Refugee crisis in Pakistan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Afghanistan is one of the Obama administration's top foreign policy priorities. The Pentagon concurs. Today, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said preventing Afghanistan from falling back into Taliban hands is essential. But Mullen acknowledged that the US military build-up in Afghanistan could push Taliban fighters across the border into Pakistan, further destabilizing that country.

MIKE MULLEN: Pakistan faces many complex challenges: perceived threats from the north and east, the very real threat of insurgency from within, and the growing risks of poverty and illiteracy unchecked.

WERMAN: And it's Pakistan that leads our broadcast today. Fighting between Pakistan's army and Taliban militants has driven nearly two million people from their homes in the northwest of the country. Makeshift camps have sprung up to house those internally displaced Pakistanis. Here's how Junaid Gilani, an aid worker with the international group Oxfam, described conditions in one of the camps today.

JUNAID GILANI: People are getting very dirty. There's diseases such as malaria, there's diseases such as diarrhea, skin allergies � all sorts of things are happening because of the lack of hygiene. And the heat is making people very frustrated. It's making them feel more ill. Children are very vulnerable as well as the women. It's a really bad situation here.

WERMAN: While some of the displaced are taking refuge in makeshift camps, others are staying with relatives and getting help from informal networks of friends and family. Hisham Ghaffar Khan Mohmand belongs to a family of Khans � local elders or leaders � in Pakistan's Takht Bhai region. That's about an hour from the Swat Valley, where much of the fighting has taken place. He's involved in an informal effort to help displaced people.

HISHAM GHAFFAR KHAN MOHMAND: What we're doing is we're giving to the government schools in which many of the internally displaced persons are taking refuge in. At the same time we're also giving to the needs of the refugees in taking refuge in villages, houses, like local hosts. Either they know them through some local connection or through family ties. Generally, the locals over here, they've been very generous, they're helping a lot, but the question is how long can that help last?

WERMAN: Well, Hisham, I mean you, yourself, are trying to fill the void by distributing coupons that will allow these refugees to obtain, you know, items that they need to live on a daily basis. Explain how that's working; what you actually are giving them?

MOHMAND: What we do is we carry out a survey in the target areas. For example, Surenshai is one union council of Takht Bhai in is one that took place. So we go to Surenshai we visit all the schools and we actually meet the people and say, �Okay. How many families are you in this school, five families? How many families are you guys?� �9 families.� We give them the coupons and we tell them to come at a certain date.

WERMAN: And the things that the people can obtain with those coupons, I mean, it ranges from frying pans to bed sheets to cooking oil; correct?

MOHMAND: Exactly.

WERMAN: I saw on the web page of the Facebook group that you set up, which is called IDPs in Mardan Region, that you recently wrote the following: �whatever our views are, the most important thing first is to help out. Forget the ethnic, political, and nationalist dimensions of this issue.� How are those political and ethnic dimensions getting the way of what you're doing?

MOHMAND: They do get in the way that in the sense that what happens is a lot of the aid coming in gets generated. For example, let's say I know -- I'm good friends with Marco, and I know Marco has 20 families living with him. I get a lot of aid and I decide, �let's just give it all to Marco because Marco is my pal.� You know? A lot of these kinds of things going on and also a lot of favoritism. And favoritism is carried out by all these people. It's carried out by the public, it's carried out by the government, it's also carried out by the NGOs. It's a very long discussion, I'm sure you know.

WERMAN: We found you, Hisham, through a Canadian journalist who knows your aunt. I'd like to know how much are these informal connections are benefiting your cause? Does this account for most of the 550 some-odd people on your Facebook group? How are you spreading the word?

MOHMAND: Well, basically it all started with one email. Like, I sent her one email to my aunt. I just sent her a personal email. I was just gracious to her, and I said, �This has to stop.� And what happened is she took the initiative to forward it to other contacts. She was like, �You know, check this message out. This is what my nephew just sent me.� So I guess when other people read that email, they could see it was, you know, a personal message. It wasn't meant for anybody else, it was just meant for my aunt. And that resulted in the first explosion of people just pledging and donating. So right after that, I realized � my family realized, you know, that we can do something. Before, we'd felt pretty helpless. But certainly people, you know, just started showing interest, so it just started from that, basically. And after that, yes, the informal connection, that's what is keeping it afloat.

WERMAN: Hisham, how old are you, if I may ask?

MOHMAND: I'm 24.

WERMAN: Aside from this important informal humanitarian work that you're doing, what do you do for a living? Is that work being interrupted at the moment?

MOHMAND: Well, it's being semi-interrupted, yes. I'm interning for the National Rural Support Program.

WERMAN: National Rural Support. Right.

MOHMAND: So I'm working for them -- I'm an intern, and my boss is being understanding. He knows I'm working hard and he's being understanding.

WERMAN: I was going to say, it sounds like this is real-time rural support that you're undertaking here.

MOHMAND: We're trying. We're trying.

WERMAN: Hisham Ghaffar Khan Mohmand has been helping internally displaced persons in his home region of Thakt Bhai in Pakistan. Hisham, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

MOHMAND: You're welcome. And thank you so much for taking interest, and I'm amazed and very happy that you guys have taken interest in what our people are going through. I'm very happy about it.

WERMAN: Well, it's our pleasure. Thank you very much.

MOHMAND: You're welcome.

WERMAN: You can find a link to the Facebook page that Hisham has set up to help publicize his efforts at our website, theworld.org.