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Swirling Thoughts Abound

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Sarah by kashmircorps on June 27, 2010

Swirling thoughts abound: My journey to paradise on Earth

I stare at this blank page hoping to articulate my emotions as I begin my journey to Kashmir. I am on the Amtrak train from Washington D.C. to Newark airport. My flight leaves at 8PM tonight iA. I am hoping there are some good movies on the plane because it’s going to be a long ride to Munich, where I have a 10 hour lay-over.  I might attempt to leave the airport; we’ll see.

Back to the emotion, I am nervous and excited of the stories that will surely unfold. It’s crucial for me to take a step back and analyze my intentions here. With this trip to Kashmir, my intention is to be of service to the people I will be working with. I am not entirely sure what this will entail and I cannot fully express the level of uncertainty that I feel but I am excited, nonetheless.

Mountain ranges in the resort town of Gulmarg, Kashmir

The train is now going through the countryside of Pennsylvania. Beautiful. Everything is so green. It is soothing to the eyes. I wonder how soothing the beauty of Kashmir will be to the eyes. I’ve only seen pictures so I can only imagine. It boggles my mind to be surrounded by nature that has inspired poets for generations.

The process of packing for this trip was such a cleansing experience. This is the first time I have traveled abroad alone. I had to think about what was worth carrying thousands of miles and what was dead weight. I started viewing the world in the most minimalist of ways. I realized how much stuff I had and how much of it was unnecessary.  This trip is an opportunity in starting fresh, to rid myself of any excess baggage, quite literally and in the mind.

I am looking forward to meeting the INTACH team where I will be interning. They work on historic preservation, design and urban planning issues all around India. My project will focus on revitalizing Jhelum River. I wonder what my teammates will be like. I wonder what inspires them. I wonder how I can be of service. Most likely, I’ll end up learning more than I end up giving. I am really looking forward to the development of this riverfront project. I am interested in preserving the environment and creating spaces that work with nature in collaboration with the adjacent communities. For what I can tell, this riverfront project is just that. Our spaces impact the psyche. Disjointed community spaces reflect the disarray within us. I am looking forward to expand these thoughts.

This will be a journey to myself. This will be a journey to God. I pray that I am safe and that I am able to seize every opportunity. I hope I impacted by the inspiration of others. I hope I can be of service to my Kashmiri counterparts. I hope I purify my heart and see this trip as a chance to replenish, leading me on a path to the life I want to be living.

To my loved ones, thoughts of you are with me. I have pictures in my journal, written prayers and love in my heart for you all. I anxiously await my return to share my stories with you. Now, I am gonna’ get to it. 🙂

Sarah currently works at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, a think-tank doing research on water infrastructure, transportation and land use issues. She graduated in 2006 with a BS from the University of Southern California in public policy and in 2008 from UC Irvine with a masters in urban planning. While in Kashmir, she will be interning with INTACH, a historic preservation non-profit on a project focusing on the revitalization of the Jhelum riverfront.


“The country without a post office”

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Tabir by kashmircorps on June 24, 2010

I arrived in Srinagar on Monday but haven’t been able to share the events of the week until now. After about two days of traveling and experiencing 112 degree temperature in Delhi, I was so happy to finally make it to Srinagar. It is so beautiful here that it is truly difficult to put into words… and that’s why ill be posting pictures! (as I saw one tourists t shirt: “heaven can wait, I’m in Kashmir!”). Out of the four days I have been here so far, two days have been strike days, including the day I arrived.  I think the empty streets and closed businesses on my way from the airport immediately put into perspective for me exactly why I will be here this summer. Being here only four days, it is a simple fact, that there is no sphere of life that the conflict has not affected.

Local papers inform residents about the curfew

On the first day without strike, I was able to meet the Kashmir based contacts for Kashmir Education Initiative, the non-profit organization I will have the opportunity of working with this summer. My project entails traveling to several schools in the valley to visit and interview KEI scholars, young boys and girls who based on their need and merit have been supported through KEI’s scholarship program.

