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A Muslim’s Thoughts on 9/11

As a Muslim, I feel personally ashamed at what happened on September 11th, 2001. I know I shouldn’t be – I wasn’t (nor any Muslim I could possibly personally know) involved in that heinous act.

But Islam emphasizes unity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Canadian Muslim, Arab Muslim, or a Bangladeshi Muslim. It makes me think: the 9/11 hijackers probably prayed in the direction of Mecca and fasted for Ramadan just like me.

Yet, the first thing that most Muslims around the world did was point out that the perpetrators of 9/11 don’t represent them or Islam. As if distancing ourselves from this minority within a minority makes it all better.

I probably don’t represent many (if any) Muslims when I say this but, pointing out that people who do violent and horrible things in the name of Islam don’t actually represent Islam isn’t enough.

At the same time, 9/11 isn’t something that can be “counter-balanced” through an equally sized positive act. It’s a scar that will live on in history. At least that’s what I feel. Many Muslims reading this are probably rolling their eyes right now.

I think, as a Muslim who feels like I do, all that one can really do is live their lives in the way that best represents one’s most sincere interpretation of the goodness, positivity, and peace-making that is within Islam.

These children in rural Bangladesh currently study in an open field (or, when attendance is lower, a small cramped Church building the size of a parking spot for a car).

It’s that belief that, for me, has brought me to this remote rural village in Bangladesh – where I am potentially the first Muslim to ever build a Christian (Catholic) School. In fact, I was able to come to Bangladesh to do this on a plane ticket paid in part by a Rabbi.

Me with Avraham Berkowitz in Brooklyn prior to flying to Bangladesh – partly on the Rabbi’s dime.

I don’t claim this modest school will change the world. It’s not meant to. Rather, all I want to do is create a tiny piece of the world I’d like to see. It’s a world where people embrace each other for their differences and get strength from diversity.

Bangladesh – in fact any Muslim nation – is better off with strong, protected, and thriving minority groups. This diversity enriches the Muslim world. Only through diversity, can we understand that which is different from us. And those differences curb our own personal extremes.

A Priest with the Catholic Church coordinates with villagers on construction of the school building, funded by people who have supported me and my work. This particular congregation’s approach to aid and development is well respected enough that they are the implementing partner for many major NGOs – including World Vision.

But beyond this village, beyond just Bangladesh, and beyond Islam – fundamentally, we enrich each other in this life not by merely co-existing but by seeing the value in each other’s existence. And, by helping each other grow, thrive, and prosper, we enrich ourselves.

Future students of this school participate in the ground-breaking ceremony. This school will serve Bangladeshi Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. And, given my family’s personal experience with the Catholic School System in Bangladesh, no student will ever be pressured or required to convert to Christianity.

Ultimately, this Catholic School will only serve a small handful of Catholics. It will mostly be helping local Bangladeshi Hindus. As the school teacher put it, “I’m Hindu, I plan to stay Hindu, I just want to teach”. You know what? I want to help her.

And so does the Priest who is helping to build the school.

And so does the Rabbi who sent a Muslim to Bangladesh.

And so does the Muslim who was insane enough to hatch this crazy idea.

And by helping each other, we’ve hopefully helped and enriched ourselves.

I couldn’t think of any other way I’d want to live my life on September 11th.

Have To Be Poor To Help The Poor?

If you follow me on Twitter, you already know I’m back in Bangladesh. When I’m Dhaka, I live with my maternal uncle and aunt. Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend.

Just a few days ago, when I came back home carrying a bunch of groceries, my uncle chastised me saying “you better not have used any donations to pay for those groceries!”. In his mind, using donations – however small – for my own food, clothing, or anything that benefits me would be tantamount to stealing.

Toilet paper, antibiotics, soap, and pajamas - not taking a salary from donations is not enough for my Bangladeshi uncle. I also can't use donations to buy personal necessities.

I was able to put the matter to rest by explaining that my groceries were paid for with an allowance from my parents. Besides, if I bought something such as computer or video equipment that I could benefit from outside of charity work, I have a fund specifically for equipment. No donations to help the poor have been “stolen”.

