Melissa Nix interviewed Axa Khalid Warraich, an alumna of the Fulbright-Amizade program in Appalachia, to talk about the impressive and meaningful social welfare work her family engages in to provide community relief, both long term and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Keep reading to be inspired by her words!
Note: This interview took place on April 21, 2020, and reflects the situation at that time. Please refer to official sources for up-to-date and accurate information on COVID-19.
Melissa: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Axa: My name is Axa Khalid Warraich, I am a Fulbright student from Pakistan. I went on a Fulbright in 2018, for a Masters in Education from Vanderbilt University Peabody College in Nashville. As part of the Fulbright Program, I was selected to go to Williamson, West Virginia for the Amizade service-learning program. It was an intentionally-designed program based on equitable and fair trade principles. I was very fortunate to have been given the chance to engage with 12 brilliant Fulbright students from around the world and spend such intimate time serving with the community in Williamson. I think we took more than we gave and I can speak for all of us who went, that we left a really big piece of our hearts in that community and with those people because of the type of work and spirit of togetherness that exists in Williamson.
After my Fulbright, I came back to my country, Pakistan, where my whole family is deeply invested in social welfare projects — a daily free lunch program that feeds 500 people, two schools that serve 300 students, community based microfinancing services and medical assistance. I am closely associated with the school. Ever since my return, I have given undivided attention to building a culturally-relevant and socially-just school culture, providing professional development workshops to the teachers, redesigning the curriculum, offering extracurricular student activities, collaborating with external partners and managing administrative affairs.
February onwards, I decided to switch gears and pursue my deep desire to scale up my impact and so I delegated the affairs of the school to my team and have an advisory role now. I am now working as Manager of Technology for Learning at The Citizens Foundation, an educational non-profit serving around 260,000 students across Pakistan. During the COVID outbreak, my team is leading one of their distance learning and support projects. The kind of work I do fulfills my spirit to the core and I feel blessed beyond measure to have this opportunity and platform.
M: What’s the situation with COVID-19 like in Pakistan?
A: Just like the rest of the world, initially when COVID was contained in China, most people I interacted with, including myself, had heard stories, but it seemed like a far off thing that didn’t affect us directly — which I completely acknowledge is insensitive and selfish. But then when the global wave came in, Pakistan announced a statewide lockdown, not a curfew but a lockdown. Because of the economic situation in the country, a complete lockdown could not have been enforced initially. Like in most developing countries, there is a large population of daily wage workers who survive on a daily income.
I feel like Pakistan has been intelligent to make the right decisions at the right time, but the economic reality of so many people is that they really cannot survive this. Food is not being put on the table every day. People from all around the country are being very generous and giving cash transfers and rations with open hands. A sense of nationhood and community has come out in the most powerful way. However the crisis at hand is novel and gigantic; there are no researched foolproof decisions. The government has relaxed the lockdown and had to give permits for functioning of certain professions like construction, etc. This is where the situation gets sort of tricky because with this relaxation in we are seeing a rise in the people who are testing positive for COVID-19, and we’re seeing a slight rise in the death toll as well. These are indeed extremely testing times, with no one perfect tested solution.
M: You mentioned that your family is deeply invested in social welfare projects. Can you tell me more about what you’re doing? Who are you working with?
A: Yes, so there are two projects that I am working on these days. One is the daily soup kitchen that my mother-in-law, Rukhsana Izhar, runs and my husband, Ali Murtaza and I assist in big and small ways. She is my mentor: extremely sensitive, intentional and a servant leader. She always says “when I meet someone, their life should only get better from the moment they meet me and are associated with me.” I’ve seen that in action with all the people that she’s met. Her work has grown over the years and now under our organization, RUKH Foundation, she is running two schools in urban slums, a daily free lunch program, community based microfinancing and medical assistance. Because of her dedication, consistency and transparency of work, her work has been highlighted and gained a lot of momentum.
Pre-COVID-19, she used to serve free lunch every day from 2pm – 4pm, the gates would open and anyone and everyone was welcome to walk in and have a meal. A lot of care has been taken preparing the food hygienically, using organic products, and having a balanced diet. There’s lentils, meat, rice, and vegetables. Around 600 people come to lunch every day. We used to allow people to come in, have their lunch and then leave; they were not allowed to pack the food that’s served and take it home.
I usually help in food preparation and my husband supervises the distribution. We also manage the organization’s website, Facebook and Instagram handles. We do not actively market or ask for donations as of now. People from the extended family or our friends will see our work and donate. People are welcome to give donations if they want to.