I was able to visit IMI (Iqbal Memorial Institute) Girls School today and meet with five extraordinary girls. All are KEI scholars with extraordinary intelligence and unfortunately equally as challenging circumstances. I’ve decided that I will dedicate my next blog  to a particularly special girl, Asma, a 17 year old girl from Kotibagh who left both Hafsa and I in tears. She really is special and I will start working on a little piece on her.

On a much lighter note, while shopping at “Pick and Choose” (I guess it’s like the walmart of Srinagar) with Hafsa, I tripped between the sidewalk and street and landed in the sewer. My entire leg was drenched in … I will leave that up to your imagination. Two Kashmiri boys started laughing at me (so much for kashmiri hospitality!), but then one quickly offered me water to clean myself off. It was really funny and disgusting at the same time.

The hypochondriac that I am, I immediately bought a kashmiri language book, which translates all the diseases and infections from English to kashmiri… just in case. The word for cholera is “voba”. =( I’m trying to learn as much Kashmiri as possible.

It has already been announced that tomorrow is a strike, but I am hoping I can spend the day planning my project and finally take that Shikara ride!

Tabir received her bachelors degree in Philosophy and Religion from Brooklyn College in 2009 and has since been doing research at the United Nations on topics concerning women’s reproductive and sexual rights. She will be working with the Kashmir Education Initiative to aid in developing evaluation measures for the organization’s scholarship program.

She is an American Lady – So Che Amrekee Khotoon

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Aya by kashmircorps on June 24, 2010

Watching the sun set on the Dal Lake

After a much anticipated exodus from hot… scratch that. From boiling New Dehli where temperatures reached sweltering levels, my brother and I arrived to Sringar airport.

Along with my arrival in Kashmir came my two bags, three young boys killed and four days of strikes.

But Kashmir greeted me with more than just conflict. I was embraced by a 360 degree-view of the most breathtaking mountain range hugging this beautiful city.

A sunset boat ride on a shikara had us drifting along Dal Lake. As the sky changed the mountains from green to orange to purple, the evening turned black. Unlike Cairo, where the city never sleeps, Srinagar seems to be on a self-imposed curfew. Possibly a remnant of the 1980’s and 1990’s militancy when the city was on constant curfew.

These days, at around 11pm, Boulevard Road, a Dal Lake popular spot for tourists and locals, goes from a vibrant place to stroll along to a quiet, soulless street.

The three major local English papers, Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and Kashmir Times, are the only viable conduits of information in times like these. They inform residents about city-wide strikes. Strikes that cost this city an estimated $6 million a day. Who loses? Kashmiris.

But if store owners want to defy the strike,they will surely feel the brunt of local pressure. Many here believe strikes are the only viable form of resistance and protest when Indian soldiers shoot at processions, which is how Javed died.

According to the local papers Javed Ahmed Mallah was in Srinagar to pay his respect and pray at the janaza, or burial, of his cousin who died of wounds sustained to his head the day before. His cousin was apparently walking in Old Downtown, Srinagar or what is often referred to as the “Gaza Strip” of the city, and at the same time some youth were clashing with the Army when he was inadvertently struck in the head.

The national Indian paper “The Times” mentioned the killings and strikes on page 4, in three graphs. Here is what they had to say about what happened:

Angry youth stoned security forces at Parimpora in Srinagar to protest the arrest of two youth. Residents alleged that cops thrashed them and ransacked their houses. The separatists had called the shut down to protest Srinagar youth Javaid Ahmed Malla’s killing. He was killed and five others were injured when CRPF troopers fired at angry protesters who attacked an armoured vehicle on Sunday

It’s pretty clear that the national media and local media are reporting from two very different lenses. It was also clear to me when I visited Kashmir University and met with the journalism students that becoming a journalist is actually cool among youth and respected among elders.

In fact, Kashmir University has found that the Journalism and Mass Communication majors are the most sought after now, above engineering and medicine. The journalism community here is vibrant with young, educated, elite men.  Men who are dressed in jeans and polo shirts.

