There is fear in the streets of Pakistan. I sit in traffic, just a few hundred feet from my hotel where my next meeting is scheduled. I could arrive at my destination in five minutes if I walked, but it is not advised to walk. On the right side of my car, four men pointing automatic weapons stand in the back of a police van. Just in front is a black SUV with four commandos in the back, each with AK-47s, I think, though I'm no expert in guns. Let's just say they are very big and look very menacing. A few cars to the left is another gun-filled vehicle pushing other cars out of its way, presumably to join the caravan of the armed. Sirens are wailing.
I know I am not in imminent danger given the calm of the other drivers. But having seven automatic weapons pointed directly at you is at the very least a cause for stress. Later, I'm told that traffic was stalled because "an important person was coming through." This, I learn, is not an unusual event.
Driving from the outskirts of Karachi to the city's center on a Sunday evening, we feel the strain of moving through an area known for blockades in which drivers are commanded to hand over their valuables. My colleague and I discuss the burden parents feel in dropping their 5-year-olds at schools surrounded by high fences and barbed wire with snipers standing on the rooftops. He fears what it will mean for his child to see so many guns each day, and he fears for her safety and wonders if she will come home in the afternoon. But we can't allow ourselves to think like that for too long. My colleague has taken to running daily to reduce tension.
It is not just the wealthy who feel the stress. For the poor there is no recourse. One of our fellows looks sick the day he hears one of his 16-year-old clients will be hanged for crimes he did not commit but could not prove in a broken legal system. Another has spent his life working on behalf of children trafficked with little follow-up. Everyone working with the poor has stories of their invisibility and extreme vulnerability. Those that work for human rights have all received death threats. Fear is a cold wind blowing.
Acumen Pakistan Fellow Abubakr Siddique, Chief Coordinator of the impressive nonprofit Akhuwat, characteristically dressed in smart, pressed trousers and a preppy sweater, was driving in a posh area of Lahore on a cold, foggy morning. The trunk of his car was filled with winter coats, all donated through Akhuwat's Clothes Bank program to use the Islamic practice of zakat or giving to create more leveraged change. Out of the mist emerged a frail-looking man, a laborer walking along the roadside in threadbare clothes. Abubakr wanted to help this man's situation. He pulled the car over slowly with the intent of handing him one of the down jackets.
After offering greetings, Abubakr asked the man what he did for a living: water carrier. The work is hard, the water, cold; a coat could provide great daily comfort in the winter months. Abubakr told him he would like to offer him a jacket. He went around the car to retrieve a down jacket wrapped in paper from the trunk. The laborer saw the bulky package and panicked. "Please brother, I beg you not to strap that onto me," he gasped.
Seeing his terror, Abubakr ripped open the package to reveal the coat stuffed only with feathers, not explosives. Not knowing what else to do and having no words, Abubakr tells us he just reached over and hugged the man.
The laborer burst into tears.
We are our brothers' keepers. Yet if we cannot reach each other, we cannot know each other. The tension between the powerless and those armed with wealth or weapons is pervasive and growing. The man in the fog walked with fear. He didn't have to know friends who were recruited (or rather, taken) to know of its possibility. Violence spreads with epidemiological patterns. It separates and makes us smaller, enabling shame to fester. But our separation is not inevitable.
I salute Abubakr for his generosity, daring and his refusal to allow fear to create distance. May his moral courage inspire acts of kindness, large and small. If stripping dignity from another strips it from all of us, then let us build dignity in ourselves by extending it to others as well.