Pakistani-Americans in Orange County California helping Haiti

Reporting by Yvette Cabrera for The Orange County Register

On Sunday, as Newport Beach physician Salman Naqvi watched news reports out of Haiti – images of suffering and fear and chaos that defy imagination – he got an e-mail. It was from Todd Shea, an American Naqvi knows well. Shea has been working in Haiti since Friday, doing what Shea does – helping people in need. But the note, sent at 2 a.m., revealed some exhaustion and pessimism. Haiti, Shea wrote, is “one of the most tragic, toxic, difficult” environments he’s ever encountered.

And, for Shea, that’s saying something. Naqvi knows Shea because both have been involved in helping people in Pakistan – Naqvi’s native country – since 2005, when an estimated 73,000 people died following a 7.6-magnitude earthquake. Shea has been on the ground in Pakistan, while Naqvi has been part of a group of Pakistani-Americans in Orange County, who have helped finance his work there.

So, when he read the sad note, Naqvi remained calm. He says if anyone can handle the logistical nightmare of Haiti, it’s Shea. And, indeed, according to Naqvi, Shea’s work in Haiti has included tactics he’s learned in Pakistan.

An example: While most relief efforts so far have been coordinated out of Haiti’s flattened capital, Port-au-Prince, Shea initially landed, solo, in the neighboring Dominican Republic. From there, he rented a truck, filled it with water and any medical supplies he could get (disposable syringes, pain killers) and drove in to Haiti. Once there, Shea skipped Port-au-Prince and went instead to Croix-des-Bouquets, about eight miles to the east. Once there, he helped create a walled medical compound and hired Haitians to patrol it. And, in that manner, Shea has been supplying aid groups already on the ground – groups such as Partners in Health.

Meanwhile, in Orange County, Naqvi and Irvine resident Laila Karamally have been fielding calls from doctors and nurses who want to volunteer. They’re coordinating arrivals of American doctors, who Shea transports from the Dominican Republic to the compound. Once there, they treat patients in an urgent care facility comprised mostly of tents and open sky. Finding a way to make things happen is, according to Naqvi, “typical Todd.”

In his e-mail, Shea squelched rumors about the Dominican border being closed. It’s open by day, closed at night, Shea wrote. (He also explained how he’s befriended a Dominican Army commander at the border, and can come and go at all hours.) Shea, a burly guy with a friendly demeanor, is quick to disarm most people. But Naqvi, who made three aid missions to Pakistan after the quake, says he’s also seen Shea bluntly tell people – from prime minister to military leaders – what’s what.

The mix of tough kindness is effective in emergency situations. “In Pakistan I’ve never seen people work 24/7 in any organization the way they work in (Shea’s) hospital. And they do it happily,” says Naqvi, who visited the hospital last summer. “In Haiti, he’s probably already organized our logistical center so the medical camp is functioning like a well-oiled machine,” Naqvi adds.

When the Haitian quake struck last week, Naqvi said he and fellow board members of the quirkily named Sustainable Healthcare Initiatives Now Empowering, a.k.a. SHINE Pakistan, (they’re the locals who help finance Shea’s work in Pakistan), rallied behind Shea’s decision to fly to Haiti, though none of them is Haitian. They also backed his plan to set up 10 urgent care facilities around the periphery of the capital, to help those fleeing Port-au-Prince. The tragic images out of Haiti remind Naqvi of Pakistan – and that, in turn, reminds Naqvi that suffering knows no nationality.

“We can feel it… We’ve gone through it over there (in Pakistan),” says Naqvi, who wanted to get on a plane to Haiti last week, but has been delayed because he recently became an American citizen and has not yet received his passport from the government. Naqvi, a pulmonary critical care doctor, says his experience serving as an aid worker in Pakistan, his first disaster relief mission, changed his life view. Nothing, he came to believe, compares to the satisfaction of helping others in horrible circumstances.

“You can take the most expensive vacation, but you will not get that pleasure that you get from helping a single person, especially in a traumatic condition like what Haiti is in,” Naqvi says. “You’re helping many more with very little effort.” He plans to be in Haiti by early February. Going with him will be his wife, Farzana Naqvi, an endocrinologist, and his daughter, Sameen, a senior at University High School in Irvine, who has held bake sales to raise funds for the quake victims.

In the meantime, Naqvi and Karamally are making calls and firing off e-mails to friends, family, and supporters. They need $168,000 to keep the operation Shea has set up running for six weeks. “You can save thousands of lives with just basic water, basic infection antibiotics, basic wound care,” Naqvi says. “And that’s what the tragedy is.”

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