The women, regardless of class or creed, adhere proudly to the shilvar kameesis of their mothers and grandmothers. Until I get my hands on one, I have been called French, Israeli and even Shakira!

I think it’s the curly hair. The tightly coiled, blond highlighted ringlets I confidently toss around.

“Me, Arab,” I tell the Shias of Old Downtown, assuming my curls are evidence enough of my identity.

As I’m driven away in a private car, jeans on, and digital camera in tow, I wonder at what point will people mutter under their breaths the obvious.

“So Che Amrekee Khotoon.” Kashmiri for, “She’s an American lady.”

Aya graduated from the University of South Florida with with a double-major in history and broadcast journalism in 2004 and earned her MA in Middle East Politics/Media Studies from SOAS, University of London, in 2007. She currently freelances for radio programs from Cairo, Egypt. Currently, Aya also teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and is working as a Senior Program Specialist for Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership scholarship in Egypt. While in Kashmir, she will be developing and implementing media workshops for university students.

It’s good to be back!

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Hafsa by kashmircorps on June 21, 2010

It’s good to be back.

Despite the $300 extra baggage fee on my flight from Amman to Delhi and a 10-hour layover at the Delhi airport, it’s all worth it when I step off the plane in Srinagar. My favorite transitional moment is hearing Kashmiri being spoken, as I’m not around it all that much back in the States. It’s one of those languages that is filled with such proverbial nuances that learning it as a second language would be quite the challenge.

The Dal Lake is one of the first sights visitors experience

In addition to improving my Kashmiri, I’m looking forward to my second summer as the director of the Summer Program. This summer holds great potential—our volunteers are working with three

new organizations—including the Kashmir Education Initiative, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and MercyCorps, in addition to continuing with our past partner, HELP Foundation. Some of the volunteers have already arrived, and a few are trickling in over the next few days.

I was able to visit the MercyCorps office a few days ago, and am incredibly impressed by all the work they’re doing in the fields of economic development and youth empowerment. They gave me an informative presentation on the main challenges to doing development/socially conscious work in Kashmir. What was interesting for me to hear was that one of the primary reasons for these challenges is based on perception—and relates to the psychological state of the people living in Kashmir during all these years of turmoil. There is a general culture of distrust, suspicion, and to a great extent, a lack of willpower to really make a change as people simply do not feel that any steps will make a positive impact.

Despite these challenges, I have hope that the younger generation in Kashmir is ready and poised to shake things up. From environmental issues to preserving local tradition, I think the youth (which makes up around 60-70% of Kashmir’s population) have and will continue to be engaged and involved. One of my personal goals this summer is to develop a broader network of local young changemakers.

Looking forward to keeping you all posted about our adventures this summer!

Cricket, Curry, and Chai

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Aya by kashmircorps on June 17, 2010

Cricket, Curry, and Chai

Aya at an ancient ruin in Delhi before the 2010 Summer Public Service Program

Cliche? Naturally, but this is India and anything goes. From the idols to the One God, this is a country full of beauty and integrity. I remember driving by a Hindu temple and taking a walk inside. Aside from the Kama Sutra and inter-sex acts engraved on the side of entry columns, my brother and I were quite respectful of the worship.

It seems this attitude of tolerance permeates from Delhi to Corbett National Park, north on the way to Kashmir. Along the entire drive there, minarets a block away from gold elephants appeared. In the midst were Hindu women in colorful saris holding on gracefully and sideways, in the most upright pilates pose I could ever master, on the backs of motorcyles and women in niqab traveling by foot.

After spending an afternoon in Corbett on a hunt for Bengal tigers, and actually spotting one, I spent part of the evening talking to a lovely couple.

The husband spent many years in the United States working for NASA and his wife was a botanist. While they were visiting St.Catherine in South Sinai, Egypt, she took a piece of the burning bush and found that it did not match the DNA of another plant.

