Canadian aid worker feared religious persecution in Pakistan during the floods

Dr. Aslam Daud, Humanity First, being interviewed by Maryam Shah and Mersiha Gadzo, Centennial College Journalism, March 2011

by Mersiha Gadzo

The incident in Haiti still bothers Dr. Aslam Daud.

Daud, the executive director of Humanity First, a Toronto area volunteer-run humanitarian organization, had brought loads of aid and supplies to Port -au- Prince last year for victims of the Haiti earthquake.

Yet, when it reached  customs in Haiti, the two containers stayed there. Humanity First had to pay $16,000  in what Daud feels were bribes, to retrieve the goods for the supplies to reach victims in need.

Corruption is just one of many challenges the organization faces  in order to help victims.

Humanity First, relying entirely on volunteers and public donations, provides disaster relief services worldwide.  Founded by Daud, a Pakistan trained medical doctor by profession, in 2004 during the Indonesian tsunami, some of their relief projects include the Pakistan floods, Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina.

Daud also organizes local projects throughout the GTA and Windsor area including Feed A Family, which delivers food to the doorsteps of the needy. This past Christmas, a group of volunteers distributed pizza and drinks to the homeless in downtown Toronto.

For his efforts, Daud was nominated for CBC’s Champions of Change contest this past fall, a contest which highlighted the contributions volunteers have made to society.

“It’s an honour actually. I never expected that,” Daud said in an interview March 4 at Centennial College’s journalism program.

Daud, 46, recounts how his work in humanitarian aid began when he was a medical student in Karachi, Pakistan.  He had heard about communities living in rural areas in Pakistan, where they had never seen a doctor and had never received medical treatment. Together with some of his friends who were doctors,  they drove for eight hours to reach this rural area. What he saw there sparked his conscience.

“In one day we covered 400 patients. We were shocked to see the conditions,” Daud said. “That motivated me; that people do need help here. From then on, my passion grew.”

What started out as an informal, individual project in 1996,, Humanity First grew into an international collaboration between the charity’s four chapters: Canada, USA, England and Germany.  Each country is  responsible for a particular region in the world.

But, it’s not easy.

Working in poor countries, aside from  problems with corruption, there are other risks.

In Bangladesh, Daud  travelled for 16 hours on vehicles and ferries, crossed seven lakes and rivers in order to reach a remote island with a community in need of aid. Daud says that particular trip was very dangerous. Accidents can always happen as well as being mugged or attacked by people. And while treating victims of the Haiti earthquake out on the street, without benefit of a regular hospital set up, Daud worried about infectious diseases spreading.

“The risks are always there,” Daud said. “But if you want to serve humanity, if you want to do something good, you have to take some risks.”

But helping the flood victims in his native Pakistan this year, brought Daud face to face with a far more direct risk: being murdered, because of his religion.

With his charity, Daud decided to return to Pakistan, a country he had fled because he is an Ahmadi Muslim.

Ahmadi Muslims have been persecuted in Pakistan and surrounding regions because of their different take on Islam. In 1974, Pakistan’s parliament adopted a law declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim, and violence against the community has been rampant for decades.

“You can expect anything. Anybody can attack you, anybody can kill you,” Daud said.

In September 2008, religious extremists repeatedly shot  and killed Daud’s former classmate, Dr. Abdul Mannan Siddiqui, after they broke into his medical clinic in Pakistan.

“You would not expect such an action from an animal,” Daud said. “These people do not have any humanity in them.”

To avoid being attacked while on the ground, Daud and his team members concealed their identities and their religious beliefs, and didn’t share the fact they were Canadian, as he said westerners were also being targetted. Daud cites the Koran which he said teaches that life is sacred, no matter which sect  of religion someone practises.

And while he acknowledges that Ahmadi communities affected by the flooding did not receive much aid from the government, he refused to condemn Pakistan’s efforts.

Back home in Toronto,  waiting for the next world humanitarian crisis to respond to, one can’t help but wonder when will Dr. Daud ever find the time to relax?

Daud likened it to having a family member in hospital.

“I think this world is a family and human beings are a large family,” Daud said. “If someone is suffering, you cannot relax. You could probably have it off your mind for a little while, which is normal. But, sitting and doing nothing when you can do, and have time, that would never happen.”

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Dr. Aslam Daud, executive director of Humanity First, at Centennial College journalism school March 2011

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