Against hell and high water

By Ines Novacic

Two months after Pakistan’s flood disaster, the country’s plight is featured less and less in news coverage. Time magazine in the United States even removed the Pakistan story from its September front cover. Nonetheless, a group of students in Pakistan have greatly contributed to the aid response.

At times there is a literal glass wall between the social classes in Pakistan: the rich roll up their car windows when beggars approach them on the streets. Two years ago, a group of students from a privileged background in Lahore decided to combat social inequality by cleaning up rubbish in their city.

Shaoib Ahmed, Umar Rashid, Pawail A. Qaisar, and Murlaza K. Khwaja, organised a local clean-up movement called Responsible Citizens (Zimmeram Shehri). They used Facebook to mobilise volunteers and held weekly “Take Out the Trash” refuse collections.

Last year, the New York Times published an article about these students, and brought global attention to their work. Responsible Citizens started a dialogue between people of different backgrounds and helped them realise that collectively, their problems are the same. “You should see Responsible Citizens’ trash collection as a social experiment, not a trash-collecting initiative,” founding member Shaoib Ahmed told Trinity News last week. Shaoib is currently a fourth-year medical student at Yale University. “Initially it was just a very intriguing idea for a lot of people but eventually they realized that it wasn’t trash we were worried about and acknowledged deeper social problems in Pakistan.”

Since the organisation was established two years ago, the students and volunteers of Responsible Citizens have organised community projects to improve social inequality in Pakistan.

The country recently experienced the worst floods in living memory. Assisting the emergency response has become Responsible Citizens’ chief task. “As well as door-to-door collection, we have collected over 650,000 euro from individuals in the US, UK, Malaysia, and other countires,” Shaoib commented. “These were all people who had just heard about us, joined our Facebook group and sent us a message saying they want to donate”.

Around 70 percent of Pakistanis are between the ages of 18 and 35. “A large number of student groups cropped up on Facebook in response to the flood,” Shaoib said. Responsible Citizens registered with the government and asked the Pakistani army to assist with aid distribution. They provide a box of goods to last a family of four one week. They also regularly organise camps with free consultations and medical distribution, provided by three doctors.

“Responsible Citizens is decentralised, but not lacking in focus,” Shaoib explained. “We have one of the founding members permanently in two of the five cities we work in. Responsible Citizens started by collecting trash because it was non-controversial. It was a symbolic gesture but the underlying aim was to create a sense of ownership, collective effort and responsibility among the people of Pakistan.”