Fellows Friday with Awab Alvi

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For years, orthodontist Awab Alvi has been an outspoken political activist via his blog, Teeth Maestro. With the onset of disastrous flooding in his native Pakistan this July, Awab traveled to the front lines, delivering food and supplies to flood victims. Though the after effects of the floods have caused personal family tragedy, Awab’s fierce love for and faith in his country make him optimistic about the future.

Give us an update on your Pakistan flood relief efforts.

The group of off-roading enthusiasts with whom I was working, Offroad Pakistan, used our 4×4 vehicle experience to go deep into the regions of Sindh, to provide flood relief to the affected people. Since the start of the flooding disaster, we have done about ten flood relief expeditions — embarking on one almost every week since August — taking food and various flood relief items to people in need.

Our flood relief food hampers were proportioned to help sustain a family of five for about a week. In our effort we also have handed them essential clothes and toiletry items, since most had no possessions — their possessions all washed away in the floods.

Dr. Awab Alvi organizing the offloading of medical relief at a remote location in Sindh (Photo: Taimur Mirza)

I’m proud to note that our team has been able to raise a good amount of money. Online we raised about $30,000, while offline with friends and colleagues we were able to muster another $130,000 for our efforts. We have a little cash remaining on-hand, and are expecting to use it for a few more medical camps and food expeditions within the coming weeks.

Now that the floods have receded, what are the country’s major issues?

The NGOs, United Nations, and Pakistan’s army have done a spectacular job. Unfortunately, their impact is like a drop in the ocean, since the government is not stepping up to help the flood victims in any serious way. Rehabilitating the 5 million people needs a far more serious commitment by the Government of Pakistan then what we have so far.

For example, the government recently handed out rehabilitation aid in the form of $1,000 debit cards. These poor illiterate people have never used a debit card, let alone operated an ATM machine to make a withdrawal. The problems were made worse, since there were no businesses in the vicinity that offered commodities on a credit card transaction.  This issue let loose a huge chain of corruption across the board. The money was siphoned off  by hoodwinkers who were taking bribes for issuing the debit cards. Another set of bribes were taken to help these illiterate people to obtain the PIN code, and then finally also for assisting them in operating the ATM. Reports have it that at each step of the way, people were coerced into paying these considerable “assistance fees.”

Rather than helping the poor at this time of suffering, the government functionaries have made it their business to mint money from this misery. They are stealing and selling relief coming into their areas, and hoarding large sums of financial aid coming into the region from various donor agencies. Quite simply, the government has not done its part in this massive crisis. These people were really poor to begin with, and sadly they’re even poorer now. I’m sad to say it, but we may have let our people down.

Ever since our flood relief efforts in Pakistan, there has been a general fear of some disease epidemic. There were reports of some incidents of cholera and malaria, but all seemingly were localized and controlled. Little did I know that a waterborne disease would take the life of my father-in-law. He contracted a rare form of meningitis from an amoeba called Naeglaria Fowleri, also known as the “brain-eating amoeba,”  found in contaminated water. The disease kills with 100% morbidity rate, within a period of 48-72 hours from its onset. It quite possibly made its way into our household water streams after the disease and decay following the floods. At the age of 54, his death sent shockwaves through the family. Casual reports suggest that there has been a rise of this amoeba in the last few months, but no effort has been made to document and report these cases in the public domain. For now my first priority is to raise awareness, to help prevent others from contracting this disease. I plan to dig deeper to discover if there is a definite rise of such cases. If so, I will try and help stop this in its tracks.

You are known for your politically-charged blog, Teeth Maestro. What are you blogging about these days?

I’m usually a very aggressive political commentator, highlighting issues from corruption to various human rights issues in Pakistan. But truly, with so many issues, there is only so much one can do at any given time.  Since the start of the floods I have been totally preoccupied in the relief effort, and have leveraged my blog to highlight the problems on both a local and a global platform.

More recently, since the death of my Father-in-Law due to this rare form of meningitis, I am pushing for public awareness of the disease in Pakistan, helping everyone in adopting simple measures to help prevent others from contracting the disease.  I fear that we might have an increase in the incidence after the floods since it may have crept into our household water streams. I hope that with this awareness drive, no one else will be exposed to this lethal disease.  I’m sure in due course, over the following few months, my hibernation from political blogging will end. After all, the optimist within me wants to change Pakistan for the better.

You’ve said 2005 was a milestone year for your blogging.

Yes, I have always been tech geek, and have been blogging for some time. But it was in 2005, when the government of Pakistan put a ban on Blogspot, that I channeled my casual hobbyist blogging into a more consolidated voice, using this platform to state my opinion on issues that are close to me.  Standing up against the Blogspot ban was the turning point in my blogging career, to become an activist for freedom of expression.  I have with time slowly morphed into a civil society activist, taking on issues of corruption, human rights, and naturally a very deep, passionate involvement in various political problems that have besieged our country.

Has your outspoken blogging put you in danger?

Considering the violent nature of politics in Pakistan, I’ve never received any direct personal threats for having raised my voice on various sensitive issues. But I know for a fact that I am being extensively monitored across the board, which I believe is totally expected. I remain thankful to God that nothing has happened as yet. I continue to have good support from my family, though they worry about me sticking my neck out on so many fronts. But they are very supportive in every aspect since they know it’s a good cause.

