Jewish Journal

American Jews begin response to Pakistan floods

by Jonah Lowenfeld

Posted on Aug. 22, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Peter Biro/International Rescue Committee

Peter Biro/International Rescue Committee

The monsoon rains that flooded Pakistan’s northwest region started nearly a month ago and have killed more than 1,000 people. Millions more are homeless. Roads and railways have been damaged, along with schools and other civic infrastructure. The impact on the country’s crops is still being calculated and could run into the billions of dollars. And although heart-wrenching pictures of Pakistanis wading through waters have been on the front pages of newspapers for a couple of weeks, aid from Americans, including from Jews, has only just begun to arrive.

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) both responded within 24 hours to the earthquake in Haiti this past January. The two groups took longer in the case of Pakistan: Each organization put out an appeal for donations just last week.

American Jews are now responding to the call. AJWS, which has been working with grassroots organizations in Pakistan for years,  by the end of last week had raised $42,000 and is delivering aid bags with food, water, pots, pans and clothes to families in the region, sufficient to sustain families for up to 10 days. JDC has also worked in Pakistan before—it responded to earthquakes that hit the region in 2005 and 2008—and the organization has allocated $20,000 from its revolving disaster relief fund, which it plans to use to distribute medicines and other supplies. It hasn’t yet raised enough to cover that amount, but officials hope to meet or exceed the goal as their campaign progresses.

“Checks take time to come in, “ said Will Recant, assistant executive vice president in charge of international development at JDC. “Not everything is done electronically, and a lot of what we do is done through federations.” American Jewish Committee contributed an undisclosed amount from its humanitarian fund to the JDC effort, and a spokesman for the group said it is encouraging donors to give to JDC directly.

How much people donate can depend heavily on media coverage of a disaster. “The biggest challenge right now is that this has been going on for two weeks, and the media is just now starting to pay attention,” AJWS spokesman Joshua Berkman said, adding that coverage of Pakistan’s floods has paled in comparison with attention immediately given to the Haitian earthquake. “Those images, it was nonstop for weeks. People knew what was going on. They saw the images; they felt connected. That hasn’t really happened in Pakistan,” Berkman said.

Larger non-sectarian American aid organizations are also reporting a slow response to the Pakistani flooding. “Haiti is the obvious comparison. This response is far slower,” said Susan Kotcher, vice president for development at the International Rescue Committee. Kotcher said the IRC, which made its first calls to donors on July 29, is now getting hundreds of daily donations for Pakistan and has raised a total of $1.4 million from individuals in the U.S. By contrast, in the first few days after the earthquake in Haiti, the group was getting thousands of donations each day, and raised over $4 million in the first two weeks.

Some, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have attributed the slow response to the economic hardship facing the U.S., as well as a feeling of fatigue among donors who have contributed to other recent relief efforts. Others say the slow response may be caused by the fact that the devastation from floods, unlike earthquakes and tsunamis, develops over time. The ravaging of Pakistan grew slowly, and the effects are still developing. “Its destructive power will accumulate and grow with time,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But others suspect political factors at play. “I can’t help but have my suspicions,” said Edina Lekovic, communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “The first media coverage that I saw about the floods had more to do with whether the victims were going to rely on extremist groups for aid and relief,” Lekovic said. She was referring to news stories reporting that Islamic charities with connections to terrorist groups were distributing aid to people in flood-affected areas. “That their basic humanity and suffering comes second to questionable aid sources is insulting, and misses the point,” Lekovic said.

The slowness of the global response is also being noticed in Pakistan. “Many right-wing organizations have been raising their voices over the slow response of Americans to the disaster,” Aoun Sahi, a journalist in Lahore, Pakistan, wrote in an email. “Many of them have been comparing the response of Americans to the Pakistani tragedy with the one faced by Haiti, and have been trying to make it a religious issue.”

The aid from the U.N., U.S., and Europe ,in addition to being insufficient to meet Pakistan’s needs, is “being portrayed both by media and some American officials” as a way “to counter the charitable activities of the banned Islamic aid organizations and militant outfits,” Sahi wrote. “This notion has been demonizing the American aid efforts.”

