Uncle, Rice!

“Mama, Mama, chawal dey do! (Uncle, uncle, give me rice!)” the kid pleads through the van window.

The driver shifts into the reverse gear and turns the steering. Akhuwat’s white van swerves to the right, pushing children away but they somehow latch onto the window frame.

“Why don’t you give him one rice meal?” I ask the driver.

“Sir, we have already distributed 300 meals at this location. Now, only 50 packets are left. On the way, you saw some old women who have been standing in front of the bank the whole day waiting to receive the funds from the government. They must be hungry. I suggest we should save some meals for them,” he replies.

“Mama, Mama, meray ghar mein khanay ke liye kuch nahi hey. Khana day do na!” (Uncle, uncle, there is no food at my home, please give me some!)

This kid is wearing a deep blue shirt, the kind of color that my mom often made me wear on Fridays. If you compare him to my childhood photos, he looks uncannily like me. His eyes are misty. As I look at the delivery person for help, the kid grabs my left forearm and simply wouldn’t let go.

This is my introduction to Pakistan after being away for four and a half years. Today, after 19 days of quarantine, I hop onto the Akhuwat van which is delivering cooked meals to poverty-stricken areas in Karachi which have been economically devastated due to the COVID-19 lockdown. We drive to Ibrahim Hyderi, and the journey is full of contrast, from big wide posh streets to bumpy narrow streets littered with trash. There is a lockdown. Yes, the shops are closed. But there is no lockdown, because people are outside, with nothing left to do.

Over the past few weeks, I have involved myself with VIGA which is a brand new project of Akhuwat Global, thanks to my dear friend Azhar Hameed, the president of Akhuwat USA, the force behind VIGA and someone who inspired me a lot when I was in Los Angeles. For years, I have been out, cycling for myself, and as much as I would like to sit at home right now and just work on terabytes of images and videos from my travels, I have decided to step out so I can document and share the stories of the most vulnerable people whose survival depends on us.

Under the direction of Azhar bhai, I have developed the website for VIGA.Org​ www.viga.org which we have just launched with the COVID-19 Emergency Fund campaign. Do check it out!

In Pakistan, the Akhuwat team is distributing food, supporting families, and providing emergency zero-interest microloans to daily wage workers who have been affected the most due to the lockdown. After hearing stories of Akhuwat from Azhar bhai for a long time, today, I get to witness their remarkable work with my own eyes. Now I understand where his passion for Akhuwat comes from.

Back in Ibrahim Hyderi, the kid in the blue shirt wouldn’t let go of my arm. He eventually gets a pack of channa chawal (cooked rice with chickpeas) and so do a few other kids who are big enough and fast enough to keep up with the van, but many cannot. Their tiny hands slip from the window frame and they eventually disappear in the cloud of dust behind the van. Their pleading voices can no longer pierce our ears.

Not far from here, several dozen women are crammed outside the HBL bank. As soon as our van stops at the bank, a sea of hands surrounds us. In seconds, the remaining 50 packs of meals are gone. When the van tries to make its way through the crowd, I see women falling on to the ground behind.

“Sir, Karachi mein bahut ghurbat hay. Aap logon ko batein key hamein bahut kaam karna hey! (Sir, there is a lot of poverty in Karachi. Please tell people, we have a lot to do!)” the driver says.

I nod to him, but in my head, the voice of kid in the blue shirt still echoes.

“Mama, Mama, meray ghar mein khanay ke liye kuch nahi hey!”

I want to ask my driver, why we gave him only one pack of rice instead of two or three, but I have lost my voice.

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