resort to bullying — even if it meant posting repeated reminders on people’s Facebook pages or leaving a text message on their phone every time they did not pick up her call.
She says that while friends and family living abroad have taken pains in making donations — a cousin from Malaysia is shipping her donated items while a friend in Singapore has committed to providing rations — it is disappointing that people in Pakistan have been so indifferent and slow to respond. “They say ‘Yeah, yeah, we will look into our closet. I have to ring them back repeatedly and say: ‘Have you looked into your closet yet?’” she complains.
But while people may fail to match Abidi’s own enthusiasm about the cause, she is still optimistic that “qatra qatra darya ban jata hai [drop by drop a river is formed].”
After all, she also used to be ignorant of the plight of the very people she is now helping. But now she wants to keep going at it: she is planning to launch another charity drive for Darul Sukun through her newly established Hajra Begum Not-for-Profit Organisation, named after her maternal grandmother, and is also planning to teach these children how to paint. Certainly, this river of hope has only just started to flow.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 19th, 2012.