From: Comfort Aid International [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 5:50 AM
Cc: recipient list not shown:
Subject: Once upon a time, 14 years ago...
Ahlebayti Muslims, Salaam aleykum,
I received an email from my niece Zainab Somji of Orlando ,
Florida yesterday, seeking articles from the enlightened for
a magazine to be launched by Orlando Jamaat. Well, I am not
sure of being enlightened, but I would gladly write
something for Zainab, for I love writing. I had also, once
upon a time, wanted to, very much, make a living out of
writing. Ah well…
So here is a story, a true one, one that I tell many who
show interest in the kind of work I do at Comfort Aid
International with the poor and destitute all over the
world, especially India and Afghanistan .
It is a hot and humid monsoon July Saturday some 14 years
ago; dark, pregnant skies above threaten to open up any
minute and drench me, but worse, make my travel to Govendhi
miserable and perhaps impossible. Govendhi lies about 20
miles north-east of Mumbai that takes about two hours to get
to on a good day. It is a very densely populated, stench-
puke smelly, dirty beyond descriptive words dirty and full
of flies slum. And yes, it is, sadly, populated
predominantly by Muslims and by over 12,000 families of the
Ahle Tashayyo, overwhelmingly Sadaats.
I get to Govendhi all hot and sweaty and harassed and almost
swoon. This place is unreal; houses are made of rags with
garbage bags for a roof, the lanes between homes squelch and
slide wherever I delicately put my foot down, covering my
once shiny shoes with a thick sludge of mud, the air is ripe
with the stench or raw sewer and flies torment every open
skin on my body. There are people everywhere, packing the
lanes, hurrying here and there, vendors shout their wares or
vegetables or fruits amidst cows, goats, dogs and chicken. I
sneeze once and two flies enter my mouth and I almost gag. I
feel I cannot breathe, the world swims in my eyes and I
stumble. My guide, who is increasingly alarmed at my
distress immediately props me up until we reach the steps of
a crumbling mosque where he parks me on a dry veranda and
hurries to get me a cold drink.
I take deep breaths and try to regain my composure, feeling
silly and mad at myself for being so weak. I drop my head
down, trying to get blood back to my brains and feel better.
I look around and simply cannot fathom my surroundings;
animals live better in the US . My attention is diverted to
a pair of children, a girl and a boy frolicking in a shallow
pond of rain water near the wudhoo area outside the mosque.
They seem to be oblivious to their surrounding, filling
empty water bottles and dousing each other with its filthy
contends and laughing their heads off. They are both clothed
in rags and have bodies so thin, I feel either one would
fracture or break a bone, falling upon each other as they
were. I get a sudden urge to run away from this misery, for
the despair and sudden fear I feel makes me break in a cold
sweat and I suddenly start shivering violently.
I return to my luxury hotel room, tear off my clothes and
have a long hot shower, trying to rid my body of the grime
and sweat and the smell that still cling to it. I resolve
never to go back to that hell hole, to hell with what Mullah
Asghar has to say about it, the benefits of experiencing
what the poor in this world live through. I was not going
Allah (SWT) however, had different plans for me; and who is
the best Planner? That very night, as I nestle and snuggle
amongst the lavish linens of the five star hotel I am put
up, I dream of the two children frolicking in the filthy
waters of Govendhi. I awake but strangely, cannot fall
asleep again. I toss and turn amongst the bed covers; I
switch on the television, hoping it will lull me to sleep.
Nothing works. Who are these children? Why are they not in
school? Why are they so thin and in rags? Are they orphans?
They look obviously happy…. On and on and on. Strangely,
this dream reappears in my sleep the next day and I spend
another night tossing and turning, restless and disturbed.
And so it goes on for the whole week; my mind keeps me awake
with the thoughts of these two children.
When it is Saturday next and my day off, it is as if the
skies have decided to open up and it pours non-stop the
whole day and I stay in the hotel, thinking of Govendhi. So
I make a covenant with Allah (SWT), but I make a selfish
covenant, thinking I can outsmart Him. I promise Him that if
it stops raining tomorrow, if the sun is out, I will revisit
Govendhi and try finding the two kids and at least feed
them. Now, the chance of a bright and sunny day in the
middle of July in Maharashtra is equivalent of winning a
lottery jackpot. Well, almost. When I walk outside the hotel
after my workout and breakfast the next day, it is cloudy
all right and I smile, snug that I had won. But exactly at
that moment, the sun reveals itself and keeps on smiling its
hot rays on the humid air, making me sweat immediately
I cajole and promise my guide a hefty bonus if he would
leave his family this Sunday and accompany me to Govendhi.
He does not look too exited; I guess he is unimpressed with
my behavior from last Saturday. Money wins however, and off
we go to hunt for my two tormentors. I am better equipped
this time around, with my running shoes and a handkerchief
doused in perfume. We spend a couple of hours looking for
them and finally, when I am losing hope, we spot them very
near the pond, engrossed in making a living. When we
approach them, they scatter and run away, fearful. Much to
the annoyance of my guide, I dangle a fifty rupee bill from
my fingers and they return, cautious, but very interested.
We take them to a local restaurant and both demolish a heap
of greasy chicken biryani; I cannot believe such tiny people
had such appetites. When I offer them falooda after biryani
is over, their eyes light up with undisguised delight. The
falooda disappear in minutes; both wiping their glass bowl
clean. Over orange Miranda, we extract their life details.
Sakina is seven (she thinks, not sure) and Alireza six (he
thinks, not sure, both born in the slums of Govendhi and
have never been to school. Both were put to work supporting
their family of six by the time they could put razor to
slice rubber. These two scavenge scrap electrical wire off
construction sites and pull out its copper guts. The copper
would then be wound into a ball and if they have enough
(cricket ball size), it would earn them about ten Rupees.
