Yousuf Bashir Qureshi, a Pakistani fashion designer with twinkly eyes and an easy smile, sports a knee-length white tunic, magenta pink wrap-around lungi, thick silver bracelet, and earthy brown Crocs. He welcomes me into his clothing warehouse in Miskeen Gali, Karachi where garments dyed in festive hues hang against eggshell-white walls. “In my work, you will find my heritage — the Indus Valley civilization — but you will also find a lot of the United States because that’s where I was trained,” explains the father of three who attended the University of Nebraska and spent over a decade living in the United States. When not brainstorming new styles for his clothing collection, Qureshi divided his time between teaching courses on fashion design at Indus Valley College and running an organic farm. However, all that changed in August 2010 when the first wave of torrential rains hit Pakistan.
Immediately after the floods began, Qureshi convened nine of his friends for an emergency meeting at 3 a.m. to devise a plan of action. “None of us had any faith in the government,” explains Qureshi who returned to his native Pakistan five years ago after working in New York City and Los Angeles with the likes of Sheryl Crow and Patrick Swayze. “We knew we could not rely on the government, but had to rely on ourselves.” Qureshi and his friends began partnering with local relief organizations, manning a hotline for marooned flood victims, appealing to the international media for sustained coverage of flood damage, collaborating with LifeStraw to provide water purification systems, and collecting donations from philanthropists. Qureshi sent out a personal appeal to his family and friends: “please come under one flag—the Pakistani flag—and for the sake of humanity.” Soon, Qureshi and his team had launched “United Pakistan” with the tagline, “Rescue, Relief, Rehab, and Rebuild.” He transformed three empty warehouses into storage spaces for relief supplies and converted his artists’ commune into an auction room where photographers, painters, and sketchers donated their work for charity.
Qureshi put his design business on hold and personally traveled to regions badly impacted by the floods to survey the damage first-hand. The squatters were afraid of losing their land and belongings, especially their cattle,” said Qureshi. “They would not leave even after three-fourths of their village was already flooded. In the north, the water rose with such speed and in three days we had 10 feet of water because the dams broke.” He continued, “We traveled on roads that were halfway collapsed and submerged. We waded through water in which people were urinating and defecating to reach out to stranded people and tell them where they could find help.” Now that major evacuation operations have ended, Qureshi is focusing his attention on the thousands of displaced people who have set-up tents near the major highway connecting inundated areas of Sindh Province to the commercial heartland of Karachi. “The refugees are hoping people driving on the highway will help them, but the situation is dangerous because there are no street lights, the highways are broken, and trucks don’t turn their headlights on,” explained Qureshi.
United Pakistan set up base camps in areas impacted by the floods and began distributing food, water purifiers, and medicines. “We have limited resources so we first set up camps for 10-15 people, registered them, gave them medical check-ups, mental help, and assistance.” He added, “At first, we were worried about a mob situation when distributing goods so we had guards on hand. But we soon realized that these people have lost their homes, not their dignity.”
According to Qureshi, raising funds for flood victims was the easy part, especially since the floods occurred during the month of Ramadan when, he explains, “whatever good you do is the multiplied many times over.” He added, “Even if it was not Ramadan, you must remember that the people of Karachi have an amazing heart. People here are not bad; we’re the nicest people around, and we’re always very helpful.” Friends, family, and strangers donated everything from children’s toys to baby clothes to make-up kits. “We had to tell people not to send chocolates because they would melt,” said Qureshi. “Women in Karachi bought out entire grocery stores shortly after the floods to send food to remote northern regions.” He added, “We still need maternity [supplies], but fortunately we have many of the basic needs met in our camps.” Qureshi estimates that his organization has helped 10,000 families although there’s no way to verify the number.
For many affluent Pakistanis such as Qureshi, the floods exposed them to the true extent of poverty in their country. With one in four Pakistanis below the poverty line, Pakistan is sharply divided between the extremely rich and poor. One of the greatest and, perhaps, most disturbing paradoxes of the flood is that it upgraded the living standard of millions of displaced Pakistanis from the poorest rural regions. Camps such as the one set up by Qureshi provide adequate shelter, food rations, and health check-ups for people who rarely went to bed on a full stomach or met a doctor before the floods occurred. “There are hundreds of thousands of poor people in Karachi living under the gutter line who get flooded each time it rains, but nobody remembers them,” said Qureshi. “I have helpers in Karachi who tell me they have never seen goods like [the ones people have donated to flood victims].” He continued, “One of my helpers in Karachi actually told me, “I pray to God for floods so we can have such things too.”
Qureshi hopes that Pakistanis will take a hard, honest look at their country even after the flood waters recede and address the chronic poverty in their midst. “We are just like the floods, we come with a rush and then leave with a rush . . . this is a long-term process and the media needs to keep on top of this story,” siad Qureshi. “This is our country, our land . . . this is the only opportunity Pakistan has to rebuild our country.”
Ayesha Tammy Haq, a Karachi-based columnist and television talk-show host, applauds the efforts made by local Pakistanis like Qureshi, especially since she has little faith in the international community. “Everyone [outside] sees Pakistan as the country of guns and beards, so it’s not going to induce people to reach into their pockets and give generously,” said Haq. “The government and private sector must collaborate. We need systems that are transparent and audited.”
Yet, Haq admitted that civil society initiatives can only go so far in addressing systemic problems such as closing the wealth gap that has left Pakistan’s rural poor at the mercy of magnanimous urbanites. “We need to look for political solutions. A lot of people have asked can the floods change society, but there are structural problems in this country that we have to address first: feudalism, inequality . . . maternal mortality is too high, land reform is needed because agriculture is the mainstay of the county . . . many people have taken loans from landlords and they aren’t going to be able to repay the loans because the crop failed and they will be made into bonded labor. It will be a full two-years before the crop cycle is coming back. How are people going to buy rice without money?” She added, “The country is in a disaster, but if you’re living below the poverty level it’s not going to make a huge difference if the roof falls. Haq concluded, “You’ve got to deal with the government because civil society isn’t equipped for long-term [sustainable] solutions.”