The communal ethos of Islam guides its followers to serve God’s creation — to use one’s knowledge and understanding of the world to improve the lives and capabilities of others, ultimately empowering individuals and communities to help themselves.
Ismailis living in the United States have leveraged their passion, skills, and expertise, to improve the quality of life of Jamats and communities in other parts of the world.
A ladder out of generational poverty
Several years ago, Dr. Seema Pissaris, Clinical Professor of Management at Florida International University’s College of Business, assisted the Ismaili Council of the United States to implement its first Quality of Life survey to understand the needs of its local Jamats and make better programmatic decisions. The Council developed a set of best practices from this initiative, which are now utilised by other Jamats around the world.
Dr. Pissaris led a similar Quality of Life assessment for the Jamat of India. The data revealed a case of generational poverty. Parents living in poverty are unable to provide their children with access to quality education. In turn, children exhibit low academic readiness, do not have strong English language skills or access to digital resources, and are unable to advance into modern careers and participate in India’s economy. The younger generation’s life ultimately mirrors that of the older generation.
In response, the Aga Khan Education Board in India created Residential Camp Bright Sparx, an, academic residential camp for sixth- and seventh-graders in Vapi, Gujarat. Teaching English, mathematics, and critical thinking skills in an English-language environment, the initiative hopes to have a lasting impact by helping the students discover a passion for quality higher education, ultimately strengthening their futures.
"Education is the ultimate gift that one can give to someone else," says Dr. Pissaris. “Hopefully, in 50 or 100 years, we won’t be having these conversations about poverty or lack of education, and we will instead see communities which can themselves contribute significantly.”
Building a system for oncological care
Developing countries face monumental challenges when it comes to provision of healthcare services. Resource constraints, limited access to education, a rapidly aging and growing population, and poverty, all contribute to an environment in which communities may not have access to quality life-saving medical care.
The technically-advanced medical care system in the United States makes healthcare an opportune arena for Ismaili professionals to give of their knowledge. Care for non-communicable illnesses, such as cancer, is of critical need in developing nations. Dr. Amyn Alidina, a medical oncologist with New Mexico Cancer Center, and Shabnam Moledina, an oncological nurse for over 40 years, have both built and strengthened oncology care systems in Africa and South Asia for years.
Dr. Alidina served as the head of the oncology programme at the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, from 2013 to 2016. His team implemented a programme for each stage of the oncological patient care cycle.
Limited resources locally meant early detection of cancers was infrequent. In response, Dr. Alidina and his team set up mobile screening camps, in which patients who met American Cancer Center guidelines for cancer testing underwent screening, enabling earlier detection and education about prevention. Upon diagnosis, the team was committed to providing high standards of care to the patients, often collaborating with other hospitals in neighboring countries.
Nurses are critical to oncological patient care. Shabnam has trained scores of nurses with the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, the Aga Khan Health Service in Tanzania, and the Prince Aly Khan Hospital in Mumbai, India.
Dr. Alidina acknowledges the immense challenge of building a credible program with high standards, but is gratified with the “multiplying effect” that is evident in the developing world. Shabnam agrees that the impact can be exponential because it merges high standards of care with a respect for human life. The challenge is to implement the critical upgrades, while respecting and learning from the local culture.
Enabling early childhood education
Early childhood education is now regarded as critical in the development of children. Amynah Ali, a project manager with the Aga Khan Education Board in the USA, led a team of volunteers to develop the Early Childhood Development Preschool Guide. The Guide assisted parents in selecting the right preschool experience for their children aged three to six years. It educated new parents about a variety of child development matters, including different forms of intelligence, family priorities, types of schools, preschool philosophies, school quality, and other important school characteristics.
The Guide ultimately reinforced the idea that preschool education is an important requisite in today’s environment.
Amynah credits her contribution to her passion for education and to her role as an involved mother of two, having recently conducted her own research to find a preschool for her daughter.
“The project was extremely satisfying because I was fulfilling a real need and I had a real impact on parents across the United States,” she says.
Ismailis across the United States find ways to use their education and skills to assist others — whether through mentoring, civic engagement, serving in voluntary capacities with local organisations, or through the Time and Knowledge Nazrana initiative. This Diamond Jubilee year offers a unique opportunity to meet the challenges faced by so many, and to make a difference.