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A Sister at the Frontlines

“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give”, said the famous poet, Khalil Gibran. After speaking to Sister Ayesha Patel of the Al-Imdaad Foundation in South Africa, Raeesa Patel begins to realise the truth contained in his words.

Ayesha is a young South African female who has travelled the path less travelled for most of her life. She has donned the niqab from a young age and she, as well as her two younger siblings, was homeschooled by her mum at a time when little was known (and a lot was frowned upon) about this type of education.




“Many people did not agree with the decision my parents made about our education. It was extremely difficult for my mother to stay true to what she believed was the right thing to do for us”, explains Ayesha, “and we didn’t make it any easier! There were days when we were not dedicated but troublesome and unruly. At the same time, we all felt a need to succeed so that we could prove the naysayers wrong and make my mother proud.”




Another challenge her mother charged her children with was to memorise the Holy Qur’an.  Under her tutelage Ayesha memorised the entire Qur’an at the age of 16, thus earning the honour of being a Haafidh ul Qur’an. From there on, she studied further and received a Bachelor of Science degree through a distance learning university in South Africa (UNISA).




After marrying Qari Ziyaad Patel – one of the founding fathers of the Al-Imdaad Foundation of South Africa, Ayesha was roped in to do work that she had never before believed she could do: relief work around the globe in some of the worst disaster zones imaginable.




Early Days
Ayesha’s first trip as a relief worker was to Indonesia after the devastating tsunami had ravaged the country. “I was not prepared as much as I thought I was,” remembers Ayesha. “The sight of all the desolation and carnage was overwhelming! There’s only so much that the human body and mind can take until it shuts down and makes you numb – almost immune – to the wreckage around you.”




She returned home from that project fiercely determined to give all of her belongings away to charity and to sleep on the floor. “I was ashamed to live a good, safe and healthy life here in South Africa. I felt like such a hypocrite and was propelled to just give everything away!” At that point, Ayesha’s husband, Qari Ziyaad, stepped in and explained that this madness was not what Islam taught. “Ziyaad calmed me down. He told me that I should look at what I have as blessings from Allah (SWT), and not as burdens.” At this turning point, Ayesha realised that the aim was not to live like the many victims she had encountered, but to be grateful for what Allah (SWT) had given her. “What would I achieve by living like the victims I met?” she asks. “ Ziyaad helped me realise that we are able to help and to give and to comfort precisely because Allah (SWT) has given us a family to come home to, a warm shower and a soft bed. It is what keeps you sane when you’re in a country far away, trying to communicate in a language you don’t understand, treating the ill and burying the dead.”




“Always be prepared”
Ayesha has adopted the age old Boy Scouts motto of always being prepared. “Relief work can be very demanding and taxing, more so on the Muslim woman than on any other. Basic hygiene services, which we take for granted here at home, are mostly unavailable. It is difficult to remain clean and so we’re forced to think out of the box when it comes to maintaining our tahara”.




“(Women) are much more suited to this type of work because of the innate empathy that Allah (SWT) has given us. Our indomitable strength, our selflessness, our immense capacity to love – all these qualities that make a mother, make a really good relief worker.”




Relief workers are given anything from 24 hours to two days notice before departure. Ayesha has learnt to prepare for the worst and is always ready to leave for a disaster zone at any time. Her suitcases, first aid kit and food basket always being re-stocked and re–packed immediately upon return. “I take everything with me, except my toilet!” she jokes, “and when I find a portable loo that fits in my bag, you can bet I’m going to take it with me!”




Learning to cope with the bare necessities in such adverse conditions can only make one stronger. Ayesha agrees, “I underestimated myself the first few times I travelled out to a disaster area. Living and coping with next to nothing forces you to make shukr for what you do have, and it is that shukr to Allah (SWT) that gives you the strength to adapt to your surroundings and persevere.”




“The best of times, the worst of times”
Natural disasters can totally annihilate the face of a country, leaving in the wake of its aftermath, victims completely shell shocked and numb. Although every trip stands out for Ayesha, there are two that have left an indelible mark for very conflicting reasons.



“Haiti was the worst and the most difficult. We got there three days after the earthquake. The trip was arduous and the conditions were appalling. Ziyaad and I were the only two South Africans in our team. Ziyaad fell quite ill and it was difficult as we were alone in a country where the language, the customs and the people were very different. I was alone with an ill husband and relief work to do,” says Ayesha, “I lost 6kgs on that project. Needless to say, it was the most harrowing of our experiences! But shukr, we got through it.”





In stark contrast to the bleak picture painted above, Ayesha speaks fondly about the Muslims of the Dominican Republic. “Here, “ she says, “we met Muslims who truly appreciated the word of Allah (SWT). These Muslims had no knowledge of Arabic and the Imam of the masjid knew just the basics – enough to read salah. So they would beg for us to read Qur’an to them and to teach them more. When they would listen to Ziyaad recite, they would sob and beg for more. Here we found Muslims whose hearts truly yearned for the words of Allah (SWT).”




