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My family: watching her parents in action after the earthquake in Pakistan, she relearned the most important lessons of organizing.

On October 8th, a 7.6 earthquake radiated through Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province. A total of 3.5 million people lost their homes and more than 87,000 people lost their lives. Among the many places that were devastated was Oghi, a remote village in the mountains, the home of my mother's family. It had been a few years since I had been there, and a whole year of natural disasters. With each one, I felt the panic, the powerlessness that comes when nature stamps its feet. I had grieved and helped raise funds. But the headlines on October 8 hit me in the gut, an invisible umbilical cord that connected me to those mountains had just given a harsh tug.


Three years ago, my grandmother was ill, and I went to Oghi. While I was there, I climbed up and down the thick pine valleys to visit family. I have backpacked in national parks in the U.S., even climbed to Cloud's Rest in Yosemite, but nothing had prepared me for such natural beauty. Nothing had prepared me for the warmth of the villagers. Everywhere neighbors came out of their homes, asking, "Is this Fatima's daughter?" They invited us in, not taking no for an answer, brought out food, chicken, potatoes; they gave me gifts, sheets, clothing. They laughed at me when I said I loved the wild, the mountains. "Yes, this is Fatima's daughter."

Like all children, I had a limited view of my mother. She was the one who fought against roaches and mice in her Queens home, and now guarded her suburban home in New Jersey fiercely while trying to grow tomatoes in the backyard. I found out she had been a wild child, unafraid of landowners as she broke into their fields to steal fruit and run off.

I also learned that when the Twin Towers fell, my mother's sister, my Khala, had organized the village to pray for weeks, doing Quran khanis for our safety. I thought of those horrible days, with the city reeling from death and hate crimes. All that time, when we had felt so lost, this village had been praying for us.

Now, of these people, there was no way to know who was alive and who was dead. There were no phones in Oghi.

When I called my family, my sister, Aisha, answered. She said my mother was busy, and no one knew what was going on.

"Please Allah," I prayed while packing my bags, "let them be safe."

When I got to my parents' house, my nieces and nephews were at the door but my mother wasn't crying as I had expected. She was on the phone squinting over her bifocals. Before the earthquake, she would have given the phone to me when she needed to make a call, saying, "Here dial this." But now she had somehow become adept at working not one, but two phones--the cell and the kitchen phone. She hugged me quickly and then went back to her conversation. I raised my eyebrows and my sister Aisha said, "She's been like that since it happened."

The doorbell rang. It was an aunty, asking, "Is your mother here?"

I pointed upstairs, but she pressed an envelope into my hands. "If your mother is busy, don't worry, tell her this is for your village."

This is how my parents' community works. They don't have endless meetings and minutes. When there is a birth, the aunties know immediately. When someone dies, it doesn't take long for the food rotation to be set up. It is from my parents that I learned my first lesson of community organizing. You must first have a community, one that you share joy with as well as suffering. My parents had a certain amount of respect and trust among their friends. It hit me that being trustworthy was essential to being involved in community work, and being worthy of this trust took a lifetime. My parents knew they could call on people because they knew the community could call on them.

For the next two days, my parents were on the phone non-stop to friends in the U.S. and relatives in Pakistan. There was still no news, so they arranged for cousins from my father's side to go to the mountains to check on my mother's side. My cousins reported back that Oghi and the neighboring villages had been destroyed; the survivors were living under make-shift tents in the fields where a freezing cold rain was falling.

This was in direct contrast to what PTV (Pakistani Television) was reporting. In those first weeks, PTV was on non-stop in our home. Bodies under ruined homes, children lost--we felt that we could not turn it off. It became our portal to the other side of the world. Over the footage, PTV said the government was sending food and clothing, but my cousins reported that supplies and tents had not reached Oghi yet. This is the second lesson my parents taught me: trust your eyes and ears, never the government-controlled media.


My parents knew Oghi was a remote village with very few monetary resources. They knew they couldn't wait for the government. My parents got on their phones all over again, to storeowners they knew and cousins in Pakistan. They got in touch with one cousin, who got in touch with another cousin, who got in touch with store owners. Food was bought and packaged. The packets contained rice, dal, sugar, chai and ghee. A truck was rented by another cousin and filled with packets of food and supplies. The truck arrived in Oghi two days before the government officials arrived. This was my third lesson: urgency. How many times have I and other activists wasted time getting involved with red tape and with personal issues? But my parents knew each wasted moment was a moment our family and their neighbors were out in the cold rain, their homes destroyed.

While watching my parents, I couldn't believe that all these years I saw them as old-fashioned and myself as the radical one. Watching them in action, I relearned the most important lessons of activism: the strongest, most effective form of community activism is not complicated. It comes from a sense of family, love and urgency. It's not something that can be taught in a college classroom or learned from a book. It comes from a sincere belief that we are in this world together and must take care of each other, as well as ourselves. How different my own activism would be if every time something happened, I asked myself, "What would I do if this was my family?"

As I write this, my parents are in Oghi, sleeping in those makeshift tents with my mother's family. They could not rest until they went themselves. I spoke to my mother the other day. She said, "You cannot imagine. Nothing can prepare you for this. There is still so much need." The tremors were still happening. I wanted to tell her to come home, but I knew she wouldn't because I know myself. I am her daughter. I knew I had to raise funds. When I got off the phone with her, I started calling all my friends and all those in my community.

Bushra Rehman is a Brooklyn-based writer and co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism.

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Title Annotation:feature
Author:Rehman, Bushra
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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