In little over a decade, one woman has touched the lives of thousands in Pakistan. Mehmudah Rehman finds out that Dr Mubina Agboatwalla has not only provided medical care to the underprivileged but an opportunity to define their future and the future of their children, too
The look in her pretty little eyes tugs at your heartstrings. It's an enquiring, beseeching look, one with an unmistakable touch of pure innocence. Nine-year-old Aisha is an orphan in the earthquake-stricken area of Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.
The place she once called home is now a pile of rubble, and her whole family, save her younger brother, was killed in the natural disaster that struck some time ago. Just when she thought there was no hope left, reassuring hands enveloped hers and gently led her to a safe and secure home that she never knew existed.
Aisha is one of the thousands of people who has been provided temporary accommodation, nutrition and medical care by a Pakistan-based NGO, Health Oriented Preventive Education (HOPE).
HOPE's foundations were laid 11 years ago by renowned Pakistani paediatrician Dr Mubina Agboatwalla.
It was while completing her clinical training at the Civil Hospital, Karachi, that Dr Agboatwalla saw a cruel, unforgiving side to life.
Hordes of people with little or no means of support would bring their relatives all suffering from preventable diseases. Seeing people die of illnesses most of which were caused by lack of hygiene, Dr Agboatwalla decided that she had to find a solution to prevent the occurrence of such atrocious maladies.
Surely there was a way to create simple awareness about health which would put a stop to all the unnecessary agony?
Together with a small group of volunteers, she set up the first operations of HOPE in a remote locality of Karachi, Manzoor Colony. The group, headed by Dr Agboatwalla, sat on a rickety charpoy providing free vaccinations and counselling sessions for all those who needed it.
Gradually, a clinic was set up and then a hospital. But it did not take long for the group to realise that the people needed more than just health awareness. "What they needed was a complete change of lifestyle; they needed sound education,'' says Dr Agboatwalla.
To start with, volunteers set up home schools, and the rest, as they say, is history. From a small group of helpers, HOPE has grown into an extensive organisation, with an international network of dedicated helpers and operations in the USA and Canada too.
In their quest to provide education and health facilities for the needy, HOPE found whole-hearted collaboration from the World Health Organisation (Who), Unicef, The Embassy of Japan, John Hopkins School of Public Health (USA), Centre for Disease Control (USA), Procter & Gamble (in Cincinnati and Pakistan), and The Rotary Club, among many other prominent corporations and philanthropists.
HOPE now has two formal schools, both in remote areas of the Sind province in Pakistan. Nearly a thousand children currently benefit from these establishments, while informal home schools in the interior of the province have also mushroomed. As of now, 4,000 children are being given primary education in these home schools. Education is also provided to older illiterate women.
Seeing HOPE's activities, one cannot help but admire the teamwork and dedication of the volunteers. They remind you of a well-knit family, each person performing his or her task with integrity. It is no wonder that the medical sphere has also seen remarkable growth.
The two community centres located in the slum areas provide services completely free of charge and have the latest medical facilities. Nearly 50,000 patients are treated in these centres every year.
Children's ailments and childbirth are given special attention and these centres even have their own blood banks. To date, 700 children have been treated for polio. HOPE plans to set up a centre in the underdeveloped regions of Baluchistan as well as in NWFP and in Muzaffarabad.
Another of the NGO's very important activities is providing vocational training to those people who have no skills, and therefore, no livelihood. By teaching them the English language, computer skills, and sewing and cutting, HOPE opens up new career opportunities, especially for women.
When disaster strikes
HOPE's activities in the earthquake-stricken areas of Northern Pakistan came at a crucial time when there was need for emergency aid. The powerful earthquake, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, killed about 82,000 people while nearly 3.3 million people were left injured or homeless.
Three years after the tragedy, HOPE still runs 55 health facilities in the affected areas, concentrating mainly on a nutrition rehabilitative project in collaboration with Unicef. Dr Agboatwalla regularly visits the stricken areas to oversee activites.
In the last week of June 2007, Dadu, a district in the interior of the Sind province, was affected by severe flooding that caused more than 100,000 people to be displaced. HOPE rose to the occasion magnificently and the direct beneficiaries were a staggering 46,774 people, mainly women and children.
A home for orphans
Destitute and needy children are often brought to the doorsteps of HOPE's centres. These children have nowhere to go, and more often than not, no family. HOPE provides shelter to these orphan children and has also set up an adoption centre to find suitable homes for them.
HOPE also creates awareness about clean water and the diseases that can spread with the consumption of contaminated water.
In rural areas, few people have access to potable water, and HOPE has started a campaign to provide quality drinking water to these people through a home-based system of chlorination. Personal hygiene is also encouraged, especially among children, to prevent diseases like diarrhoea.
Apart from that, HOPE is also working to promote the usage of safe syringes. The use of infected syringes can lead to HIV among other infections, and in collaboration with WHO, HOPE is spreading awareness among the people on this issue.
Dr Agboatwalla has lofty aims for the future. "I would like to see HOPE provide health and education in every corner of Pakistan by bringing these services to the doorsteps of the people in remote, inaccessible areas. This cannot be achieved alone and we at HOPE need as many people as possible to join the cause. "Towards this goal, we are planning to launch HOPE in Dubai by inviting like-minded individuals and organisations to join hands. This will be the first step towards our campaign."
A helping hand... For thousands of people who are victims of circumstances, Dr Mubina Agboatwala and her team of dedicated doctors, teachers and trainers offer a second chance in life by giving them an opportunity to learn new skills (left), receive medical care (top) and gain an education
Dr Mubina Agboatwalla with Sulaiman ... offering a mother's love to the little one.