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Sunday, August 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Infusion of help, hope to villagers in Pakistan

Seattle Times staff reporter

Earthquake toll


Killed: Official count is about 73,000, though estimates range as high as 86,000.

Injured: about 128,000

Left homeless: about 3 million

Sources: Pakistan government's Federal Relief Commission, U.S. State Department, The Associated Press

Hundreds more families have shelters now.

Classes can be held indoors.

And a couple thousand school-age kids in the Himalayas have new uniforms.

Much has happened since November, when members of the Pakistan Association of Greater Seattle and employees of Alaska Structures first visited a cluster of villages in the Pakistan-controlled region of Kashmir.

At the time, most villagers were still recovering from the worst natural disaster in Pakistan's history: the Oct. 8 earthquake that killed at least 73,000 and left about 3 million homeless. The villagers were mourning the deaths of loved ones and the loss of their homes and school buildings. Their personal belongings lay buried in rubble.

That first visit from the Seattle-area contingent brought hope — and more than 140 sturdy, Quonset-hut-shaped fabric shelters donated by Alaska Structures. Villagers use the various-sized shelters for temporary homes, school buildings and other meeting places.

Three months later, members of the two groups returned to the villages, collectively called the Bugna Village Complex, with 380 more Alaska Structures shelters. Richard Hotes, president and CEO of the company, also paid for two new sets of school uniforms and shoes for every child in the villages. And the company hired five local villagers to keep it apprised of the villages' needs.

"I've always felt like bringing hope in these cases is just as important as bringing help," Hotes said recently from his office in Kirkland. But that also means there's a commitment, he added. "You go and they have an expectation of help. So you can't just abandon them."

There was good news from the villages. People had feared that many could die from a typically harsh Himalayan winter, but the past winter proved to be one of the mildest in history. One villager may have died due to the elements — reports from those working in the area conflict — and apparently about a dozen villagers died due to natural causes or illnesses.

Hafeeza Zaheen, a village woman featured prominently in a December Seattle Times story, survived the winter, as did her family, including her 9-year-old son, Basit, who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

But daunting challenges remain.

Villagers remain poor, and few jobs are available nearby; some villagers buy food on credit, and apparently few are rebuilding permanent homes.

"In the context of how expansive the needs are and how little we are doing, there is so much left to do," Hotes said.

Motivated by faith

Yasir Iqbal, a former principal at a private school in one of the villages, had worried last fall whether his heavily damaged building could function again.

That is no longer a worry, he wrote in a recent e-mail. "Alaska Structures provided 10 shelters and now every class has separate room."

Iqbal resigned his principal position to become one of Alaska Structures' village committee members. The two women and three men on the committee are from several different families to try to ensure that no one family gets undue influence.

The company has also hired and trained about 85 village men to set up the structures and donated heaters for the shelters. Another 600 structures are on their way, the goal being that every family whose home was destroyed will have shelter this winter. Altogether, the donations are worth about $7 million, according to Hotes.

The company has hired an agrarian to see if the local harvests can be improved and is planning to have engineers examine the villages' water system. Longer term, the company is seeing if small local enterprises can be started.

Further, after residents of another mountain came to Hotes seeking his assistance, he promised to help another four villages.

Going to disaster areas is something Hotes has done for years. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he went to New York City to set up command centers for the fire department. After Katrina struck, he and other members of Alaska Structures went to Mississippi to erect structures that housed a temporary city hall, fire and police stations and a church.

His Christian faith motivates him, he said. "I follow Jesus as close as I can. His No. 1 lesson was: Love your neighbor as yourself."

Kamran Salahuddin, a Muslim and director of the Pakistan Association of Greater Seattle, says his faith, too, is what motivates him. He's played a key role — first in helping conceive the idea to adopt the villages and now in working out logistics with Alaska Structures.

The Pakistan Association itself has raised about $150,000, much of which will be donated to a nonprofit group to help build a girls' high school in one of the villages. Requests from donors who wanted their money to go for specific needs will be honored, Salahuddin said, including about $1,500 earmarked for Hafeeza Zaheen's family.

Fear, worries remain

Given the area's large geographical, linguistic and cultural differences, miscommunication is an obstacle. There are discrepancies over such issues as who died of what, or whether people are receiving proper medical care.

Such was the case with Basit Zaheen. Initial reports from those working in the area were that Basit was regularly receiving his medication. But this month, the Pakistan Association and Alaska Structures learned that he was not.

For about a month in December, Basit did get medicine from a local clinic, Zaheen said, but when she went back for more, there was none to be had. When she traveled to a hospital in the neighboring city of Muzaffarabad, she learned that the hospital had been destroyed in the earthquake.

The only time she was able to get medicine, she said recently, speaking through a translator, was when she traveled about 90 miles to a hospital in Rawalpindi and was able to buy a one-week supply.

The medicine Basit needs costs far more than his family's monthly income. Hotes said he would pay for Basit's medical care and for Zaheen and a relative to go to Rawalpindi regularly to get the medicine.

For now, Basit is strong enough to go to school, although his mother carries his books for him. She was able to buy a grave marker for her 5-year-old daughter, Sultana, who died in the earthquake. She visits the grave daily, bringing flowers when she has them.

"I worry about my children," Zaheen said. "Especially I worry about Basit. I just pray to God — he's my only son. I pray through a miracle that he becomes all right."

Other villagers are beginning to worry about the upcoming winter. Some have received at least a portion of the money the government promised to give to those whose homes were damaged or destroyed. But it is rarely enough to fully rebuild.

And even though people are "thinking that winter will be more tough from this [past] season," Iqbal wrote in his recent e-mail, "nobody want to build a house because they are frightened from earthquake."

"A lot of thanks"

Salahuddin said that in February, on the last day of the local group's follow-up visit to the mountainside, entire villages turned out to see them off.

Children draped colorful garlands around their necks. Women gathered on a hilltop to say goodbye. Along the road that leads from the towns to the highway, villagers lined up by groups: students from one school, then from another, then men from each village.

And amidst the smiling faces, there were hand-written signs: "A lot of thanks for providing us work." "Long live Pakistan-USA friendship."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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