An Interview With Aban Jamall

The following was published as an article in The Friday Times ( July 9-15, 2010 Edition )

Q: When did you first start social work and what was your inspiration?

Aban Jamall with her daughter and grand daughters.
Aban Jamall: I have been working with the disabled or more correctly “Differently Abled children” for more than half a century. Back in 1956 I was 18 years old physiotherapy student at Jinnah hospital when my first voluntary job was at the Society of Rehabilitation of Crippled Children (SRCC) which Bagum Sulaman had started, almost 73 years of age now, I have since volunteered for many institutions including the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre which was started by Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau in 1961, I am the founder member, and president for life of Al Umeed Rehabilitation Association ( AURA ), which started as a single room physiotherapy center in 1989 had now turned into an state of the art, custom built and an only rehabilitation center for children suffering from Cerebral palsy.

Actually my parents, Mehera Minwalla and Cyrus Minwalla, were our inspiration. From the day I can remember, they were always serving humanity in some shape, from or kind. In fact people used to say about my father that his left hand didn’t knew what his right hand did so he never turned away anybody who needed help and I think all of us siblings, which is six of us have inherited that quality of giving, always not monetarily perhaps but with time and energies and I was always inclined towards looking after the less fortunate and it gives me a great deal of pleasure”

Q: What difficulties do “Differently Abled” people face in our society?

Aban Jamall: I met this young lady, Farah recently maybe two or three years ago, she is wheelchair bound and she said to me “why is it that people call us disabled – we are not disabled we are just “Differently Abled” and when I look back on my 50 odd years of social work, this is so absolutely true, some may be mentally slow but physically they are fine and vice versa for even those who are very severally effected by diseases they have so many different kinds of abilities they are not disabled but just Differently Abled and I think we should really stop this slogan of “disability” because that brands them as not being able to be normal in any field in fact I think Differently Abled people are very loving, very affectionate, and giving. They want to be a part of our society and unfortunately we try to put them away into corners without paying much attention to them, this perception of the society must change but then because there is so much poverty this happens also because their parents have so many other issues to deal with like eight normal children to feed, educate and take care of and maybe one Differently Abled child so that child obviously gets neglected.

Q: what changes have you seen in the past 50 or so years around you?

Aban Jamall: Well there have been tremendous changes, being born here in a little fishing village of Karachi so to speak in the late 30s and after that growing up in the 50s of course with the influx of refugees, Karachi blossomed into every direction, some good some not so good but we had a tremendous amount of people doing the work that should really be done by our government. There are so many people and organizations who are doing such phenomenal work today you look at Edhi, SIUT or Indus hospital where everybody is treated absolutely free on the other hand if you go to Jinnah hospital or civil hospital which are Government administrated hospitals you have to pay, you have to pay for medicines, you have to bribe people take permissions and yet you don’t always get the proper medical attention you need. Unfortunately this is the tragedy of our country to become that way and the government is not very helpful because they are not approachable they all sit in their offices and nobody will do anything except only for those who have contacts, there are only a hand full of people who are sincere in what they do.

Q: How were Special Olympics introduced to Pakistan?

Aban Jamall: In was in 1989 an American lady had come from Special Olympics and she asked around I suppose, about who are the social workers or what kind of people would be interested in this kind of work so me including five others, I think, the six of us were invited for a meeting at the house of the then consulate of USA, where they this suggestion or concept of special Olympics was brought up by them, which quite truthfully we didn’t knew much about. We were extremely enthusiastic to do that so we started with a small group of kids maybe our first group was no more than 50. We used to personally take them for the training to the ground and training them for the special Olympics that is 20 years ago and now the number of children participating has grown to many thousands, and it has spread all over Pakistan, it’s amazing the way the concept has succeeded here.

Q: Tell us about Al-Umeed Rehabilitation Association (AURA) and the other project you are currently associated with.

Aban Jamall: AURA caters to the children suffering from Cerebral Palsy which started by Dr Ruby Abbasi, joined by like minded parents, doctors and social workers, with a two roomed rented space in P.E.C.H.S as a treatment center in 1985. Bilal Abbasi was Dr Ruby Abbasi son who had Cerebral Palsy due to severe illness when he was just over 2 years old.

Bilal Abbasi was severely disabled, he could not speak he talked to us only through his eyes, his IQ was normal, he was totally an amazing child, he would respond to you with his eyes you would know , if he was happy, sad or amused, he was a cricket fanatic and loved to watch cricket. Tragically he passed away about three years ago, but he is still very close to my heart, he is my inspiration, I keep a picture of him all the time with me, it’s even in my bedroom.

It took us eight years of hard work between the government sanctioning a land for Al Umeed in Gulistan -e- Johar and the actual possession before we could start to build the center there. This area of the city is better suited for this kind of a project because it is easy for the kids from different parts of Karachi to reach the school. The center has been custom built keeping in view the needs and comfort of the cerebral palsy children, which is a state of the art facility comparable to any other in the world accommodating a hundred children from low income families, brought in daily to the center in a fleet of vans from their homes and dropped back at the end of the day, most of them are free of any charge all thanks to the funds raised by generous donors.

A staff of 67 manages it all and I have set a rule that if a child cries in my center the staff has to go, there is no reason that the child should cry. Our aim is to keep them happy and achieve as much as possible. Only last year in 2009 four of our children left their wheelchairs and started walking and that is a tremendous achievement for all of us and especially for my staff, who are my team of the most dedicated hardworking people.

I also don’t turn any poor person who need help and I personally take them to the hospital they need to be, from Korangi to Kimari.

The second project and my final dream, which I am associated with is the “Ziauddin College of Speech and Language Therapy” which Thanks to the vision of Dr. Asim of Ziauddin University Hospital, started as a collaborative project with The Speech & Hearing Association of Pakistan (SHAP) which I am the founder member of, and the Ziauddin University (ZU). The institution is the first of its kind in Pakistan offering a four year degree program under a complete foreign trained faculty. 14% of our population requires this service, so after 60 years we did it.

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and your family?

Aban Jamall: I am just an Ordinary person who has done some extra ordinary work. and I need to give credit to my husband and my children because they have never stopped or interfered with my work in fact they have always encouraged me, and I think that is true of all volunteers that if they don’t have support of their own family members they will not be able to do it. You know I have worked continuously for several hours sometimes, especially when we first started Special Olympics and we were on the field from morning to night and we worked really hard but I had all the support I needed from my family. I have followed my parents, I have five children and twelve grandchildren they have watched me work I don’t have to tell them but since they are children my children and my grand children I have taken them to all the centers possible since they were babies, infect now they are asking me if they can go visit the children’s cancer hospital and other centers and I never say no to them.

Q: What are your hobbies besides social work?

Aban Jamall: You know this is the problem today now at this age when my energy levels are slowing down, I wished all my life that I would have developed some hobbies but I didn’t, maybe it is because I never felt the need or had the time for it but I am a bit or an art enthusiast and I love to watch sports mainly tennis on TV and when I have a moment I like to read that’s what I prefer to do above all else.

Q: who is your favorite Pakistani author?

Aban Jamall: It is very difficult because there are some who write a lot of fiction and there are some who write a lot of factual history and I can’t really pick one person, I like Kamila Shamsi and I just now finished reading “A Case of Exploding Mangos” by Mohammed Hanif and I found it quite fascinating because it was history mixed with fiction, but what I actually love are autobiographies, I love to read about people’s lives.

Q: any message you would like to give to the people?

Aban Jamall: Pakistani individual is known to be the most generous in the world, please give a little bit of your time, a few hours a week to the less fortunate of the society to bring about a better change for them.

An Interview With Aban Jamall

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