Chicagoans Mount Aid for Pakistan, Hit Bumps

August 27, 2010

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Hira Abbas (l) and Hina Altaf (r) are part of a core group of young women sending relief packages to Pakistan. (WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Massive floods in Pakistan have created a deep humanitarian crisis there. Chicago's Pakistani community wants to send food, water, clothes and medicine. But it's finding that's not so easy. One group of young women who is taking on the red tape, with a little pink tape of their own.

Half-a-dozen young women are sealing a box filled with snacks and clothes. On other boxes, the sides say "Love, Chicago." “We were using pink tape before, but we ran out,” says 22-year-old Hira Abbas. “We'll get more.” Hina Altaf, 25 years old, laughs, “We were going to make our boxes easy to recognize.”

Someday, they hope to see their boxes on TV, being airdropped to Pakistan flood victims. “It would feel so good to see our boxes being sent,” says Abbas. It may yet happen. Last Saturday, they shipped 60 boxes. This week, they packed 125 more. “We were not expecting it to get this big at all,” says Altaf.

Altaf turned her grandfather's basement in northwest suburban Roselle into a makeshift warehouse. Cheez-Its, water, dates, soap, clothes, mosquito repellant... the stuff is everywhere. Altaf says it was donated by people throughout the Chicago area.

Altaf says each box will feed a family of four for two days. “There's a singer from Pakistan,” Altaf says. “His name is Farakh-e-Alam, and he actually made all these videos demonstrating how to make the family pack.” These ladies definitely got the lesson. It takes them 3 minutes and 8 seconds to throw one box together.

But Altaf says they don't have any prior experience with this type of work. “No, no,” she says. “So that's why we're all trying to figure it out as we go along. So it's up to you to figure out how to do this.”

Pakistan's national airline, PIA, offered to ship all relief goods for free on passenger flights. Pakistan's Consul General in Chicago has to authorize shipments first. Altaf never expected it would be so much trouble working with the Pakistani government. “The Pakistan Consul of Chicago said no to us,” she said, “and told us that they didn't want to take this responsibility and go through with this.”

Altaf says she had to bypass the Chicago consulate and go straight to the Pakistan embassy in Washington DC. That national office approved the young women's first food shipment. But there was still a problem. “The consulate actually called, and said we will only allow you to take medicines. We won't allow any of the food items to go. No water, nothing. Only medicines,” Altaf says. “And then I told her, well, I just dropped off my entire shipment.”

Zaheer Khan, Pakistan Consul General of Chicago, says part of the problem may be that as the flood situation in Pakistan develops, on-the-ground needs may change. “There are a few who need immediate food supplies, and there are a few who need immediate medical supplies,” says Khan. He isn't sure why Hina's group ran into trouble, but Khan says the Pakistani consulate will work with anyone who wants to send aid to flood victims.

Altaf feels like they've worked through all the kinks with the local consulate. But now there's a new roadblock, this time with PIA. Altaf was about to deliver relief boxes to send on tomorrow's flight to Pakistan. “It was all set, and then on Thursday they actually realized that they were having problems with the amount of space that they had in the warehouse, and they couldn't accept the shipment at this moment,” says Altaf.

She's been told PIA will leave with the clothes, food, and medicine on Wednesday. In the meantime, Altaf has told people to stop donating. There's just no more room in her grandfather's house.