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Cross posting documentary made on me & PYA by Al-Jazeera English, highlighting some of the work we do.

 

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First published: Ceasefire magazine UK

The past decade has seen millions marching against the Iraq invasion and other wars, millions more helping and being helped as natural and man-made disasters struck from Japan to America. Just in 2011 alone – much to the amazement of political and social scientists – we witnessed the street revolutions of the Arab Spring. A revolutionary wave of demonstrations not only toppled decades-old dictatorships but have prompted a healthy ‘culture of debate’, across the world.

These protests shared a number of common techniques of civil resistance, through sustained campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies, as well as the use of social media to organise, communicate, and raise awareness in the face of state attempts at repression and media/internet censorship.

The Arab Spring confirmed the significance of the power a “common” man or woman can possess. Dictionaries and historical narratives have undermined the usage of the word ‘activism’. It is now usually understood to be intentional efforts to bring about social, political, economic, religious or environmental change. Activities that are usually understood to be ‘activist’ in nature include protests, walks and demonstrations. This is only partially correct.

Activism is not necessarily about ‘change’ for change’s sake, activism also exists to maintain and protect the valuable freedoms and rights secured through the sacrifices and resistance of those before us. Activism is not only rebellious protests challenging authority but a broad set of activities to meet clear ends and objectives, to instigate a debate in society, and therefore to continuously meet evolving circumstances.

As such, it might not necessarily involve any ‘protesting’ at all. Let us remember that not everything that calls itself “activist” is inherently positive in its nature. Many “activist” groups and organisations across the world work diligently towards outcomes that others would hardly describe as ‘positive’.

Possibly due to the confusion that surrounds the word, historians have not been able to produce a ‘history of activism’. And yet, shouldn’t we start seeing our own common history of mankind as precisely that? A ‘history of activism’? After all, human history and progress have been built, in one way or other, upon various types of “activism,” all the way back to when the first human being stepped on earth.

Every one of us is affected by the happenings around us. From bad drainage across the street to extremist organisations propagating intolerance. From domestic state policies that need to be opposed to Imperial oppression that should be resisted – everyone is affected. Some feel the need to ‘do something’ and try to challenge, inspire and lead whilst others, convinced that one voice, one action, or one person are helpless against the enormity of the task, resign themselves to do nothing instead. The former are called ‘activists’, the latter I call ‘slacktivists’.

With advances in telecommunications and internet technology, we are more exposed to information than ever before. With a sudden burst of social networking sites, we are more powerful than ever before. The ease with which digital activism can be the driving force behind tangible output is awe-inspiring. Blogging is already the new face of media: we all can be journalists and activists. The only ingredient that distinguishes an activist from a slacktivist is the will and the desire to do it.

Of course, it’s not all about marches and campaigns. Volunteer work for a social cause is an equally valid way to alleviate poverty, fight corruption or to ensure equal rights of education and health facilities to all.

Complaining about contemporary state of affairs is easy; trying to work towards how you envision your society, country or world ought to be is the real test. As we move further and faster towards a more globalised world, with technology that enables us to matter beyond our mere physical borders, we as global citizens need to realise that we matter. And activism, in whatever form, is the spark that leads to the streets, to the ‘change’ that we, the global masses, aspire towards.

Some believe an activist is born and cannot be ‘made’. I don’t: every man and woman is born an activist. Whether we admit it or not, it is carved in our common history and, whether we like or not, it will define the future of our humanity.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is featured in ‘Activate’ a new series on Al Jazeera English following activists

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First published: Al Jazeera English [for series of docu-films on youth activism in 08 countries, called ‘activate’. Ours airs on 25th oct, at 1030 GMT 

I grew up in a country enshrouded in uncertainty, being taught a distorted version of history as part of a school curriculum that incited religious hatred. It was a country that endorsed almost anything, social or political, in the name of religion; where state organs coloured geo-strategic shifts in ‘holy’ flavour; where the intelligentsia fathered militant organisations; where the right-leaning media propagated conspiracy theories; and where public sentiment sanctioned militancy by calling for intervention beyond borders.

