Rabia Ajaib in Pakistan
It was a sweltering and stormy day as we struggled to make progress
against the wind and the dust. Streets, for the most part, were empty as people sought refuge from the heat in their homes; homes, which were really just makeshift shelters, constructed of mud walls and dirt floors. Piercing the whisper of the wind, the sound of a nail being hammered into wood; growing louder with each step we took. And there he was – the source of the sound - Iqbal, a carpenter braving the scorching sun and the dust to build a new home.
The first thing you notice about Mohammad Iqbal is his smile. It is contagious and lights up his surroundings. But as he climbs down from his perch on the roof rafters you also notice something else: Iqbal cannot use his lower legs. Born with a disability 45 years ago, Iqbal walks on his knees and does not have full mobility of his hands. But that has not diminished his resolve to succeed at whatever he tries. “My physical disability has never created hurdles in my life,” says Iqbal while he saws a piece of timber. “I never looked it as a disability and in fact, I am working better than many people around me. I like that I am not dependent on others.”
It is difficult to get an accurate account on the number of people living with disabilities in Pakistan. The last census in 1998 indicates 2.4 percent of the population has some form of disability. The World Health Organization estimates the figure is closer to 10 per cent. These are people who often live on the fringes of society, ostracized, unseen and unheard. There is also a huge stigma in the country as many believe that people with disabilities are a burden on society and a curse on the family. In a country with a population of 170 million people, it means millions are facing overwhelming barriers in their daily life.
“Of course I don’t like it when someone stares at me,” says Iqbal. “But I have learned to live with it. I try to remain positive. And in my villages, everyone accepts me.”
When the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) needed to build sample shelters as part of a pilot project in Thatta, Sindh province, program coordinators knocked on the doors, so to speak, of the villagers themselves.
“It was the community who encouraged us to hire Iqbal,” says Andrea Lorenzetti, IFRC shelter coordinator. “We asked the villagers to recommend a good carpenter. All fingers pointed towards Iqbal.”
“We trust him,” says one villager, Allah Bachayo. “He is honest and sincere. He is very flexible for his timings. Everybody here in the village is happy with him.”
“We never see him depressed or sad,” agrees neighbor Ali Akbar. “He is always smiling. He is a good person and a good role model for us and our children.”
Before the 2010 monsoon floods, Iqbal used his carpentry skills to support his parents and two younger brothers. “I have always tried to lend a hand to my family. It is because of them that I am where I am today. They helped me to be a strong man.” But after the floods it was difficult to find regular work. People simply did not have the funds needed to rebuild their homes. Most were living in the remains of their homes or in huts when the IFRC and Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) arrived. Iqbal was hired to help construct 18 shelters. He and the rest of the crew received technical training, learning how to build houses that would be more resilient to future disasters.
Now he works 25 days a month, earning 7,000 Pakistani rupees (about 70 Swiss francs); a wage that allows him to live above the poverty line. He says the training he received from the Red Cross Red Crescent will help him secure more jobs in the future. “I am very thankful to the IFRC and PRCS for providing me with this opportunity of learning and earning,” he says, with his big infectious smile.