Tommy’s: the baby charity

As the Christmas trees are slowly de-baubbled and brought down, and the festive lights that adorn homes, shops and streets are switched off and tucked away for another 11 months or so, I find myself reflecting about the commercialisation of the holidays. In 2017, I was one of the guilty ones who hit the Boxing Day sales from early morning on 26 December, on the hunt for anything and everything that I could buy for my adorable baby niece Ayzah. Considering that I am not fond of shopping – even for myself – at the best of times, this was a record-breaking feat for me. Of course it goes without saying that I consider it to be a demonstration of the pure love that I have for my darling little girl, whose every smile turns me into putty and every tear breaks my heart. But I digress.

The purpose of this post is to comment on how I try to mitigate my guilt over my contribution to festive capitalism. This year, I did not give out any Christmas cards or gifts. Instead, I made a donation to one of my regular charities – Tommy’s, the baby charity – which funds research into pregnancy problems to save babies’ lives. The work that Tommy’s does is particularly meaningful to me at this time each year, because it is around the anniversary of my Aleena’s passing. Aleena was still born due to foetal cardiac arrest only one week before she was due to enter this world. She is an angel in heaven and now has a little sister here on earth who will one day learn all about her big sister who is loved boundlessly beyond the realms of time and space.

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image source: http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/newborns/every-newborn/en/ (click to open full size in a new tab)

The statistics are eye-watering: 2.6 million babies (of those births that are recorded) die annually in the last 3 months of pregnancy or during childbirth (stillbirths) out of which 75% are preventable!* In the United Kingdom, 1 in every 224 births ends in a stillbirth – that’s 9 babies every day in the UK alone! Aleena was born in November 2015 in a country where healthcare (even the private kind covered by health insurance) leaves much to be desired. Poignantly, in January 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a report consisting of a series of papers titled ‘The Lancet Series: Ending Preventable Stillbirth’ which  was developed by over 200 experts including staff from WHO and HRP (the UNDP/UNFPA/UNICEF/WHO/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction). You can read a brief overview here. What is most damning is how the complications and dangers of stillbirth were absent from the Millennium Development Goals and are still missing in the Sustainable Development Goals. It is no wonder then, given this indifference at a global level,  that “stillbirths remain a neglected issue, invisible in (national or regional) policies and programmes, underfinanced and in urgent need of attention.”**

All this astounding disregard – despite a 2014 initiative by the WHO, called Every Newborn Action Plan (ENAP), (endorsed by 194 member states of the United Nations!) which aims to reach the every newborn national 2020 milestones – led the WHO Director for Reproductive Health and Research in 2016 to comment:

“What is especially tragic about stillbirths is that they are largely preventable. We know key interventions such as syphilis treatment in pregnancy, fetal heart rate monitoring and labour surveillance have the potential to save around 1.5 million lives. The challenge is to deliver these within an integrated care package that extends from pre-pregnancy through delivery.”

Ian Askew, (World Health Organisation, January 2016)

A research project into national, regional, and worldwide estimates of stillbirth rates in 2015, with trends from 2000, concluded “Progress in reducing the large worldwide stillbirth burden remains slow and insufficient to meet national targets such as for ENAP.

Fortunately, some progress has been made, including the use of an ENAP progress tracking tool. A May 2017 report Reaching the Every Newborn National 2020 Milestones was released, which charted the roadmap of actions that now 48 countries have made towards addressing the issue of stillbirths as per eight strategic milestones. A really good poster summarising the ENAP country progress report can be found here. However, a lot still remains to be done.

Institutional-level initiatives, such as Save the Children’s Saving Newborn Lives program have given rise to the the Healthy Newborn Network (HNN). HNN is an online community dedicated to addressing critical knowledge gaps in newborn health on a global scale. The information and resources available on its website can also be broken down country-wise.

Back to Aleena. Feeling devastated and helpless to support Aleena’s parents, at the time, I did the only thing I could – pray and offer words of solace. I didn’t know how else to support them across the continents. In desperation, I googled ‘stillborn support for parents’ and that is how I came across Tommy’s. The charity strongly resonated with me, because it not only funds medical research into the causes of premature birth, stillbirth and miscarriage; Tommy’s offers support to those parents who have lost a child soon after, as well as information for parents-to-be to help them have a healthy pregnancy and baby.