Another project that I am working on is with The Citizens Foundation (TCF). As part of its Distance Learning and Support efforts, my team has developed a print edutainment magazine for children who do not have access to digital avenues and whose education has been disrupted due to COVID-19. The objective of the magazine is to maintain the culture of school and learning and deepen teacher-student relationships. There is a separate magazine for primary and secondary school students and its content focuses on literacy, numeracy and psychosocial support. The magazine will initially be distributed to around 150,000 students in TCF schools, but we are actively looking for partners to open the magazine for public use.
M: How has your food distribution work changed since the COVID-19 crisis started?
A: In February, when there were initial cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan, my mother-in-law adapted the dine-in model of the free lunch program to a takeaway model. She distributed bowls so that people could come and take their food in those and leave immediately, hence minimizing person to person contact. Later all of us researched ways of improving our operations and adopted best practices being implemented in supermarkets around the world.
At one point, there was a discussion about stopping the lunch program, but my mother-in-law was adamant that food is such a basic need, which is ever more important in these times than it was before. She has put up a poster right outside our home, which says “No one should sleep hungry, this is your house and it is open 24/7.” And it really is open 24/7. Whoever walks in can take food for however many people they ask for; they can take as much as they want. There’s either bread (which we call roti) or rice, and along with that there is a gravy (which we call a salan). We have markers on the street outside our house around 6 feet apart, and we have two stations that are serving so there’s no contact. Everyone who’s serving has to wear masks, gloves, and the medical protective suits that the frontline workers are using in hospitals. That’s what we got for our servers as well.
We used to cook for 600 people, which is one big pot of food, but now we prepare around 15-20 big pots. It’s a day-long activity. We usually estimate the number of people we’re serving, but we can’t count the number of people who are coming in. These days we’re probably feeding around 5,000 people.
Truly, it is in testing times like these, that one realizes that food is so basic and essential, all other worries become secondary. In this situation, it’s a harsh thing to think, but really if people don’t die of COVID-19, they’ll die of hunger. That is very true in the communities that we’re surrounded by.
M: It’s so wonderful that you were able to adapt and serve so many people during this testing time. Are there any connections you can make between the work you’re doing now and your Fulbright Appalachia program with Amizade?
A: The people in Williamson are bravely fighting through the opioid crisis for several years now, all this with so much resilience and agency. Whoever I talked to in Williamson had such stories of strength and valor. Even in the worst of circumstances, they were standing for each other, they didn’t leave each other: that kind of community where you really are concerned about your neighbor, where you’re ready with open arms and you’re prepared to serve someone, even if you don’t have enough for your own family. Wherever I see this sentiment, of course I recognize that. To see that plain human emotion and desire to give, in a completely different part of the world, warms my heart.
This sentiment of giving back and commitment to community is what I have brought back from Williamson. At Rukh Foundation, it is no longer just my family and friends — there are so many people that have joined hands — and it is especially heartwarming to see young people wanting to be a part of something good and bigger than themselves, in whatever capacity possible. I think this will make us survive through anything.
M: Is there anything you’re learning now from your work that you’d like to share?
A: These are the two lessons that will hopefully stay with me the longest. First, if you set out to do something good in the world, things will happen. There will be 100 things that go in your favor. You shouldn’t be scared, thinking “how will I make this sustainable?” Of course you do need to do intelligent and logical thinking, but you can do that to a certain extent, and beyond that things take care of themselves. This is one thing that I’ve learned firsthand during COVID-19, the extent of work that my family and I have been able to do and the number of people we have been able to serve during this time, I don’t think it was possible with the resources that we had. I just cannot do the math and am convinced that it had to be divine intervention and grace. This is what happens when well intentioned people set out to do something good for others.
The other thing I’ve learned is that the type of person you are really comes out in times of adversity. I’ve seen so many people and fortunately their good side has come out in circumstances like this. Globally no one knows what kind of economic situation we’re going to be faced with, and naturally there’s a desire to have some savings in the worst of circumstances, but over here I’ve seen the reverse. I’ve seen people in my community give away whatever they have. There’s a feeling that this time shall pass, and this time should pass happily, not just for you and your own family but for those around you. It’s so heartwarming.
M: Do you have any advice for others who are looking for more ways to be helpers during this difficult time?
A: You know my mother-in-law always says – whatever you want in your life, start doing that for others and you will receive it back in a bigger and better form. What you give to others will return back to you – the good and the ugly. So my advice to everyone is to assess what is it that you want and do not want in this difficult time, and start doing the good for however many people you can, consistently and intentionally.
If you seek emotional support, start checking in on one or two friends or neighbors, make it a duty to call them up and ask them how they’re doing. Ask if you could be of support to them in any way. Believe you me, kindness and genuine care, even in such a seemingly small way is powerful. So think traditionally and innovatively: what is the support that you need and start providing that for others, you will be amazed to see how and when it all returns back to you.
Thank you, Axa, for sharing your story with us! You, your mother-in-law, and your family are doing amazing work through the RUKH Foundation, and we wish you all the best.
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