By Suleman Ahmer – CEO and the Lead Facilitator of “Timelenders”, a management consulting and training firm
Two weeks ago, I was in a TB sanatorium for orphans at Kofar Nihon, a small town ten miles from Dushanbe, the capital of war-ravaged Tajikistan. As I entered one of the wards, Sham-e-Gul dragged herself to the corner of the bed and sat up. Like many others around her, TB had wasted her legs. I found her in pain and with no relatives at her side to console her. Her brother used to visit her twice a month. Sham-e-Gul was only six years old.
The staff and the children of the sanatorium were Sham-e-Gul’s family. She missed Daulat Shah, another six-year-old, who was sent home when some relatives visited a few weeks ago. “There is nothing more we could have done for Daulat Shah,” said Dr. Nazir Rahimov. “We figured at least he would have a home and hopefully adequate food in his last days.” Sham-e-Gul was not told why Daulat Shah had left suddenly. She was too young to understand.
During the Soviet era, orphans who had TB were admitted to the sanatorium. When the war broke out, Kofar Nihon came under heavy fighting. People fled the area, leaving a skeleton staff that battled to keep the damaged facility running. With no electricity and an acute shortage of medicine, food and money, the orphans had nowhere to go. The sanatorium became a death trap, as the symptoms of TB grew worse. Soon, the children started dying. I found thirty-two children there, between the ages of six and fifteen. Most had been there for the last five years and many with advanced TB.
The four long years that BIF (Benevolence International Foundation) had worked with the Tajik refugees in northern Afghanistan came to an end in the summer of 1997. By the Grace of Allah (swt), the Communist regime in Tajikistan gave in and signed a peace agreement with the Muslim opposition, ending more than four years of bitter conflict. This was a great victory for the Muslims as they now controlled around fifty percent of the territory and were partners in the newly-formed coalition government.
The Tajik refugees from the neighbouring countries had returned to their homes with dignity. Now we could concentrate on projects in Tajikistan that badly needed our assistance like the sanatorium in Kofar Nihon. With the blessings of Allah (swt) and Muslims, we were determined to turn things around in Kofar Nihon. We could, Insha’Allah, initiate surgeries, which were long overdue, provide proper medicine, food and hygiene, fix the building and heating and provide decent salaries for the staff. For Daulat Shah we were too late, but for the remaining thirty-two children, we still had time.
As I was leaving, I gave my pen to Sham-e-Gul to cheer her up. This was the least I could have done. She had smiled and the thought of it still warms my heart. With the pen, I also gave her a silent promise that I would leave no stone unturned to see that she and the other children got a decent chance at life.
Eleven months later…
As I approached her bed, Sham-e-Gul woke up and squinted – it was a bright day and sunlight was streaming into the ward form the large windows. The startled look in her eyes slowly changed to recognition.
I had first met her in Kofar Nihon, a village fifteen miles from Dushanbe, almost a year ago. She was the youngest of thirty-two children with advanced TB in a war-damaged hospital. With no electricity for seven years, no heating, shortage of staff, food and medicine, the children – many of them orphans with no place to go – had started to die. I had given her my pen with a promise that I would leave no stone unturned to see that she and the other children got a decent chance at life.
Now, eleven long months later, I looked around the brightly-lit ward of neatly lined beds with clean linen. I could smell the freshly painted walls. Fifteen children slept peacefully. Now there is no shortage of food or medicine. The repair on the wrecked heating system has started, which means heating for the hospital for the first time in five years. I could hear the clamour of the workers repairing the remaining part of the hospital.
It had been a struggle. Within a month of my return from the last trip, we had moved our staff from Afghanistan to Tajikistan and recruited new officers, including Dr. Nazr-ul-Islam, a surgeon from England. With Kofar Nihon continually under heavy fighting, we shifted our focus to a similarly neglected hospital in relatively safe Dushanbe – only to find what relative safety meant when one of our officers was shot and killed. We decided not to give up.
Taking the hospital from the Ministry of Health, we started the repairs. BIF started to provide food, medicine, lab facilities, salaries and the operating costs. We served fifty-two children with TB between the ages of three to fourteen years.
I asked Sham-e-Gul about the pen that I had given her. She broke into an embarrassed laughter: she had lost it.
By the grace of Allah (swt) – and to the astonishment of the doctors – she recovered from her paralyses. I believe it had more to do with the prayers of the Muslims, who had come to know her, than medicine. I asked her if she could walk for me. When she nodded, I helped her out of bed. She hesitantly took the first step and slowly walked the length of the room.
I handed her the picture that I had taken with her the previous year. She held it in both her hands for a few moments, then looked up and studied my face carefully, as if confirming whether I was indeed the same person. She said she wanted to keep the picture and asked me not to leave. I was saddened as I didn’t know where her parents were or whether they were alive. I promised her that I would come again.
I walked out with tears of gratitude to Allah (swt) and the Muslims who, by their generosity, helped me fulfill a promise made in a far-away, war-ravaged land to a seven-year-old ill girl – Sham-e-Gul.
Adapted (with permission) from “The Embattled Innocence.” Compiled for “Hiba” by Laila Brence.