Al-Imdaad Foundation
19 May 2011

Ayesha was a source of astonishment for a female Polish journalists that she met while at Choucha Refugee camp. Ayesha recounts, “She said that she was shocked to find a veiled woman alongside an aid agency assisting in the refugee camp.”

A veiled women alongside the Al Imdaad Foundation striving to serve humanity In recent days, the veil has come under scrutiny from different quarters. Veiled women maybe seen as oppressed but this is a notion that needs to be expelled from our global community. Women such as Ayesha Patel have made great strides in expelling this negative notion that has affected so many chaste women. Ayesha is an educated woman who also donns the veil. She was home-schooled in her home town of White River. At a tender age of 16, she completed the memorization of the Holy Quran under the guidance of her mother and then went on to complete a BSc degree in Computer Science from the University of South Africa through correspondence. All these achievements have been accomplished through the confines of her home. Alongside her husband Qari Ziyaad Patel, Ayesha has traversed disaster zones around the globe delivering humanitarian aid to victims of earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and even dangerous conflicts. Ayesha has just returned from another successful humanitarian mission alongside the Al Imdaad Foundation to the North African region. Ayesha is a perfect example of the fact that donning the veil is no indication of incapability, or failure. In fact, it is no constriction for serving humanity whatsoever. With the crisis unfolding in Libya, AIF sprung into action. As part of its procedures and protocols, the needs of women and children are always assessed in every disaster situation. Libya and in particular, the Choucha Refugee relief Camp on the border were no exception to this scrutiny and detailed assessment. Having complied with an array of formalities ranging from personal preparation to liasing with various authorities, the team, which included Ayesha and Qari Ziyaad Patel, flew to Tunis and onwards to the south eastern town of Djerba, which was close to the Libyan border. After undertaking another three hour journey, they arrived to the warm and friendly city of Ben Guerdane. “Post revolution, we were concerned about our safety knowing that Tunisia was the first country to initiate a revolution that caused a domino effect across the region”, explains Ayesha. “but through Almighty Allah’s favour, all went well and smooth.” The team always informs the UN of its arrival in any disaster zone and begins its checklist of important activities. As AIF is registered with the UN, it provides them with both information and any assistance they might require. Another important task that forms part of its checklist is erecting the South African flag. “We are always cognisant of the fact that we are representing South Africa and all South Africans,” explains Ayesha. Ayesha goes one step further and says, “as a veiled women, I say that I am also here to represent all those that have donned the hijaab. We too can make a difference in the lives of many affected victims. ” AIF’s prime focus is on immediate disaster relief, and this entails ensuring that meals and shelter are provided as soon as possible to those within the camps. In this instance, the team found themselves at a border point between Tunisia and Libya called RasAjdir. The Choucha refugee Relief Camp was set up about three kilometers from the border, and was host to refugees from countries such as Bangladesh Somalia, Eritrea, Palestine, Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast. While more affluent Libyans had been able to find alternative safe accommodation, these workers were left stranded with little or no belongings at all. In fact, many of the refugees came with just the clothing on their backs. The Palestinian and Somalian refugees comprised of families. This situation permitted Ayesha to be a significant link to the women and children residing at the Choucha Refugee Camp. Although the AIF team were providing hot meals and shelter as is their primary focus, they realised there was a great need amongst the women and children for other provisions as well. “The women are remarkably strong,” says Ayesha. “They know they got to be strong for their families. However, there were basic necessities that they needed that we tried to provide in the form of hygiene packs. It was very important for me as a woman to be there as I was able to gain access to the women, many of whom are also in hijaab. This ensured that I could assess their needs, and provide them with the necessary packs with supplies that would afford some relief to them.” As Qari Ziyaad Patel notes, “Many a times we find that the needs of women and children are unintentionally forgotten, but they too have specific needs which need to be seen to.” Ayesha adds that “women feel more comfortable interacting with women and this concept needs to be respected and facilitated.” The Tunisian people are extremely warm. The team was well received by all Tunisians. The Tunisian military helped erect the AIF base camp and AIF worked closely with the UNHCR as all role-players were tasked with the responsibility of assisting the thousands of refugees. Ayesha says that seeing the plight of victims in disaster zones and conflicts only makes one display more qualities of shukr and gratitude for the many ni’mats that we enjoy. “I was also taken aback by the sight of the Mount Merapi volcano which was the first time I experienced a volcano. It reminded me of the power and might of Allah Ta’ala.” Ayesha was a source of astonishment for a female Polish journalists that she met while at Choucha Refugee camp. Ayesha recounts, “She said that she was shocked to find a veiled woman alongside an aid agency assisting in the refugee camp.” She was so taken with Ayesha’s dedication and presence that she took numerous photographs and asked probing questions about Islam. This displays the positive impact Ayesha’s presence in the camp had not only on the refugees but on the aid community at large. This is yet another proof that veiled women also have the ability to be on the ground and make a positive difference in our societies. Ayesha notes that while she might find conditions tough, there is also a great sense of satisfaction. She does admit that she didn’t have a very clear idea of what life on the move would be like when she just got married. However, her first trip with Qari Ziyaad was to Indonesia some six months after the tsunami, where AIF had built a massive village for the tsunami victims. “That was a good initiation for me and set the tone for the years to come,” smiles Ayesha. Ayesha’s enthusiasm emerges as she talks about the different humanitarian missions she has undertook and the array of projects that she has been involved in. She displays a strong sense of commitment, dedication and responsibility which is very rare to find. As a testament to the premise that anything is possible and always achievable, it is worth noting that Ayesha was, along with Ziyaad, accepted to the Liverpool University in the United kingdom to complete a postgraduate Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance. The course only accepts a hundred candidates each year and these are drawn from aid organisations around the globe. This was another challenging path that Ayesha embarked on as she recalls that she was the only woman in scarf, let alone hijaab, on the course. “It was astonishing to see the shocked reaction on some of our peers when I had to do a presentation,” says Ayesha. “Dispelling the notion that beneath the hijaab must be a confined, uneducated woman, they admitted that they thought it inconceivable that I could speak fluent English, let alone do a presentation!” She and Qari Ziyaad did find that there was a huge interest in the niqaab at the university where there was more curiosity rather than hostility. Last year the couple completed the advanced diploma in Milan, Italy. In addition to those degrees, Ayesha and Ziyaad have also completed Sphere Project training through the UN, which teaches organisations how to set up camps and sets out a charter of minimum requirements that organisations need to adhere to. As Al-Imdaad is registered with the UN, they are an affiliate and also able to do the training themselves. While Ayesha says the work she does is absolutely fulfilling and she appears to handle it with an amazing sense of strength and composure, she admits that that there can be some exceptionally trying times. She cites Haiti as one of the most difficult she has encountered. “We reached Haiti very soon after the earthquake and the conditions were really tough. There were bodies strewn everywhere, no supplies and a huge language barrier. We ended up staying there for eight weeks during which time Ziyaad got extremely ill and was almost in a coma. It was scary to be faced with such an uncontrollable situation but shukar we made it through,” remembers Ayesha. When I quizzed her as to what keeps her going back, Ayesha replied that she feels that in a small way she is doing something for the Ummah. She also says that she feels it as an inner obligation to let the world know that veiled women are also quite capable in a world that has really not given them a chance. I must admit that I was blown away with the total dedication and commitment of this young veiled aid worker who is proving that, more often by our actions, rather than words, can we dispel the negative notions that abound around not only hijaab, but also Islam as a whole.
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