This they would give to their paan guzzling father who would
in turn purchase a little rice and daal and their mother
would then feed them dinner, their only meal for the day.
Sakina is so thin, I can see ribs jutting out from her skin
through a rip on her dress and so is Alireza, who can not
sit still, constantly moving around in his chair, playing
around with the salt and pepper shakes or dipping into the
hot chutney container. I feel very sad for them, for I know
this is temporary and they will be out on the streets as
soon as we depart. I have sudden impulsive idea, I ask the
duo to take me to their parents, to their home. They look at
each other uneasily and balk. I reassure them, telling them
that I may help them but want to talk to their parents.
After some more debate, they escort us inside the slum, with
lanes getting narrower and the filth filthier. I see a girl
child, totally naked, nose running, wailing at the top of
her lungs with no apparent guardian around. I see two
children sleeping out in the open, near a stream in which
flow human feces…I make maximum use of my perfumed hankie.
We arrive at a small hut, similar to hundreds like it around
and enter a dark room; it takes me several seconds to focus
before I can see clearly. The hut has dirt floor, I notice
immediately, three charpoy beds occupy three corners of the
wall and the remaining corner has beaten up pots and pats
hanging from it. Clothes hang from strings strung across all
four corners and, a charcoal stove glows red and emits a
sharp acrid odor that begins to sting my eyes. On one of the
bed lie an emaciated looking aged woman, probably a
grandmother, who stares at me unblinkingly and follows me
with her eyes as I am made to sit on an empty charpoy. By
her side, fast asleep, is a tiny baby, looks newborn, with a
black streak of evil eye across her frowning brow. On
another bed, sitting cross legged is Mr. Shahed Rizwi, lord
of the hut. Rizwi looks as me suspiciously, does not offer a
handshake, but does wave my guide and me to the empty
charpoy. He looks very much like Sakina. I do not see Mrs.
Rizwi around. Sakina serves us water from dented tin glasses
but I decline and sip from my safer water bottle supply.
I ask Rizwi if he is well, but get the typical roll of the
head from the neck and baring of paan stained teeth for an
answer. I ask him why his kids are not in school.
“School”? He asks, surprised, as if the thought has never
occurred to him. “If I send them to school, who will bring
roti home?” he asks, gesturing with pinched fingers towards
I feel a sudden rash of irritation for this man so I
promptly and recklessly reply “You”?
My guide finds this very funny, for he giggles shrilly and
as quickly, covers his mouth, stifling it.
A flash of anger spreads across Mr. Rizwi’s face and he lets
out a string of protests; that he is sick, that his mother,
gesturing towards the old women, is old and sick, that he
cannot find decent work, that his wife has natal problems…
But I insist that education is important, that his children
will not stand a change in adult life doing what they did…
Mr. Rizwi shrugs his shoulders and exposes paan stained
teeth again “Allah’s wish…” he mummers. I honestly feel like
slapping him silly.
So I bribe him, this Mr. Paan Rizwi. Through my guide, I
promise him Rupees 300 a month to keep the kids in school at
the nearby Jafri English School . I also arrange to feed
Sakina and Alireza one hot meal a day. We arrange to get the
kids to school the next day; I take the Monday off. The next
day, I bring along a local social worker from Bandra mosque
and we take the children for a bath and Alireza for a
haircut. After the bath, both Sakina and Alireza have a
haircut, for we cannot comb through Sakina’s hair, they are
a mess of impossible tangles from years of neglect, so we
chop them off very short; she looks no different then
I will end the story here for this is getting too long for
the magazine perhaps. I do keep in touch with Sakina and
Alireza over the years.
Sakina, masha’Allah, turns out to be a brilliant student,
scoring above average marks all her school life. We enroll
her in computer programming studies after high school and
she excels here as well. She gets married in November of
2006, works for a multi national company as a computer
programmer, earning about US $1,200 a month. Sakina speaks
excellent English, one reason she secures the nice job
position. She moves away from Govendhi with her husband and
I am given the good news that she will be a mother this
Alireza does well, not as well as Sakina but reasonably
well, working as a sales representative for a mobile
company, earning about US $250 a month. He moves out of
Govendhi as well.
Mr. Rizwi still whiles away his time, talking to cronies in
Govendhi, consuming paan supplemented by Sakina, Alireza has
stopped giving him money but secretly gives to his mother
Mrs. Rizwi has three more children after the one I saw
sleeping by its grandmother. Mrs. Rizwi misses Sakina very
All other siblings of Sakina attend school; CAI supplements
their fees, Sakina helps out with food and clothing.
The grandmother passes away some years ago.
I tell this success story as it was my very first attempt
and alhamd’Allah, was a huge success. Contemplate the
results; for very little investment:
1. Two innocent kids were pulled away from the gutters of
2. Both got a decent opportunity to a decent education.
3. Both succeeded, pulled from the brink of poverty and
4. Both broke the cycle of poverty; for them and their
5. More importantly, both will ensure their kids are never
denied an opportunity for education.
CAI focus on education in India has paid off exceedingly
well, thanks to Allah and CAI’s very many donors and well
wishers. I am trying to repeat the successes in Afghanistan
, which is facing many more trails and challenges, more so
than India ever did. For more information, please visit
www.comfortaid.org and insha’Allah be motivated into action.
I hope Zainab is happy with this article.
On another note, happy and blessed mubaarak to all of you on
this joyful birthday of our Prophet Mohammed (S). I am on my
way to India / Afghanistan at the moment to audit / visit
CAI projects and inaugurate the new orphanage in Herat,
Afghanistan. Please pray for us all. Jazaak'Allah.
Yusuf S. Yusufali
Comfort Aid International