How can I forget the banners hanging in the main marketplaces of Pakistan calling out for ‘Jihad’ against whomsoever they deemed an ‘infidel’? I grew up listening to the clerics for whom every other sect within Islam was heretical, to news of attacks on shrines, mosques and religious festivals, to dictators who extended their stay in office for personal gain – with corruption plaguing every walk of life, mob mentality justifying acts of violence and the judiciary serving selective justice.

I grew up in a country battling wars, natural disasters, corruption, religious and social intolerance, disease, poverty, illiteracy and ideological perplexity. But it was also a very resilient environment. I cannot name any other country that has faced such multi-faceted problems with such intensity. If we were not struggling to infest democratic norms and a culture of peace and mutual coexistence, we were battling the biggest humanitarian crisis in all of modern history.

But there would not be opportunity if it were not for crisis. The future is what we make of the present; and the past offers us an opportunity to learn from our errors. Realising the individual’s importance in the collective life of a neighbourhood, city, province, country and, consequently, as a global citizen is the defining moment that instigates ‘change’.

Change is within, however concealed by incompetence and naivety. Trying to ‘be the change’ turned me and some of my friends into activists who battled dictatorship and media blackouts, who stood up against extremism amid threats and insecurities, who were chased around and harassed by the very agencies that should have protected us, who rallied for peace when the masses were victims of war-mongering, who have reached out to more than 70,000 displaced families with material relief. Much of the time, these amazing youngsters have been pro-active rather than re-active in their activism.

Unprecedented acknowledgements by the United Nations, the government of Pakistan or by international media outlets are no milestones when compared to the fact that what started as a Facebook group in 2007 as the result of a few exuberant young minds now gives a voice to thousands.

More than 100 million aged under 24, a youth bulge unparalleled in the world, cannot be made a liability. This is the future of Pakistan and the future of a region in which one-fifth of humanity dwells. Turning crisis into opportunity will mean transforming 65 per cent of the population of Pakistan into pro-active citizens agreeing to disagree peacefully; making them realise their potential as individuals and then as a collective force to be reckoned with.

Some believe that Pakistan’s prospects have dimmed over the past few years and that there is no hope. But we believe that only stormy weather makes good sailors and only the most vigorous of rubs polishes the best of gems.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi can be found on twitter and facebook and is the founder and chair of the Pakistan Youth Alliance.

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Express Tribune:

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice and heartwarming melodies intoxicated the audience at a much-awaited fund raiser Tuesday night, with die hard fans singing along and swaying to the music…

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, president PYA, in his address to the guests gave a heart-felt and dedicated message. He added, “We are here to raise funds, but despite that, we’ve had politicians and bureaucrats asking us for favours to let them in for free. We have taken a lot from this country, but now it is time to give something back.”

The News:

The purpose of this event was to initiate school renovation drive. As per UN, 10,000 schools were destroyed by floods. Top politicians, businessmen, diplomats and celebrities were in attendance as Rahat mesmerised the audience with his melodious tunes. Mahesh Bhatt turned up with Indian delegation to grace the occasion..

Pakistan Youth Alliance Chairperson Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi delivered a speech, which made the audience emotional, he said “pointing at ‘decision-makers’ of our society who were seeking free passes for a charity concert, is this the example elders of our society are setting for our future generations? We have been harassed by politicians and bureaucrats for obliging them in a charity concert. We have taken a lot from this country, lets try to give something back now!”

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Ink Magazine’s Jan-March issue interviews me in detail regarding PYA:

1) What lead to the formation of Pakistan Youth Alliance in 2007?

Pakistan Youth Alliance was my dream. I dreamt to matter, I dreamt to give a platform to 62 % population of Pakistan i.e the youth. I yearned to “live the change” I wanted to see around me. The melting point was emergency proclamation during Musharraf’s government when everything went black and we were forced to be ignorant, by barring media. This tyranny by that regime became a blessing in disguise for the likes of me as the ignorant youth in me became this activist who wanted to play a part in our future.

2) What is the aim and ideology of your organization?