There are many ways to ‘give back’ during the year, but more so, during the holiday season. If you are looking for a cause to support for either an event, a fundraising activity, or you’d simply like to make a donation to a charity, I would highly recommend Tommy’s. You can donate directly here or through JustGiving. Read about some of the impact of the work that Tommy’s does here. Its research breakthroughs in stillbirths, pre-term births, miscarriages, and obsesity in pregnancy, mean that more babies globally will have a chance in the future.

*Kingdon, C., Givens, J. L., O’Donnell, E., and Turner, M. (2015). Seeing and holding baby: systematic review of clinical management and parental outcomes after stillbirth. Birth42(3), 206-218. You can read the research here.
**de Bernis, L., Kinney, M.V., Stones, W., ten Hoope-Bender, P., Vivio, D., Leisher, S.H., Bhutta, Z.A., Gülmezoglu, M., Mathai, M., Belizán, J.M. and Franco, L. (2016). Stillbirths: ending preventable deaths by 2030. The Lancet387(10019), 703-716. You can read a summary paper here.

NB: My blogger friends have advised that I point out this is not a sponsored post. I genuinely believe in Tommy’s work and that is what has compelled me to write about them.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2018

Soleil Levant

2017 has been the most (positively) life-altering year for me yet – like a rising sun or ‘Soleil Levant’ (more about this later). The last few months have been a whirlwind of change (hence the lack of blog posts). I’ve changed jobs and cities. I’ve travelled across Europe, Asia and Africa – including trips to Singapore and Denmark for the first time – and learnt new words as part of my ongoing ambitious attempt to teach myself Arabic.

I’ve been taught some unforgettable lessons this year, not least of which is that relocating to a new city is no easy task! However, what makes things much easier is moving to a lovely Scouse city, supportive and inclusive work colleagues and of course bountiful doses of humour and reality checks from good friends (you know who you are). My year – both personal and professional – could be summarised in this eloquent, brief ‘autobiography’ by Portia Nelson:

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image source: http://shanahan1.pbworks.com/f/Hole%20in%20the%20sidewalk.gif (click image to open fullsize in a new tab)

I’m currently in either Chapters IV or V in various aspects of my life – but I’m slowly getting there and learning not to make choices that only lead me into the same ‘hole in the sidewalk’. Those who know me, will agree that I certainly applied the last chapter to a key area of my life that was bringing me nothing but stress and negativity. Also during 2017, I’m happy to report that following my reflections this time last year, I proudly wore my multi-potentialite and multi-localite identity. This is something I will continue to affirm, and hopefully, might lead to some interesting blog posts in 2018, so watch this space!

On a more solemn note, one particular experience from late Summer of 2017 which will be forever etched in my memory is that of standing before Ai Weiwei’s art installation in Copenhagen. The statement about the plight of refugees evoked powerful memories of my time volunteering with the refugees in Budapest, Hungary at the peak of the Syrian crisis in 2015. Weiwei’s Copenhagen installation, named ‘Soleil Levant’ (French for Rising Sun) is inspired by Claude Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Soleil Levant. Monet’s art depicts the harbour in Le Havre, France, at the end of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war, capturing the political and social reality of its time with its cranes, steamboats and industrialisation. Weiwei’s Soleil Levant draws attention to the political and social reality of today through the arrangement of 3500 used refugee lifejackets stacked on the facade of a building. The installation is particularly notable, for its location within the thriving Nyhavn district, and I found the stark contrast between the vivacious outdoor cafes on one side of the canal, and Weiwei’s sombre Soleil Levant on the other side to be a moving and poignant reminder of the vicissitudes of life. I have inserted a slideshow of some images that reflect this below.

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Weiwei’s commemoration of the refugees’ ordeals reminded me of another of my favourite artists, Nizar Ali Badr, whom I was also thrilled to see receive recognition and coverage by the BBC in 2017.  I recall writing about Badr in 2016; his works moved me then, and continue to do so today. Experiencing Weiwei’s installation first hand, seeing the marks on the life jackets, the dried sand and possible bloody stains, served to remind me of the immensity of my own blessings.

So here’s to 2018 – may it be a year in which, like a Soleil Levant, the sun rises to greet us and remind us each day to be grateful for our blessings. I leave you, dear readers of my blog, as I do each year, with an Irish blessing which is one of my favourite new year wishes:

“May there always be work for your hands to do;
May your purse always hold a coin or two;
May the sun always shine on your windowpane;
May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain;
May the hand of a friend always be near you;
May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.”