The next day, after having dinner, I pulled out a small snack I had brought to Bangladesh with me from Canada. I brought it with me because it’s a small little treat you can’t find here. As I was eating in front of my aunt, my aunt looked at me and asked: “if you’re helping the poor, why do you eat such expensive food?”.

Eating this protein bar (about two bucks) is a "betrayal of my principles to help alleviate poverty" according to my Bangladeshi aunt.

The snack cost me less than $3. But, when 80% of Bangladeshis earn less than $2 and day (and about half earn less than $1 a day), I could see how this snack (a protein bar) could be seen as an opulent indulgence. “If you help the poor” my aunt elaborated, “you should live a very modest life – or it goes against your principles of wanting to alleviate poverty”.

I bring this up because many aid experts, aid bloggers, or aid professionals simply don’t get what it is I’m trying to do with this project. Some see me as a fundraiser – raising funds for charities I like. Others see it as online promotion – getting lots of tweets, retweets, and YouTube views for my favorite charities.

That’s not it at all. At best, you could call all that stuff a side-effect of my work.

Continue reading ‘Have To Be Poor To Help The Poor?’

An Open Letter to Invisible Children Supporters

Dear Supporters of Invisible Children,

A lot of you may be confused at all the criticism that Invisible Children (IC) has faced as of late. Perhaps you feel that this criticism is coming from people who fail to understand the mission and nature of IC. Alternatively, perhaps, you may feel that this criticism – while having some merit – has been unfairly blown out of proportion.

What I think needs to be understood is that there is no such thing as black and white. Invisible Children, as an organization, isn’t some nefarious evil group robbing people of their money. But, at the same time, Invisible Children isn’t an organization that can claim to be the most efficient or on a path that does the least harm.

I want to briefly touch upon 3 points which I hope explains why some of this criticism exists. And why it’s important.

Continue reading ‘An Open Letter to Invisible Children Supporters’

We Speak For Ourselves

When it comes to international aid and development, we are all biased. It doesn’t matter if you’re a donor reading pamphlets, a celebrity or YouTuber endorsing your favorite NGO, a journalist interviewing villagers, an academic outside of the ivory tower, an experienced aid professional talking about “good aid”, or even a free agent trying to be a bridge-maker.

There is nothing nefarious about this fact. We as human beings, while capable of untold capacities for empathy, will never have a complete verstehen and fully imagine the complexity of others. This is important because the arbiters of what is and is not “good aid” and what does and does not “harm the poor” must be the ones whom international aid is meant to serve.

This latest video, which among other things shows a project I did in collaboration with Save the Children, is my attempt to bring the poor one step closer to being able to speak for themselves. This is by no means the pinnacle of the kind of global voice I think the poorest of the poor should have. Rather, I see this as merely Step 4 out of a 5 Step Program.

This video also connects with a lot of things I’ve talked about on this blog – from mistrust of NGOs in Bangladesh, to raising overhead separately, to Islamic POVs on aid (which partly influences why many Bangladeshis talk about overhead), to the need for the poor to be more digitally and globally connected, to explaining the significance of the woman (near the end of the video) blessing the donors.

If you’re new to my work then I should point out this isn’t about raising as much money as possible. If you want to donate, I strongly suggest you consider donating to Save the Children instead of me. My goal has always been just to change the conversation on global poverty – that means less guilt, pushing for diversity, and letting the poor speak for themselves.

5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment

My thoughts on how charities need to drop the guilt is getting tons of views. But the question remains: how does a charity drop the guilt? Can they do it overnight? Cold turkey?

As I mentioned some charities, like the US-branch of Save the Children, have already stopped using “poverty porn”. I’d like to share something I’ve talked to them about behind closed doors.

I guess you can call it a 5 Step Program for NGOs using guilt:

Continue reading ’5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment’

3 Reasons Charities Need to Drop the Guilt

A Charity Guilt-Ad Currently Airing in Canada

It’s 2011 and we still live in a world where many charities think that the best way to raise funds to help those in need is by using guilt.

This needs to stop and here are three reasons why:

Continue reading ’3 Reasons Charities Need to Drop the Guilt’