Has the TED experience aided or influenced you in your efforts?

TED was a life-changing experience for me. In the past, Pakistan’s chronic social and political problems had left me overshadowed with a feeling pessimism. Meeting so many optimistic innovators and creators at TED totally changed me. I became a true optimist, filled with the belief that even one person can make a difference, provided you believe in yourself and your cause with a passion.

Dr. Awab Alvi speaking at TEDxKarachi.

I believe it is with the same energy that I, along with our friends from Offroad Pakistan, bring that sense of optimism into our flood relief efforts. This handful of off-roaders collected over $160,000, led ten-odd relief missions deep into uncharted territories of Sindh, and distributed aid to more than 75,000 people. We are also proud to have set up and revamped a dilapidated pediatric ward in Shikarpur, surely impacting the lives of future generations in times to come.

It is with the same vigor and energy that I believe that it is possible to change Pakistan for the better. No longer shall we be held hostage to terrorism and corruption, but with a vibrant and conscious civil society, we can create tidal waves to foster change.

You are a blogger and activist because you want to give back to Pakistan. What inspired you to become an orthodontist?

I am a dentist, my father is a dentist, my grandfather was a dentist, and my great-grandfather was a dentist. Four generation of dentists was like royal dental blood that runs in the family. I must admit that the only thing I saw while growing up was dentistry. Education through the years, one decision at a time, led me smack into the field of dentistry. Even to today, I don’t regret it for a moment. A day-time job as an orthodontist, and by night masquerading as a digital activist.

I enjoy sharing my professional passion with my students. In our set up, we have four in-house post-graduate orthodontic residents who get hands-on training at our hospital every day. They learn from both my father and me. They learn important aspects of orthodontics during a four-year internship, culminating in a comprehensive exam to become certified to treat people on their own. During the months of flooding, my students’ training and quite a number of my own patients may have suffered from my long periods of absence. But practically everyone has been supportive and understanding. Many have in turn actually pitched in to help us collect items for flood relief missions.

After you completed your own dental studies in the US, you turned down several job offers there. You call yourself a proud member of the “reverse brain drain movement.” Why did you make the decision to move back to Pakistan?

There are two aspects to that. One is that my father already had a dental hospital set up in Pakistan, which was undoubtedly an easy step: I felt I needed to take over the reins of his clinic and his dental hospital.

Secondly, I felt the need to return to Pakistan to serve the people of my country, as they too should be entitled to top-notch medical care. If everyone greedily flocks to the land of opportunity in the US, then it will be the people of Pakistan who will suffer. I’m very proud of being part of the reverse brain drain coming back to Pakistan.

Another compelling argument for me in moving back home is that you are a first-class citizen in Pakistan, as compared to a second-class citizen in the U.S. You will always be an immigrant in the U.S. — you will never be a citizen by birth.

Your love of Pakistan runs deep, and the country’s natural beauty is one reason you enjoy off-roading so much. Do you bring your family with you on these trips?

Pakistan is a beautiful place, unfortunately with the present security situation it has totally disappeared from the tourism landscape. So if foreigners can’t enjoy this, the least we can do is thoroughly enjoy its beauty ourselves.

OffroadPakistan’s Expedition to Hingol National Park.

Off-roading is an adventure sport combined with some real hard-core camping.  We go mostly in the winters to enjoy a few days off.  I generally go alone with friends from the Offroad Pakistan club, though at times have extended an invitation to my wife, Sadiqa. But Sadiqa has a few demands which she wants met, before she would take the off-roading plunge me. She wants a proper bed, prefers a neat and clean lavatory facility, and also does not want any small, crawling bugs around her! I have squarely told her that I cannot meet any three of the requirements in the wilderness. So she is comfortable staying at home, and I get my two or three days of fun time alone. And she is totally jealous of that fact. [Laughs].

She thinks I’m a little cuckoo in the head because of this thing I love to do. The flood relief has recently consumed my time, but I’m sure in due course that will wind down, and we will slowly resume our relaxed fun off-roading trips again, exploring Pakistan itself.

Off-roading gives us an excuse to go into unexplored, uncharted areas of Pakistan. We’ll be traveling along some amazing terrain, and at each turn one is awed by the beauty that this country holds. I wish the security situation would get better, and then it would be a delight to show off this small country of ours to the hordes of adventure tourists that jet-set around the world.  For us, you don’t need to travel to Europe and America to enjoy beauty: we truly have it all right in our backyard.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes?Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

Social entrepreneurs need to understand one thing alone: work for a cause that is close to your heart. When you do it with passion, you can sustain the energy for a longer period of time, and mere stumbling blocks thrown at you don’t deter you from the ultimate goal.

My own heartfelt passion is to bring about a positive change in Pakistan. I want us to move away from the hopelessness found at the hands of our inherently corrupt rulers, to a more positive and progressive Pakistan. Once we realize what we can do, I believe nothing will stop us from touching the stars.

**** NEW Interactive Fellows Friday Feature! ****

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook.

This week, Awab asks:

“Why do you think there’s a lack of media coverage about what’s going on in Pakistan, and how do you think we should change it?”

Click here to respond!