Asked what might account for the slowness of the Jewish response to the Pakistani floods so far, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Temple Valley Beth Shalom responded, “I don’t think that is an anti-Muslim deal. I think it’s a deeper question of overload.” Schulweis said that American Jews have witnessed existential threats being made against them as a people, particularly (although not exclusively) by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “That may account for hoarding of energy to direct itself to the particular,” Schulweis said. “If I’m scared that somebody is threatening me, I’m not going to listen to the cries of the neighbors.”

“That’s too bad,” Schulweis added, “because in the course of that parochialism, we lose one of the most uplifting values in Judaism itself, which is to be a light unto the nations.”

Rains are expected to continue in Pakistan through mid-September, and the dimensions of the crisis are still growing. But no matter what quantity of aid ultimately makes its way from the American Jewish community to Pakistan, only some of the beneficiaries will know that they are being helped by Jews.

AJWS works with small groups doing community development in 36 countries around the world. “Unfortunately, Pakistan is one of the countries, due to security reasons, where we don’t disclose the names of our grantee organizations,” Berkman said. He told of one organization supported by AJWS that is providing clothing and scarves to women whose belongings were washed away by the floods, but would not give the group’s name.

“We have to keep a very low profile for the safety and security of the organizations,” Berkman said.

JDC, by contrast, requires that its beneficiaries announce the source of the funding, no matter where their projects are located—which is why there’s an ambulance in Haiti with the JDC’s name on the side of it. “I have a letter from former [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf,” said Recant of JDC, “thanking the Jewish community and the [JDC]” for its help establishing a village in the aftermath of Pakistan’s 2008 earthquake.

JDC often works with other large international nonprofits like the International Rescue Committee and the Clinton Global Initiative, which makes printing the words “American” and “Jewish” on the sides of water tanks and buildings less problematic. The question of how to announce the provenance of donations, however, is not unique to Jewish organizations. Los Angeles-based Operation USA has had issues with its name, too. “We have had instances where we’ve worked with local partners where we’ve not had our name on [the project],” said Alison Deknatel, Operation USA’s director of communications.

Operation USA, which has so far raised $7.9 million in donations and in-kind contributions for Haiti, and has been working in Pakistan since the 2005 earthquake, has seen very little contributed for Pakistan in the wake of the ongoing flooding. Deknatel said she can’t say what exactly has been keeping people from contributing. “It’s hard to know exactly. It could be donor fatigue. It could be general unease with working in that region,” Deknatel said. 

In light of the dire situation, Sahi said he believes Pakistanis wouldn’t object to receiving aid from the U.S., “but there will be some problems with the word ‘Jewish’ if printed on clothing especially,” he wrote. “It will not be easy for them to accept aid from Jewish groups from Israel, but they will be OK with American Jewish groups’ aid.”

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles said she knew of no aid that has gone from Israel to Pakistan during this crisis, and could not comment on whether any had been offered. Israel was widely recognized for the medical services it sent to Haiti after the earthquake.

“I think this is good opportunity for different Jewish groups to establish links with some Pakistani groups,” journalist Sahi added, from Pakistan.

One organization that has been very successful in its fundraising efforts for Pakistan is Islamic Relief USA. The group has raised over $2 million from an appeal that began July 30. Part of a 25-year-old worldwide network of relief organizations, Islamic Relief USA responds to disasters all over the world (they worked with the Church of Latter-Day Saints to respond to the Haitian earthquake); its biggest effort came in the aftermath of the war in Gaza in 2008, when the group procured and distributed more than $3 million worth of medical, food and other aid.

The group’s vice president is in Pakistan helping with the aid efforts, and it’s clear where he’s coming from. “Our logos are on the products that we send over, so people in Pakistan know that there is an American Muslim group there helping with relief efforts,” said Islamic Relief USA spokesperson Rabiah Ahmed.

And the timing of the disaster has actually worked to increase the responsiveness of Muslim donors. Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, began on Aug. 4, and Iftar,  the nightly meal at which Muslims break their fast, is often a group gathering, providing a natural forum for fundraising.

Zakah, a central tenet of the Islamic faith that requires one to give about 2.5 percent of one’s wealth to those in need, is also acting as a catalyst to fundraising. Ramadan, Ahmed said, is considered a more blessed season in which to give Zakah. “Many of the donations that we’re getting for the flood has been from people giving Zakah money,” Ahmed said.

To help support the relief efforts in Pakistan, please visit the websites of any of the below organizations:

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

American Jewish World Service:

International Rescue Committee

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