We aim to unite the youth of Pakistan, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, caste, race or language, on an unbiased platform through which they could contribute in nation building processes in their limited capabilities. We wish to create political and social awareness amongst the youth of Pakistan. We want to provide a platform to the youth through which, they can raise their voices against injustice, exploitation and other social ills of our society.We also, engage youth in constructive and healthy activities through which their positive energies are synergized. We enlighten the youth to feel responsible for this country and prepare them for future leadership tasks. Protest against any stance taken by any authority to destabilize Pakistan or hurt the national integrity. We through many medoums spread the message of enlightenment, hope, responsibility and patriotism to masses through unconventional but effective mediums like music, poetry, prose and art. We aspire to create a spark in the youth of our nation by a variety of inspirational events like conferences, seminars, panel discussions, art exhibition, concerts, debates and peaceful protests. Moreover, we indulge youth in social welfare activities through fund-raising for those affected by national disasters, war or political instabilities. We try our best to bridge gaps between youth studying in different universities\colleges and bringing them together to form a collaborative force.By infesting trust and leadership skills to youth, we refine the positive attributes of youth and prepare them for challenging tasks ahead when they enter the system.

3) PYA desires to provide an unbiased platform to the youth of Pakistan, from where their voices can be conducted to the masses. What are you doing to ensure that unbiased decisions are carried out?

We have recently completed 150 events worldwide, every initiative was voluntarily implemented. To ensure every initiative is unanimously endorsed by the public, we through our Central Executive Body, which has representation from throughout Pakistan and Pakistanis living abroad, ask for prior approval. This body through 2/3rd majority gives a green signal. Almost every initiative was well received by the public and in the media. We rallied for democracy, human rights, we saluted brave martyrs and showed solidarity with victims of terrorism. We practically helped disabled, displaced and victims of disasters. We through our “Art For Change” campaigns made aspiring artistes use their artform as a tool to reform mindsets.

4) PYA has come out to help Pakistan during disasters for the past three years that is The Baluchistan Earthquake in 2008, Military action in Swat, Flood in Abbottabad Lake and most recently the recent floods in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. What has been your most successful campaign so far?

The most successful campaign so far has been the ‘flood relief campaign’. We from nothing, raised over 45 Million PKR (donated items not included) and managed 36 deliveries till date (from Aug 03 to 09 Dec, 2010). We managed to practically help 44000 families and were the first ones to reach many far off & inaccessible areas battling through raging waters, snakes, stampedes and security issues. This extra ordindary bravery from our passionate volunteers was acknowledged at UN Headquarters at New York City.

5) Your campaign for the flood affectees has been a huge one. Can you describe how PYA has been carrying out this campaign?

We started from 70 Rs. We dont get any direct or indirect funds from anyone. We raise funds through streets and planned fundraisers on our own. Our previous experience with natural disasters helped us carry flood relief campaign with utmost efficiency. Salutations to the hundreds of volunteers, who under our guidance have now become experienced relief workers. This is what we always dreamt of in 2007. We aspired to create sparks that would eventually make the jungle catch fire. When we started, only one or two non-politically aligned youth civil society groups existed, but since then a cluster of civil society groups have sprung up. If Pakistan will change, it will be through these youngsters.

6) What is next on the agenda for PYA in the year 2011?

We are in middle of flood relief campaign which is now focused towards rehabilitation and renovation of schools, libraries and hospitals. These floods have taken us back several years and constant effort is required to completely rehabilitate the 20 million affected. Also, educational project for juveniles (children in jails) will be started from Lahore which will be cloned else-where after successful implementation. Our short-term objectives vary as the situation of Pakistan varies every fortnight. We have in the past, been very pro-active (started working for many causes, which were-to become big disasters like Swat IDP, floods etc) so lets hope the same trend continues.

7) What message would you like to give to the youth of Pakistan?

I would like to urge the youth to stand up and speak whenever they believe their country is taken hostage by a noisy minority. We need to take our country back from them and stop being a silent majority. We need to build Pakistan before eyeing on other lands and succumbing to war-hysteria created by a particular segment of our society. We need to revive and re-own the very ideology for which Pakistan was created.  Moreover, we need to turn our words into actions. Nothing would reiterate my message louder than Martin Luther King saying: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people,”

 

 

 


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My diary (log) was published in December issue of  Media Voice Magazine (Page 66-77)

Text version:

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi and his friends took a journey from Islamabad to the flood-affected South Punjab with relief materials on October 23. From Nature’s fury and terrorism to snack stopovers, his log speaks of varied experiences.

