Two months ago, Amena Cheema, a graduate student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, was en route to Islamabad with a group of friends, when floodwaters suddenly swept into the surrounding area and left her stranded in her car for 12 hours.
For 8.5 million people, the July flash flood that left 1/5 of the country underwater has meant utter devastation. For Cheema and other Pakistani students, it has been a call to action.
On Wednesday night, the Columbia University Organization of Pakistani Students met to discuss several initiatives with its small but committed membership about how to fundraise and bring attention to the environmental disaster. Much of America’s focus on Islam remains fixed on the controversy surrounding the Park51 mosque and community center by Ground Zero.
Sabeen Rizwan, BC ’12 and vice president of the group, said several Pakistani students decided to stay in their home country this semester to work alongside aid workers.
“We’re lucky to have a lot of really dedicated members,” she said.
So far, OPS has raised $17,600, mostly from off-campus mosques, synagogues, and churches, despite what Rizwan described as “very limited attention from the media.”
Elizabeth Wilner, a spokesperson for SIPA, said that despite the chaotic flooding, all but one of their Pakistani students returned to the U.S. on time to begin classes.
“As soon as the disaster struck, our Associate Dean of Student Affairs, Cassandra Simmons, and her staff began trying to reach all our new students in Pakistan to express our concern about their well-being and ask if there was anything we could do to assist them,” Wilner wrote in an email message.
“I think most people know about what’s going on, but we need to be the ones to step up and make sure everyone’s doing their part,” said Henna Mahmood, the president of OPS who has been traveling across the city to raise funds.
During the meeting, Mahmood told members that it’s important to hold an interfaith vigil next week to combat the negative stereotypes around Pakistan and Islam that have been well documented in the media this summer due to the Park51 controversy.
“There’s a lot of media behind Park51, but not much around this disaster,” Rizwan said.
She said OPS has partnered with Hillel and various Christian groups on campus to fundraise in synagogues and churches.
Maria Khan, BC ’13, said she was happy with the University’s response and said she was contacted by Barnard’s Dean of International Students to make sure she and her family were safe.
While some members said they would like to send money back to friends and family who are doing aid work in flood-ravaged areas, Mahmood said she would like to send funds to the United Nation’s Emergency Response Fund for Pakistan.
“A dollar would make a difference, would buy someone milk,” Cheema said. Prices of food have skyrocketed, she said, adding that her mother “can afford to pay for food, but most of the country can’t do it.”
She said, “Even the smallest amount would mean something.”