Archive for November 30th, 2010

Pakistani Peace Builders Turn Cultural Diplomacy to Flood Relief

By Carrie Loewenthal Massey for America.gov

When Pakistani Americans Mahnaz Fancy and Zeyba Rahman launched Pakistani Peace Builders ( PPB ) in May, they did so to bring Pakistani music and heritage to American audiences. An independent cultural diplomacy campaign, PPB aimed to counteract stereotypes and misperceptions of Pakistanis that Fancy and Rahman saw becoming more prominent.

“The only way we know how to make a difference is to show the other face of Pakistan,” she added. “We as Pakistani Americans are very concerned about being misread and misconstrued.”

Exposing Pakistan’s rich cultural roots “is a really important way of explaining that the fundamentalists are a minority,” Fancy said.

In July, New York City delighted in a celebration of one aspect of Pakistani tradition at PPB’s first event, a hugely successful festival of Sufi music. Nearly 25 musicians representing different regions of Pakistan performed a free, outdoor show in Union Square, one of the most popular public spaces in Manhattan.

“It was an unbelievable experience. … People needed some way to feel good about themselves as Pakistani Americans,” Fancy said.

And then the floods came.

PPB immediately added a humanitarian angle to its cultural mission following the devastating floods that struck Pakistan in late July, killing 1,800 people, affecting more than 20 million others and destroying crops across the country. Building on the momentum generated by the Sufi festival, the PPB partnered with ML Social Vision, the venture philanthropy arm of Washington-based ML Resources, to start Relief4Pakistan, a grass-roots effort to mobilize funds for relief in the flood affected areas.

“As we were wrapping up the concert and the floods hit, I just kept getting phone calls from people all over [the United States] saying, ‘What do we do? How do we respond?’” said Fancy. “People had ideas of packing food and sending it. [The pace] was insane in that initial moment.”

To give donors some direction, Relief4Pakistan sends donations to Mercy Corps, a Seattle, Washington-based nongovernment organization. Mercy Corps has an established reputation and experience on the ground in Pakistan, according to Fancy. Some of Mercy Corps’ efforts include providing safe drinking water, setting up water filtration units and distributing food and relief materials.

Using Facebook and personal networks to encourage support and raise money, Relief4Pakistan has raised nearly $150,000 in aid since August.

“We’ve had donors from all over the place. We’ve had friends hosting events and sending the proceeds,” Fancy said.

Celebrity endorsements have helped bring in funds as well. Aasif Mandvi, an Indian-born, British-raised comedian and cast member of the popular U.S. television program The Daily Show, hosted a stand-up comedy night to benefit Relief4Pakistan, and Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir — whose credits include Iron Man ( 2008 ) and Star Trek ( 2009 ) — has also joined the campaign.

Relief4Pakistan’s second phase of flood assistance launches in November with a major reconstruction project. The effort will focus on Bangla Ichha Union Council, a four-village area in the Rojhan subdistrict of the Rajanpur district in southern Punjab. According to Fancy, 95 percent of the 40,000 people living in the villages depend on their own crops for sustenance, and their fields remain ravaged by the floods.

“Our first goal is to plant at least 1,000 acres of wheat by the end of November. We want to raise money to get seeds and fertilizer for some of the most vulnerable people, those that own less than five acres of land,” Fancy said.

To complete the project, Relief4Pakistan is partnering with Operation USA, a Los Angeles–based relief agency that “shares our philosophy that development ought to be done by empowering the local community to learn skills and develop a sustainable strategy to take care of themselves,” explained Fancy. Relief4Pakistan and Operation USA are reaching out to local Pakistani organizations to tap their resources and train the community members in necessary skills.

Relief4Pakistan will raise funds through Facebook again, but has also already engaged a wider circle of American philanthropists, Fancy said. Their goal is to build a sort of global village, a network of people worldwide coming together to help, and Fancy hopes the model of “the power of a global village” will set a precedent for other successful relief efforts.

“We’re really riffing off of [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton’s ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ … Our overarching goal is to appeal to the humanity of the wider donor public,” said Fancy. “It takes effort from Pakistani Americans and Pakistanis in other countries … it’s the responsibility of each member of this global village.”

At the height of its flood relief efforts, PPB has not forgotten its mission of cultural diplomacy. In fact, much fundraising continues to come from film screenings, art exhibitions and comedy performances showcasing the talents of Pakistani artists.

“Part of our cultural mission is using culture to humanize [Pakistan] and at the same time putting it into action through these much needed flood relief efforts,” Fancy said.

PPB plans to hold more cultural events beyond those dedicated to flood relief. The organization would like to hold the Sufi music festival annually, expanding it to include artists from other South Asian countries.

“[We want] to show what Sufism is in other parts of the world. Pakistan is a microcosm of a larger issue, which is the whole Muslim world,” Fancy said. “Muslims in [South Asia] have been remarkably liberal and secular in comparison to what people think they are.”

Through PPB, Fancy, who is 41 years old, will keep working to transform the younger Pakistani-American generation’s misconceptions of the Muslim world.

“I find it so distressing that people of our parents’ generation know much more about Pakistan than our generation,” she said.

And she worries that the knowledge the younger generation has gained from the media has left it grossly misled about Pakistani and Muslim identities.

“This sense of being primitive and tribal is not the true modern history of this part of the world,” Fancy said. “It’s only true of the minority that has taken the loudspeaker and is misbroadcasting lots of things they think are collective traits [of Muslims], but they’re not.”

( This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov )

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