Healing the soul
Helping and assisting tens of thousands of traumatised people in appalling circumstances can take its toll on even the strongest of men. To prevent mental breakdowns, trauma counselling is imperative upon return for all relief workers. Relief workers are encouraged to participate in group counselling, as well as talking to others who have experienced similar things, which can help ease the trauma.




In Ayesha’s case, she and Ziyaad are a source of peace for each other. “You would think that being in such difficult and tense situations would only lead to arguments between the two of us but Alhamdulillah, it is not so. Ziyaad and I are a strength for each other. At night, when we talk about our day, the horrors our bodies and minds encountered is appeased slightly,” she says, “By sharing what we saw, we help each other to move on.”




No human being can be immersed in such a mentally, physically and spiritually taxing job for long periods of time. Having a hobby or taking time-out are essential to allow oneself a break from all the gloom and despair.




“I love to cook,” says Ayesha. “My kitchen is my sanctuary where I can forget about the world and its problems and concentrate only on the dish I am making.”




Having a firm family support group also works wonders. Knowing that there are people who love you unconditionally and who worry about you helps ease the pain that relief workers experience when faced with distressing situations. For Ayesha, her family proved to be a lifesaver after an extremely harrowing trip to Haiti. “The trip to Haiti was one of the most difficult we had ever undertaken. Thankfully, our family realised this and when we returned, took Ziyaad and I away for a family holiday. It was, by far, the best trauma counselling we had ever received! Just being enveloped in their love and care soothed us.”




Most importantly however, is the trust that Muslims have in Allah (SWT). “Just knowing that “for the believer, even in affliction, there is some good” helps us to cope with what we do. Our faith teaches us that this is a test and our trust in Allah (SWT) keeps us sane,” explains Ayesha. “I have come across many who question why such terrible things happen and whom cannot make peace with it. They are constantly riddled with doubt. That’s the beautiful part of our religion – our steadfastness and belief in Allah (SWT) keeps us sane and helps us make sense of what is happening around us.”




Bursting the bubble
As a young twenty–something Niqaabi on the frontlines of disaster zones, it is only natural that Ayesha is shattering the stereotype the West has held for so long about Muslim women.




“In the disaster areas, I have never been treated negatively because of my hijab and niqab”, says Ayesha. “Relief workers are not a sheltered breed because they are exposed to so many surprising factors on a daily basis. My dress is met with curiosity rather than animosity and I have learnt that talking to people puts them at ease immediately. They realise that I can speak English well, am not a poor oppressed soul and that I choose to dress this way.”




This is not to say that Ayesha and Ziyaad have not been criticised by outsiders for their dress. On a two month Liverpool stay, during a postgraduate course in Disaster Management at the University of Liverpool, they were accosted a few times and verbally attacked.




“I’ve had my niqab torn off my face and alcohol thrown at us as we walked home from the University,” recounts Ayesha. “One day, a British lady grabbed Ziyaad and yelled at him for burning my face and then having the nerve to hide me behind the veil. So I removed my veil and we explained why I wore it.”




Dealing with prejudice can be stressful on many levels but Ayesha has found that plain yet polite speaking usually sets things aright. “I’ve had a few of my preconceived notions dismantled as well. You cannot blame people for their ignorance for they are bombarded by the media with negative images and statements regarding Muslims. They’re forming opinions based on all the wrong information they are being fed. Standing up for myself dispelled their ignorance.”




“The mere fact that I could speak English would astound our accosters,” she laughs. “We must not keep quiet when faced with prejudice. We must open their eyes and make them aware that we are educated and that the Muslim woman is not an oppressed woman.”




In stark contrast, Ayesha and Ziyaad were treated most hospitably in Milan, where they studied for their Master’s Degree in 2010. “We encountered absolutely no Islamophobia in Milan and were treated with utmost respect by everyone!”





“If the world were run by women, there’d be no war”
“We need more women out in the field, “ urges Ayesha. “We are much more suited to this type of work because of the innate empathy that Allah (SWT) has given us. Our indomitable strength, our selflessness, our immense capacity to love – all these qualities that make a mother, make a really good relief worker. I feel that women are ten times better as humanitarian aid workers than men are.”




Not only are more women needed in the field, but more Muslims in general. Natural disasters in Islamic countries are on the rise and the Muslim victims come into contact with a lot of Christian relief workers who try to convert them to Christianity. As Ayesha explains, “In Indonesia, Christian relief workers were handing out food packs to families. Every food pack was accompanied by a Bible and a rosary. This is a time for da’wah and we are not upholding the responsibility of the deen!”




Why do you go back?
“Because I love what I do,” she answers. “ When the people smile back at me, I know that somehow, in a tiny way, I helped to make a difference. And I have hope that this tiny bit I am doing will please Allah (SWT), Insha Allah.”




On her days at home, Ayesha is busy running local social responsibility programmes, winter blanket drives and food collections. As she says, “Life is too dynamic to sit still and be idle. We need to take everything in our stride, and do as much as we can for as long as we can.”




For further information regarding the Al-Imdaad Foundation and its projects, please visit their website www.alimdaad.com




Raeesa Patel is a mommy, teacher and writer whose life is filled with sunshine and rainbows because of the first, hope and exhilarating challenges because of the second and a dream come true because of the third!




Raising Smiles, Raising Hope