1700hrs (October 23, 2010)
I was en-route Lahore with three volunteers to make a delivery of relief items to flood affected South Punjab. Hammid Ali, an MBA student, Shakeel Ahsan, an HR executive and Hammad Atta, a telecom engineer were with me on the trip started from Islamabad. We would meet more volunteers in Lahore where we will have to load three trucks with relief with relief items overnight and start our journey early morning the next day.

2000hrs (October 23, 2010)
Talking about the spot-fixing scandals of Pakistani cricketers on the Motorways we had a snack-break. Everyone had his own perception of what’s happening with Pakistan cricket, and same variation of perceptions existed about socio-political problems that we were facing. One wondered, if we will ever find common grounds to move forward.

2300hrs (October 23, 2010)
Markets and hang-out places remained open till late night in Lahore unlike Islamabad which closes down by 9pm. Lahori boys get hyper on weekends and horde the roads on their bikes. Driving through the haphazard traffic wasn’t an easy task. We finally reached the whole-sale bazaar near railway station in Mughalpura, where our trucks were ready to be loaded.

0200hrs (October 24, 2010)
Trucks were loaded. More volunteers arrived from Lahore. A US –based filmographer, Yasmin accompanied us to make a documentary. We had earlier asked for two trucks. One more truck had to be arranged, which demanded huge amount. Although I was angry at the truck-driver who was being unreasonable and cashing in on our emergency need, we had no other option but to hire him.

0500 (October 24, 2010)
Trucks were on their way to Daira Deen Panah, a town adversely affected by monstrous flood water. We had time to kill, and we decided to visit Data Sahib (mausoleum of Hazrat Ali Hajveri, the famous Sufi saint). This tomb recently faced the brunt of a terrorist attack killing many. Many malangs/wanderers were sitting around the tomb, and the atmosphere was simply ecstatic. After paying homage to Data Sahib, we then had to have sizzling breakfast of halva-puri in ‘andaroon’ Lahore (old Lahore which was a walled city).
 

0800 hrs [24th Oct, 2010]
We are on the way to South Punjab now. In the coaster with loud music playing ‘chal way Bulleya othay chaliyeh’ singing, chatting and some playing cards. We are total 12 relief workers. I and Maryam were talking about how after Ramadan, donations have dwindled and people are not donating open-heartedly. The initial phase of immediate relief did not require as much money as the rehabilitation phase. 
 
1500 hrs [24th Oct, 2010] 
After 10 hours journey, we reached Kot Addu, whose town Daira Din Panah we had to hit. We had been here twice before, but then it took 26 hours as roads were blocked and bridges dismantled. Situation had changed as now only traces of water and its destruction remained. Our trucks were still 2 hours behind and again, after having a delicious lunch we visited the shrine of Syed Abdul Wahab Bukhari, known as Deen Panah, on whom the town was named. Locals told us how flood waters could not drown one street in their town, that was, where the shrine was located. 
 
1600 hrs [24th Oct, 2010]
We started making lines of flood affectees, our one team was here yesterday to distribute coupons in affected families. Now we called all of them, and asked the head of families to stand in a line. This impossible process of filtering out genuine affectees, trying to make others, who did not have the coupons understand that we cannot accommodate them due to our limited capacity was tedious and heart wrenching. Female volunteers made females stand in a line, where as, male volunteers made males stand a triple line to ensure distribution without hassle. 
 
1700 hrs [24th Oct, 2010]
Now our trucks had arrived and we started the by-hand distribution process. Each victim had coupons signed and counter signed by us, along with his National ID card to ensure genuine-ness. This process continued till it was dark and after 3 hours of distribution, reaching out to 1000 families we called it a day.
 
2100 hrs [24th Oct, 2010]
We called this delivery, the mystical delivery as once again we decided to visit tombs of Shah Shams Tubrez and Shah Rukh ne Alam in Multan after having dinner at Pizza Hut. The driver and conductor with us strangely took interest in trying ‘how a pizza tastes like’. We went to the tombs, which are located adjacent to each other and had never seen such tight security ever before. Police officials told us, this area was under threat from terrorists, who had been on ‘blast a shrine’ spree. An old woman sat infront of Tubrez’s shrine, asked us to go back to Lahore and pay homage to Data Ali Hajveri on her behalf. 
 