Saneeya Qureshi © 2017

Breaking the cycle of poverty

I have recently returned from a trip to Pakistan. It is a country close to my heart as I spent a number of years during the 2000s studying and working there, and now often return for personal visits to family and friends. During my years in Pakistan, I was an active volunteer with community outreach projects to enable the economic independence and empowerment of rural populations. These experiences are what also contributed towards my current professional remit as a global capacity builder, inclusive educator and researcher in social innovation and impact.

Since 1994, I have been – and even today, from a distance, continue to be – involved with the Galaxy of Youth (GoY).  Established in 1980, GoY is an NGO registered with the Government of Pakistan. Its aims and objectives include moulding young people into better citizens, without any political, racial, religion or social bindings. My involvement with GoY has been through various roles as Member and Vice President. Despite not living in Pakistan, I still keep abreast of its many projects and make time to visit them whenever I’m in Karachi, particularly its project in Qasba Colony. However, this time around, I was saddened to learn of the closure of that project as a result of political tension in the area. I feel particularly emotional about this, because my association with the Centre in Qabsa Colony goes back more than 20 years.

Beyond the glittering streets and affluent localities of Clifton and Defence in Karachi, Pakistan, Qasba Colony in Orangi Town on the outskirts of Karachi is an area rife with poverty and deprivation. In fact, Orangi town was named one of the largest slums in the world in the United Nations World Cities Report 2016. Qasba Colony has a mixed population of lower income groups. It is an area that is under-developed, over-populated, heavily polluted and extremely filthy. Here, the life is a vicious circle of birth, drugs and death.

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image source: personal picture taken at Qasba Colony

In 1987, in this far-flung remote area, GoY succeeded in establishing the Mother and Child Vocational and Coaching Centre. Although GoY’s efforts were but a drop in the ocean, the girl child in particular has been greatly assisted in this dismal and drab area. This project focused on six of the current seventeen Sustainable Development Goals the United Nations has recognised as being essential to it’s global plan of action for people, planet and prosperity, which I have written about here. The Mother and Child Vocational and Coaching Centre, as its name implied, aimed to provide education for children coming from poverty-stricken homes, as well as youth employment, specifically for the young girls. If the Centre was in existence today, it would doubtless be a model case study for the United Nations Development Group (UNDG).

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image source: personal picture taken at Qasba Colony

In Pakistan, the story of the destitute child is heart-breakingly tragic. Children are denied basic human rights, and indeed, despite some small steps, Pakistan has also fallen behind most developing countries in its achievements in basic education, health and gender empowerment. In Pakistan, it is an alarming fact that in the rural areas especially, majority of girls are prevented from going to school simply because families do not want to lose their household labour. In the polluted and garbage-strewn streets, many little girls are seen caring for their younger siblings, while their parents are out working for minimum wages.

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image source: personal picture taken at Qasba Colony

In these areas grown-up girls follow a set pattern of lifestyle – cooking and attending to other household chores – until they are eventually married off. Through GoY we reached out to these girls and their families and helped in providing them the general awareness of basic education.

Initially, it was a most difficult task to get the girls to attend classes. Together a team of GoY members set out to the task at hand. It involved firstly, convincing and motivating the parents and relatives, and secondly, getting the cooperation of the area mosque committee, and then, finally, securing their much-needed approval. At the outset, general education was provided, together with the knowledge of nursing, health, hygiene and nutrition. Later, the Centre evolved into a an Employment and Career Guidance Centre where women, girls and children came to meet, learn and gain knowledge and skills such as typing and stitching. This transition occured through GoY’s interaction with the community at Qasba Colony, which indicated a lot of unrest and frustration among youth coming from poverty-stricken families. This frustration was – and still is – largely due to the fact that the youth lack proper guidance and do not have access to information about job-openings. In fact, as a result of GoY’s work at the Centre, over 200 young women and mothers were able to break free from the cycle of poverty and went to get paid employment as secretaries or seamstresses, or start their own tailoring businesses between 1987-2014.

Despite the Centre having to close as a result of political upheaval in the area, GoY continues to strive towards its mission for the improvement of education and youth development. Recently, GoY has set up the Paqburgh Progessive Institute in the Gizri township of Karachi. Currently, the Institute supports 7 levels of English-medium education for the toddlers and children of daily wage labourers in the area: pre-nursery, nursery, kindergarten KG1, kindergarten KG2, and Primary Classes 1-3. Plans are in the pipeline for an indoor assembly hall, a library and a computer room, and I am looking forward to seeing progress towards this on my next visit to Karachi.