She also explained to me that women here do not wear wedding bands. Rather, two rings. One for each second toe. The Hindu couple were reluctant to visit Kashmir when I mentioned to them they ought to visit because I will be there and they have never been.

They said there is some instability. That coming from her husband too, who was raised in Hyderbad surrounded by Muslims and a father who was a linguist mastering Farsi.

It seems there is still misconception about the peace and tranquility of North India. Or so that is the cliche I hope some good research, reporting and writing may show.

Aya graduated from the University of South Florida with with a double-major in history and broadcast journalism in 2004 and earned her MA in Middle East Politics/Media Studies from SOAS, University of London, in 2007. She currently freelances for radio programs from Cairo, Egypt. Currently, Aya also teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and is working as a Senior Program Specialist for Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership scholarship in Egypt. While in Kashmir, she will be developing and implementing media workshops for university students.

Welcoming KashmirCorps’ 2010 Volunteers

KashmirCorps would like to welcome this year’s fantastic Volunteers. The 2010 Summer Public Service Program is shaping up to be one of our most impactful and rewarding years and much of it is the result of the rich and diverse experiences our Volunteers bring forward. The summer is guaranteed to be challenging, but fulfilling and we would like to reiterate our commitment to helping this cohort of individuals achieve all their project goals, while they absorbing the beautiful landscape and rich history around them.

Friends, family members, and KashmirCorps supporters can follow the Volunteers and their work by accessing their individual names under Categories.

Stay tuned!

Gearing up for the 2010 Summer Public Service Program

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Message from the Board by kashmircorps on June 9, 2010

Thank you for visiting our blog! We would like to remind you that we are hosting our fourth annual Summer Public Service Program this month in Kashmir!

And as we are in our fourth year, we thank you for your support and encouragement throughout. Since 2006, we have matched nearly 30 volunteers and engaged passionate individuals in Kashmir to promote service and perform rigorous research.

Since 2006, KashmirCorps Volunteers have provided free anemia screenings for rural women, researched the impact of climate change in Kashmir, built a microfinance model for low-income fisherwomen on the Jhelum riverbank, and educated Kashmiri women on breast health and administered breast cancer screenings among other projects.

Throughout the summer, you can follow our dynamic Volunteers as they engage in innovative service projects and contribute to improving the livelihoods of underserved Kashmiris. More information coming soon on our Volunteers and the projects they will be gearing up for this summer. Stay tuned!


Posted in 2008 Summer Public Service Program by kashmircorps on July 14, 2008

I write this blog post from the comfort of an air-conditioned American airport, and while I enjoy being able to drink from the water fountain and not having to carry trash around in my pocket all day waiting to see a trash can, I must admit that I miss the flies. Swatting two in one swing off of a soldier’s back while waiting to board my flight out is something I’ll be able to smile back on for awhile.

Being in Delhi for those couple of days after our Agra-Jaipur excursion and before our return to Kashmir allowed me to fully appreciate Kashmir in a way that I really was unable to do in my first stint. First off, I could not thank God enough for the weather here after a couple of sweat drenched nights in Delhi. More so though I am appreciative of the beauty and serenity of the landscape, a great contrast to the crowded, polluted streets of Delhi and the endless cacophony that accompanies them. I remember remarking to Kashif and Hiba about how much more peaceful Srinagar was than Delhi, nearly completely amnesiac of being unable to leave the guesthouse premises due to the danger of being stoned or shot at just a week ago. Such is the schizophrenic nature of what I have come to know as Kashmir, pristine yet polluted, calm yet with a hot temper (kind of like me ;). Most of all though, I appreciate the kindness and sincerity of the people, and being stared at in awe for my height rather than being sized up for how much money I could be taken for. I appreciate standing out like a sore thumb but feeling like I am accepted and at home in Kashmir rather than being a stranger in a strange land in Delhi. Seeing the Yaqub’s grandfather come by on his bike to greet us out on the street with his weathered smile was a great feeling, I really hope that I will someday see him and his family again.