2300 hrs [24th Oct, 2010]
Now we were on our way back to Lahore. On our minds, the sad faces of victims who had nothing left. Schools, hospitals, homes – all washed away. Another thing that continually became a topic of discussion was our nations reaction to national disasters which showed a ‘sudden burst of patriotism and then relative numbness’. Such was the case with Pakistan floods 2010. When the disaster struck, immediate emergency relief aide needed was nothing compared to what’s needed for rehabilitating 22 Million affected souls. Regular stops were made on juice corners, truck driver hotels and pan-shops on our way back as we had no deadline to meet. Most of us were so exhausted that we went to sleep in our coaster. Others continued to ‘fight’ on issues such as cricket, Zardari, US involvement in our internal affairs and what not.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is an aeronautical engineer, a poet and a social activist who is the founding force & chairperson of Pakistan Youth Alliance(http://www.pya.org.pk/). He can be found tweeting @Ali_Abbas_Zaidi (http://twitter.com/#!/Ali_Abbas_Zaidi) & is available on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/aliabbaszaidi

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First published on Dawn.

[ Read series of  my blogs published in Dawn regarding Pakistan Floods 2010 as we made regular deliveries to flood affected areas. Till date, have made 34 deliveries, worth 35 Million PKR (0.42 Million USD) helping around 44000 families. Previous ones can be read at: Hungry and homeless and Without a roof over their heads ]

Changing the mindset

We, Pakistanis, have a certain pattern of responding to national disasters. The kind which involves developing a bubble of patriotism and its quick bursting after a certain period that is only effective for short-term solutions. Such has been the case with the recent floods in the county. It has been nearly three months since the waters gushed through our lands and although water levels have receded, the biggest natural disaster in modern history still yearns to create the hype it deserved. There has been an exponential decrease of passion, donations and the will to rehabilitate the 20 million affected by the floods once the holy month of Ramazan ended.

We travelled to Dera Din Panah, in South Punjab to make another delivery of relief aid towards the end of October. We had already visited this particular area twice earlier, but continuous calls for help from the locals forced us to take note of the immediate need of the affectees. With supplies of blankets and warm clothes for about 1,000 families, we left for the area. With the onset of winter, the needs of the people have changed from ration and temporary shelters to warm clothes, self-sustaining rebuilding projects, prolonged medical care and permanent shelters.

As per our survey, 140 houses in basti Hyder Ghazi, 25 in basti Sattiwala, 21 in basti Bhagsar, 40 in Jamali, 18 in Mir Hassanwala, 30 in Samandari, 10-15 in basti Arra, 20 in Mai Sohagan and, around 100 houses in main city had been completely destroyed. Farmers, labourers and small-scale businessmen have taken loans from families and friends and have started rebuilding their houses, while those who couldn’t afford to are still waiting for some sort of relief.

The situation had changed in the past few weeks as only traces of water and its destruction remained. This town had been adversely affected, with nearly 99 per cent of it underwater. Locals told me only one street, which housed the mausoleum of Sufi Saint Syed Abdul Wahab Bukhari, known as Hazrat Din Panah, after whom the town was named, did not drown.

The complaints people had (from the shopkeepers to small farmers) were the same: not having enough money to start running their business again, not having enough money to prepare farmlands as the cost of per acre cost to water their fields had increased considerably as the canal irrigation systems had been damaged due to the floods. Local labourers also stated that ‘foreign’ NGOs were not involving local manpower for rehabilitation, which could be beneficial to the community and also provide these people with a steady source of income.

The solution, as they put it, was to start self-sustaining projects involving the local communities, like providing business-related aid to help small business owners, providing diesel or bearing the cost for preparing the farmlands of local farmers, stressing upon NGO’s to hire local laborers for rebuilding projects and other entrepreneurial projects which can be sustainable and will help the locals stand on their feet again.

This rehabilitation phase will cost us more and require more focus. We cannot let the notion of “we have already helped,” run unbridled through our masses and the media must play its role in creating this awareness. It doesn’t feel like we are in midst of one of the biggest humanitarian crisis of recent history. We must change this mindset, in whatever capacity we can.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is an aeronautical engineer, a poet and a social activist who is the founding force & chairperson of the Pakistan Youth Alliance. He can be found on Twitter and is available on Facebook.

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