Al-Imdaad Foundation
16 May 2011

“She said that she was shocked to find a woman in hijaab carrying out aid work in a refugee camp.” She was so taken with Ayesha’s dedication that she took numerous photographs and asked probing questions about Islam.

Dispelling the myths – Serving Humanity from Behind the Veil Ayesha Patel of Al-Imdaad Foundation By Fatima Bulbulia Within the last few weeks the world has seen France ban the hijaab. There are many angles to the situation but one gets the overriding sense that there is a strong sense of fear and simple lack of understanding of hijaab that drives this behaviour. I was strongly reminded of how misplaced these preconceived notions are when I sat down to interview Ayesha Patel, wife of Qari Ziyaad Patel. Projects Co-ordinator and Humanitarian Aid Worker for Al-Imdaad Foundation, she is a calm, composed, articulate, degreed woman who just happens to wear the hijaab. Alongside her husband, Ayesha has traversed disaster zones around the world in order to deliver aid and hope to people in areas affected not only by natural events such as earthquakes and floods, but also conflict and war. Having just returned from distributing Al-Imdaad’s relief aid to Libya, Ayesha is a perfect example of the fact that donning the hijaab is no indication of constriction whatsoever. As with all the other operations undertaken for Al-Imdaad, Ayesha and Ziyaad had to spring into action within a relatively short space of time. “We are registered as an NGO with the South African Department of Social Development as a relief organisation and we interact with the department of International Relations and Co- operation,” explained Ayesha, “and thus we are able to access their facilities to ensure we receive visas that facilitate being in a disaster area as speedily as possible.” Before leaving South Africa, Ayesha will ensure that she has all her own personal supplies. This will include a first aid kit, snacks and dry food in the form of canned food, noodles and chocolate (which she emphasizes is “essential”). She also takes along biltong which she says helps if there is no meat available. One of their priorities before they fly out is a visit to the doctor, where they will receive a cocktail of injections that covers a myriad possible diseases and infections. “On one trip we actually had about ten different shots but luckily this time it was just six,” smiles Ayesha. Having complied with all the initial formalities, the team, which included Ayesha and Ziyaad, flew to Jordan and then onwards to Tunis. From there they had a long trip that consisted of a two hour flight south east to a town called Djerba, which was close to the Libyan boarder. They then had another three hour trip, which found them smack in the middle of the Sahara desert in a small town called Ben Guerdane, where they set about finding accommodation. Ayesha recounts that the accommodation, where they were based for a week, was not at all bad except for the fact that they only had hot water for about half an hour each morning, and they did not serve any tea! “I am normally ok as I carry my own tea bags along, but on this occasion, unfortunately, they somehow got left behind,” recounts Ayesha. The team always ensures that one of the first things they do upon reaching a camp is to inform the UN that they have arrived. As Al-Imdaad is registered with the UN, it provides them with both information and any assistance they might need. Another important task that they always ensure is fulfilled is planting the South African flag. “We are always cognisant of the fact that we are representing South Africa,” explains Ayesha. Al-Imdaad’s primary 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. Camp Choucha was set up about three kilometers from the border, and was host to refugees from countries such as Somalia, Palestine, Bangladesh, Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast. Most of these displaced workers were illegal immigrants who had been working in the oil fields and construction industry in Libya. While more affluent Libyans had been able to find alternative safe accommodation, these workers were left stranded. While most of the refugees consisted of men only, the Palestinians and the Somalis comprised of families. This situation proved to be the area where Ayesha was most needed as she was a vital link to the women. Although the Al-Imdaad team were providing meals and shelter as is their primary focus, they realised there was a need amongst the families for other supplies as well. “The women are exceptionally strong,” says Ayesha. “They know they have to take care of their families as best they can. However, there were basic things that they needed that we tried to provide in the form of hygiene packs as well as baby 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 vouchers in order to allow them to receive the packs with supplies that would afford some relief to them.” As Qari Ziyaad notes, “Many times we find that the needs of women and children are unintentionally forgotten, but they have specific needs which need to be seen to.” Qari Ziyaad noted the amazing warmth of the Tunisian people and emphasises how important it was. It enabled them to provide aid more efficiently as they were able to work closely with those on the ground. The Tunisian military helped erect the Al- Imdaad camp, and they also had regular visits from UNHCR officials as they all attempted to assist the refugees to the best of their abilities. Ayesha says that it can be very heartbreaking to witness the conditions of people in disaster zones, but she never feels disillusioned. “I always make shukar for the fact that we are able to provide some measure of help and comfort, and always thank Allah (SWT) for the bounties we have.” Ayesha was a source of wonderment for one of the female Polish journalists that she met while in Choucha camp. Ayesha recounts, “She said that she was shocked to find a woman in hijaab carrying out aid work in a refugee camp.” She was so taken with Ayesha’s dedication 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. Ayesha notes that while she might find conditions a bit tough, she knows that she will be coming home to her comforts. 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 Ziyaad was to Indonesia some six months after the tsunami, where Al-Imdaad was setting up a village. “That basically set the tone for the years to come,” smiles Ayesha. It is inspiring to watch the fervour and enthusiasm that ripples across Ayesha’s face as she talks about her work. She displays a commitment, dedication and selflessness that is very rare to find. Ayesha emphasizes that working alongside her husband means that when things get too much for one of them to handle, the other is always there to provide moral support and be a sounding board. This remarkable woman confesses that there is one thing she misses dearly and is always really thankful for when she returns to South Africa- her comfy, clean toilet. “It is impossible to tell you how grateful I am for that when I get back home,” laughs Ayesha. As a testament to the premise that anything is possible and always achievable, it is worth noting that Ayesha’s mum was responsibile for her achieving status of hafeezah as well as home schooling her. Ayesha then followed this up with a B.Sc Computer Science degree through Unisa. Dispelling the notion that beneath the hijaab must dwell a confined, uneducated woman, Ayesha was, along with Ziyaad, accepted to Liverpool University 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 of some of our peers when I had to do a presentation,” says Ayesha. “They admitted that they thought it inconceivable that I could speak fluent English, let alone do a presentation!” She and 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. 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 says that when we are home we tend to get caught up in ourselves and our daily lives, and this is her way of giving of herself. She does stress the need to go in with a very clear objective and also the importance of debriefing when they return. Ayesha finds that talking within the organisation to the other aid workers is very therapeutic as well as having Ziyaad to lean on. “When we returned from Haiti, Ziyaad booked a holiday away with my family and it made a huge difference to our recovery, as we were able to just talk it all out with them. Although both our families do stress about us whenever we leave, they are very supportive,” says Ayesha. She adds that she loves cooking and that taking time out to bake is a good form of relaxation. Needless to say, I was blown away with the total dedication and commitment of this young 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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