The city of Attock in northern Punjab – home to the Barakat school where BLISS is operating – had thankfully been spared the havoc wreaked by the floods in other parts of the country. The cities of Nowshera and Swat in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa had been hit the worst. Houses, crops, livestock, and in some cases, people, had been swept away. In a shop in Karachi, I heard first-hand the story of a man whose elderly mother had been carried away by the treacherous flood waters as he watched helplessly.

Photo courtesy of The Big Picture

A few hundred Afghans from Swat and Nowshera were now seeking refuge with relatives and friends in Attock.  Those that barely got by themselves were trying to house 5, 10, in some cases 15 more people in their homes. I had seen hundreds of heartbreaking images of the victims before reaching Attock, but meeting them and hearing their stories took the pain to another level.

The water had come suddenly and with force. In Nowshera, it stood at deeper than 25 feet at one point. The locals had fled their homes and run for their lives after the water reached up to their necks, some getting injured in the process, and most leaving behind everything they owned.  Many families from Nowshera had been well-settled in their previous communities. They had owned brick houses, farmland, livestock, shops and businesses. But not anymore. What must it feel like to lose everything you owned overnight? I wondered.

I walked through the courtyard of Barakat Elementary School, where flood affectees sat patiently in the shade, waiting for the cash donations Barakat was distributing among them today. They had been waiting for hours, and would wait for many more. Quiet, resigned faces that made me wish I could change something. I had also brought in donations from a few friends in the US, collected hastily over an email sent the day before I left for Attock. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like a cash amount that would probably last them a month was enough. These people had to start from scratch, to rebuild their lives from absolutely nothing.

As I crossed the courtyard, I saw Abdul Rehman, Project Manager for BLISS, and Habibullah Karimi, a founding member of Barakat, bent over a few sheets of paper, doing calculations for how much money each person would receive.

Inside the classrooms, teachers and students had set up eight form-filling stations to collect preliminary data from heads of families – number of members in the household, previous sources of income, property lost in the floods, whether they had received any governmental assistance. Larger families would receive a bigger cash amount, while those with infants, sick, elderly or disabled would receive special attention.  Since many men only spoke Dari or Pashto, local students had volunteered to spend the day translating for the Pakistani teachers.

The men told their stories very matter-of-factly. As I sat alongside the teachers, listening to tales of helplessness and desperation, I marveled at the calm of these people, at their bravery. They had received no assistance from the government so far, and their biggest fear was unemployment and starvation.

Amidst all of this, children of all ages ran around the classrooms and the courtyard – sometimes listening intently to the exchanges between the adults, sometimes playing games with each other, sometimes smiling for my pictures – mostly oblivious to the scale of the tragedy that had befallen their families. The women, in their blue burkas, were mostly invisible, seated in a classroom next to the principal’s office.

Abdul Moid was a 3-year old clad in a grey shalwar qameez, whose innocent eyes darted around to make sense of his unfamiliar surroundings, of the exchanges between the adults. He was accompanied by his uncle because his father was in Afghanistan. His family had been in Nowshera for 20 years when the floods hit; they used to get by on Rs. 20K per month – a decent sum for his family of 4. By the time they fled, their house had fallen to the ground. Even after the water receded, they had nothing to return to. Their hosts in Attock were a family of 15. Moid’s uncle, Wal Nazar, was a tall, bearded man of about 35, confident and fearless. When asked what his biggest worry was at the time, he said he was afraid of nothing. God would take care of them. He planned to become a shopkeeper in Attock and was looking for money to get himself on his feet again.

Abdul Moid

Abdul Moid followed his uncle around as he filled out forms to collect money. He smiled shyly at me from behind his uncle’s frame, where he hid every time I smiled back. By the time his uncle was done answering the questions, I had taught him how to high-five. As we calculated the amount his family would be paid, I told him we were going to give them some money to start their lives again. I don’t know if he understood the implication of that, but he smiled and we exchanged a few more high-fives.

The rest of the day involved form-filling, cash distribution, name-checking, and a lot of Math, with and without the calculator.

By about 5pm, we had given out cash to all the families that had registered with Barakat and had come to the school to collect the amounts. With the donations collected in this first round, most families received between $100 and $200 – a very modest sum, but enough to help them pay rent for about 2 months, or feed a family of 3-4 for about a month, or find income-generating activities. I learned a new Turkmeni word – “barmakbaas” which means thumb. Since most of the older men could not write, we had taken thumb impressions on paper records of the distributed amounts.

School restored normalcy to the lives of children hit by disasters like nothing else. For families with young children, the focus was on admitting them to the local schools. A part of the donations was reserved to buy uniforms, books, bags, shoes and other supplies, and to pay the admission fees for children from flood-afflicted families.

The path to recovery for these families will be long and tough. As the water recedes in the north, the victims face the overwhelming challenge of going back to their communities and rebuilding their houses – either from scratch or from what is left of them – of removing silt and debris from the farmlands, of finding means to buy new household items, of finding employment to feed themselves. Water-borne and hygiene related diseases put millions of children at deadly risk.  Over 70% of the afflicted have no access to clean water, and hunger is a growing concern. In the province of Sindh in the south, 12% of the land still remains underwater.

The crisis is far from over. Pakistan still desperately needs your help;  every dollar creates impact. Give up your next handbag purchase, or one day’s pay, or even just your next Starbucks chai latte, and donate to any of the organizations below that are working on the ground. Clicking a name will take you directly to the donation page.

And a great list of organizations, put together by InterAction here.