Welfare projects such as the Paqburgh Progressive Institute, are in constant need of funds. GoY has fund-raising drives, donations from benevolent people, grants and various other fund-raising schemes through which it tries its utmost to aid the less-privileged members of society to break free from the cycle of poverty.

During the course of my experiences volunteering with GoY, and my years living in and visiting Pakistan, I have come to realise that there is abundant potential that lies within the poverty-stricken areas of Karachi. I am proud to still be a part of the GoY family which strives to bring about positive changes in the lives of youngsters from destitute areas.

Do you know of any similarly socially impactful projects in your community or country? I’d love to hear about them and learn from the experiences of those who support such projects.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2017

Oh, Earth!

This blog post has been inspired by Erhan Aqil Arif, the 8 year old son of dear friends of mine. Erhan wrote an eloquent poem about Earth, which he beautifully and smilingly illustrated (including a depiction of the little red planet Mars as well):

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Oh Earth – A poem by Erhan Aqil Arif (click on image for larger version to open in a separate window)

Oh Earth

Oh earth, such a beautiful planet.
Oh earth, you have big cities.
Oh earth, you have beautiful people.
Oh earth, you have beautiful, clean rivers.
Oh earth, you have boats that people can travel on.
Oh earth, you have different countries.
Oh earth, you are such a big planet that God created for me.

(Erhan Aqil Arif, Aged 8 years, January 2017)

Erhan’s poem made me reflect on two counts. The first being certain electoral events in 2016 that have resulted in political upheaval which is still rippling across the global arena in numerous respects; climate change being the primary focus of this post. Climate change pertains not just to global warming, as was the buzz term in the nineties and noughties; but to any changes and extremes (both hot and cold) in global or regional climate patterns as per the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is a concern so grave, that countries’ national interests have been threatened. Climate change has long been the subject of discussion as a collective action problem, a focus of celebrity cause for concern, and divested political campaigns. Sadly though, there is not much contemporary information available about children’s voice in the discussion about climate change, bar one now-defunct website for teachers about curricular activities on the subject; the 2009 Young Voices on Climate Change series; a 2014 UNICEF publication on ‘Climate Change and Children‘ and the odd scholarly article.  It is my hope that more authentic and unaffected poems such as Erhan’s, or other prose written by children about their regard for our precious planet Earth, make their way  into the minds and hearts of not just politicians and policy-makers, but the common man too, who can do his part – his little drop in the ocean – to tackle this grave issue.

The second manner in which Erhan’s poem made me reflect, was a result of Erhan’s maternal grandfather’s (his Nana’s) response to his poem. He wrote the following to his grandson in acknowledgement of his eloquent ode to Earth:

Oh Erhan, What a nice poem.
Oh Erhan,  What wonderful ideas
Oh Erhan,  keep writing
Oh Erhan,  be happy.
Oh Erhan, Nana is proud of you.

Stay blessed.

(Erhan Aqil Arif’s maternal grandfather, January 2017)

Now, I may be biased in the first instance, as Erhan is already very dear to me, when I say that I thought his poem was an excellent effort for an 8 year old, who articulately expresses the reasons why he loves the planet that he lives on. Of course, Erhan’s grandfather is also biased in his view of Erhan’s eloquence. However, the exchange above epitomises the experience that each and every child should have – the ability to express themselves, to have that expression be positively and well-received and to have future expression encouraged and supported. Erhan’s paternal grandmother too, showers him with love, support and encouragement. No matter what cultural backgrounds children come from, this manner of nurture is one that each and every child has a right to, and that they should receive, so that their self-esteem and self-confidence can be developed and enhanced during their precious formative years.

It is my hope that Erhan takes from this experience the lesson of how much value his thoughts and views, and indeed, his very existence has in this world. It is through children such as he – indeed, all children (proud Aunt alert!) including my beloved 3-month old niece Ayzah – that we adults can experience joy and positivity and follow through on emotive calls to action for a hopeful future.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2017

Stories through pebbles

A few months ago I spent some time volunteering with Syrian refugees in Budapest, Hungary. The memory of the experience is forever imprinted in my mind. So much so, that whenever I come across news to do with the refugee crises, I am compelled to read it through the lens of someone who has spent hours talking with these brave souls about their unimaginable journeys from what were once their homes and safe havens.