KashmirCorps part two has been awesome for me. Arif (yes, I’m finally spelling your name right) and I were able to get a lot of work done, finishing our ground work at Lal Dad and also setting up possible projects at the Children’s Hospital as well. Compared to Lal Dad, the Children’s Hospital felt like the Mayo clinic. It was significantly cleaner, though still a far cry from anywhere near acceptable by modern standards, and was a lot less crowded, as far as the halls go. However, when it comes to patient load, the Children’s Hospital is right on par with Lal Dad, also forced to carry multiple patients in one bed. Dr. Kanjwal hooked us up with some very helpful doctors and administrators in the hospital, and we were basically able to gather similar data that had taken us weeks and several visits at Lal Dad in essentially two trips down to the Children’s Hospital. We toured the hospital, which I might not have been able to stomach had I not been exposed to the conditions of Lal Dad two weeks earlier. I was not able to see the neonatal ward at Lal Dad to compare, but the neonatal ward at the Children’s Hospital was a sight for sore eyes, I can only imagine that the condition of Lal Dad’s is worse. Tiny newborns were lined three and sometimes even four to an apparatus intended to be used on a single baby. In one room, three babies were laid on an office desk since no proper bed or crib was available. Normally neonatal wards have very restricted access; anyone entering would need to be sterilized and scrubbed to protect the immune systems of the infants, and family members would only be able to look on through a window. However, due to understaffing, the hospital only has 2 technicians to run equipment that normally requires a staff of ten people, so the family members are allowed, perhaps even required, to attend to provide attention and care to the babies and assist in anyway possible. Overall we made good contacts at both hospitals and will hopefully be able to acquire and send some much needed equipment, but it is clear that major systematic changes are needed across the board for the entire Kashmiri health system.

We left Kashmir on very different terms this time, our terms. I did not sleep much on the last night. I sat awake while the rain poured outside, thinking about my experience and slowly packing, reflecting over all of the stuff I had, how little I appreciated it, and how much more grateful the Kashmiris were for what they had. How hard they had worked for whatever they had, and how little I had done for what I have in comparison. Even the things that I had with me that I was fond of, I knew there were people here who would appreciate them more and deserved them more than myself. I ended up leaving almost all of the belongings other than clothes that I had brought with me to Kashmir. I finished packing as the call for Fajr prayer came, just barely beating a power outage. I decided to catch one last prayer in the small mosque down the road. The walk down to the mosque was an eerie one, the storm clouds had blocked out the moon and the only light I had came from the periodic lightning strikes. After I was nearly certain I had missed the mosque and over walked, I finally made out the loudspeakers outside the mosque door. I can only imagine what the old muezzin was thinking as I stepped into the dim candle light of the prayer room, my 6’6” frame draped in a yellow plastic poncho to escape the rain. I stayed in the mosque for awhile, praying that we would not forget that which we had seen over the past few weeks and for help in fulfilling our intent to continue our work when we returned home. When I emerged from the mosque, the thunderstorms had given way to a rainbow. As I walked back to the guesthouse, I was amazed that I had been able to make it to the mosque with dry shoes, somehow avoiding the huge puddles all over the road the dirt road. I got to my room and went to sleep, hoping that I would one day be able to return to Kashmir, the place that has given me a glimpse of both heaven and hell on earth.

Last few days…

Posted in 2008 Summer Public Service Program by kashmircorps on July 11, 2008

The past two weeks have been an absolute rollercoaster. As mentioned in the previous posts, the political situation became a bit unstable because of the issue of the land transfer, and the volunteers left for Delhi. It was so frustrating being at home for over a week, and not being able to go out and get any work done. It really made me realize how difficult doing development work here can be–especially because it is inevitably linked to the political situation.

I was a bit broken-hearted when everyone had to leave in such a rush, but was glad that they were able to see different parts of India–especially the Taj Mahal, which I myself haven’t been to. I was mostly upset that we had gotten such a good start on all of the projects and just when we were really getting a hang of things and moving forward, everything was disrupted.