I recently came across the work of a Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. Hailing from the historical Syrian port city of Latakia, Nizar’s latest works of art are based on  pebbles and stones found in his town of residence. A recent corpus of his work is based on the theme of the Syrian refugee crisis – a  situation quite literally close to his heart.

Nizar’s work “transmits the pain of the people who have to die, to suffer, to leave the country, but also… a hope for the revival of the country, the return of human values – love, home, family.” I believe his pieces of art speak louder than words; his work is painfully accurate in its portrayals of the emotions and physical tribulations that refugees have to endure.

The incredible power of Nizar’s wordless visualisations of human suffering and migration due to war are made even more poignant by the fact that they are made from Syrian pebbles and stones.  Nizar himself is a man of a few words, saying on his Facebook page, “”I love the dust and stones from Syria. My message is a humanitarian message.”

I leave you to absorb a few of his works.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2016

Bombolulu, Kenya

I will shortly be travelling to Albania to attend a partner meeting about the EFESEIIS project, for which I am part of the Institute for Social Innovation and Impact‘s research team representing England. The project – about which we are collaborating with partners in nine other European countries – aims to develop an evolutionary theory and ecosystem of Social Entrepreneurship.

Whilst preparing for the meeting, I was reminded of a fabulous social enterprise that was a regular shopping spot during my formative years in Kenya. The Bombolulu Workshops and Cultural Centre were always a favoured destination during family holidays in the beach town of Mombasa. Created and managed by the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK), Bombolulu, as it is commonly referred to (named for the Mombasa suburb where the facilities are located), consists of  several workshops and a cultural centre. The facilities offer a range of goods and services that provide social and economic rehabilitation and empowerment of people with disabilities.  (Alas, I have no pictures from my last visit).

Since 1968, the artisans at Bombolulu have attempted to tackle poverty through the creation and trading in handicrafts, producing jewellery, clothes, carvings and other crafts of a high standard. Vocational training is also provided to those with physical disabilities, and the cultural centre houses mock-ups of traditional Kenyan homesteads which visitors are invited to tour.

Their motto of “Disability is not inability” was further demonstrated in 2004 when the Bombolulu School of Promise was created to provide education to the children living in the slums of Mombasa. If you are ever in the vicinity, I would highly recommend a trip to both locations: the School and the Workshops and Cultural Centre to witness first-hand how the lives of those from impoverished families or those living with disabilities, are being impacted for the better.

My reason for blogging about Bombolulu today is that, whilst I am looking forward to learning about socially entrepreneurial initiatives around Europe at my meeting, I am also proud to highlight but just one such fabulous and well-established enterprise that exists in developing countries such as mine.

Do you know of any other exemplary social enterprises? I’d love to learn about them, so please do comment below.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

What matters to you?

Since 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has undertaken research within OECD member countries which compared wellbeing across the world. The Better Life Index, which resulted from the project, depicts the results in the form of ‘flowers’ in which each flower depicts a country, and each petal represents a topic. Although visually very appealing, one should approach the data with caution, because it is based on voluntarily-submitted data, which means the participants are self-selected. Therefore, the results indicated in the Better Life Index are not necessarily representative of the views of the global population, and indeed, could be argued to represent mainly those with an internet connection.

Nevertheless, the OECD has extracted further data from the Better Life Index study, and developed an interactive map illustrating ‘What matters most to people around the world.’ Among those in OECD countries that have used the tool, health narrowly beats general life satisfaction as the topic people identify as most important to them. Although interesting to browse through, I’d argue two caveats whilst looking at the map: firstly, some of the terms used to define the parameters are rather vague, for instance, “life satisfaction”; and secondly, the number of respondents varies greatly from country to country.

The ‘What Matters to you?’ map makes for a thought-provoking point of reference when one considers that later this year in September 2015, the UN will meet to finalise the new framework for global development priorities 2015-2030. This week the ‘zero draft of the outcome document‘ was published of 17 goals and 169 targets. The accompanying image on the left (which you can click on for larger legible version) illustrates a more user-friendly summary of the overall framework. On a personal note, I am disappointed to see no mention made of the educational needs of those with disabilities and/or those living in war-ravaged countries. I fear the danger of a whole generation of children growing up amongst strife, not being given educational opportunities in any form, so as to enable them to break to vicious cycle of poverty or the state of civic unrest within which they live.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with the results depicted in OECD research? Do you think UN goals and targets reflect global (not just OECD member countries’) priorities? Do you think that 17 targets and 169 goals are enough to meet the needs of over 7 billion people? What matters to you?

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015