After a few days, the strikes ended and the land transfer order was revoked. One day the streets were empty, schools were closed, businesses were shut down…and the next day, traffic was back to its original madness, kids who were looking forward to a longer “vacation” from school were back in classes, and I was in total shock that things could go back to “normal” just like that.

Near the end of last week I got the good news that four of the interns were returning to finish up their projects! (Well, everyone tried to hide from me that Hiba was back but the driver blew her cover). I’m really amazed by their bravery and their committment to their work. So, since then they’ve been back at work. Arif and Amin visited the maternity hospital again, in addition to the Children’s Hospital. They were able to interview a few of the doctors to get a better idea of the needs of the hospital. Throughout the year, we’re mainly planning on figuring out ways to send specific medical equipment donated from the states to these two hospitals. I’m glad that now we have some local contacts who can better guide us as we move forward.

I’m here until Wednesday, mainly trying to tie up some things. I think we have a lot of material now for how to develop this organization further and figure out specific ways in which we can be of more assistance as students from the states. It is going to be challenging, as the past six weeks have proven. Personally, being here this summer has strengthened my resolve to continue to work towards the betterment of the people. I was very lucky to have such a great team on the ground—they had to deal with quite a bit of stress so many times, but dealt with everything remarkably well. I hope they learned a lot from this experience and am looking forward to working with them throughout the year.

When darkness turns to light

Posted in 2008 Summer Public Service Program by kashmircorps on July 7, 2008

The temptress that is Kashmir has lured me back again. Nearly a week after we were evacuated from the guesthouse at 5 am, a truncated group of interns are back to hopefully finish the projects that we have been working on for many weeks. On the way to the airport last week, I kept thinking to myself that it may be years until I see this place again. I thought I may never again see Hzartabal’s green hue twinkling over Dal Lake at dusk, or see a lone shikara bobbing in the distance as we drove on the long winding road that hugs the lake. Sometimes it feels so good to be wrong! So here I sit once again in the gazebo at the Shadad guesthouse which we all have come to call home trying not to let the colors and scenery distract me from writing the report which I will present to the people at J&K Bank by week’s end. I would just like to take this opportunity for a moment of written silence to remember all of those people who tragically lost their lives during the protests and those who continue to live in fear in parts of the area….

That being said, I want to give a shout out to the interns who could not make it back and I know if it could have turned out differently, we would have all come back together. But those who have made it back to Srinagar, are trying to make the most of the limited time we have. As I write, Arif and Amin are out and about getting interviews with doctors and nurses and hospitals in the area. Hiba is under the weather but I know she is looking forward to getting back to the orphanage ASAP to continue working with the students and finally, I am doing what I usually do; listening to music, playing air drums, and trying to properly word the report that Atif and I spent many hours collecting research for.
The happenings of last week give outsiders an idea of what the Kashmiri people have been through in the past and paint a very telling picture of how things need to change if Kashmir is to overcome its demons from the past. And even though I really love this place, it took a lot of convincing myself to be comfortable enough to come back and finish out the project. It is really sad to see that a large majority of tourists have left the area and the flight back yesterday was nearly empty.
I am really looking forward to getting back to work and seeing the people that have made my job easier. Whether or not the proposals that Atif and I have put together are implemented is yet to be determined but if we had not finished this project, I know I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. Mainly because Atif and I made a promise to the vendors at the market that we would do our best to have their demands heard by the powers that be and being back has given us the opportunity to do so. Atif may not be here physically, but I know he is here mentally and will continue to contribute to the report as best he can.
Finally, I would like to give a huge Thank You from all of the interns to Ashai Uncle for everything he did for us on that fateful morning. I know that personally, I am deeply indebted to him and appreciate what he did for us and all of the thank yous in the world would be an understatement. So now I will get back to work on this report and hope that the small amount of time I have put into this project will result in something substantial and initiate an interest in Kashmir that snowballs into permanent change and a return to glory of the Kashmiri people.