Walking the talk

Imran Riffat remembers a great humanitarian and friend of the physically challenged in Pakistan - Ghazala Hameed (1951-2017)

Walking the talk
In the first fortnight of 2017, Ghazala Hameed was snatched away from the world: her life came to a close on January 13. Nobody lives forever. But then, some die too soon. Ghazala, a wonderful woman, gave much to the world and still had it in her to do so much more to make it a more humane place. At a time when her family and her friends are in deep sorrow I, who had the privilege and honor of knowing her for forty-five years, write to celebrate her life.

My first meeting with Ghazala was at the home of her parents at 5 Club Road in Lahore’s G.O.R. Estate - when I met her as a friend of her twin-sister who was with me at the Punjab University - and it did not take me long to get to know her better. However, within a few years, contemporaries began to disperse as friends embarked upon the different paths that destiny had in store for them; employment, pursuit of higher studies overseas and, last but not least, marriage. My own journey took me to New York in 1976.

Ghazala’s life after she got married to her wonderful soulmate, Amar Hameed, took her to London where every now and then our paths would cross. At best these were short encounters barely enough to catch up on each other’s lives. Ghazala’s worldview was deeply enriched by her many years in Dhaka and Chittagong - where her distinguished father served as a member of Pakistan’s Civil Service - and it gave her an extraordinary perspective on the events that led to the futile war of 1971. Her living experiences and extensive travels in Europe and the Middle East, together with her love of reading, transformed her into a renaissance woman. One could never be bored in her company; the richness of her intellect was accompanied by a splendid sense of humour.

Ghazala Hameed with Venus Ilagan, the Secretary-General of Rehabilitation International Edinburgh (UK), in November 2016
Ghazala Hameed with Venus Ilagan,
the Secretary-General of Rehabilitation International Edinburgh (UK), in November 2016

After excelling in all roles that life brought her way - she was a loving and caring daughter and sibling; a wonderful and devoted wife-cum-partner and mother; a doting grandmother; and a loyal and steadfast friend - the best of Ghazala came to surface when she increased her involvement with her volunteer work at the Pakistan Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (PSRD). A passion for this cause was imbued in her by her mother Tara Turab Ali, who worked very closely with stalwarts like Khadija G.A. Khan and Mehranges Sherazee to nurture the PSRD from infancy to a stage of financial sustainability. Such work made it most relevant to the needs of the physically handicapped. These amazing women formed the core of a group passionately committed to mitigating social inequities.

In the shadow of her mother Ghazala gradually, and perhaps unconsciously, assimilated the spirit of helping and caring for people who were marginalised in society as a result of their disabilities. But it took her little time to come into her own.  She not only played a pivotal role in taking the PSDR to its next stage - transforming it from being a centre that fitted amputees with artificial limbs and provided physiotherapy to outpatients to a point where its cause was also recognised on the international stage. PSRD now provides medical, surgical, educational and rehabilitation services to the needy; it also runs its own orthopedic hospital and has an effective vocational rehabilitation unit. As a senior member of PSRD’s leadership team Ghazala, participated in the annual meeting of the Rehabilitation International in New York in 2013 and was elected to its executive committee and also appointed as the deputy Vice President for the Asia-Pacific region. Subsequent to this, at the organisation’s meeting in Edinburgh in 2016, she was elected Vice President for the region. Ghazala also represented the PSRD at a high-level meeting on disability and development (HLMDD) at the United Nations headquarters in New York in 2013 where Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, in his remarks as keynote speaker, highlighted the critical importance of spurring international action to ensure that persons with disabilities are enabled to contribute to the global economy. At this conference the renowned singer and songwriter, Stevie Wonder, spoke of his personal experience as a visually impaired person and urged heads of states and the international community “to make it possible for every person with disabilities to freely pursue their lives and dreams.”
She would say, "Dignity is as important as rehabilitation"?

As Ghazala was getting more deeply involved in her work at PSRD, it coincided with my career transition from the corporate to the not-for-profit world. In my new position I also became more involved with an organisation whose mission was to provide artificial limbs to amputees; its size and scale allowed it to invest considerable resources in R&D. When I mentioned this to Ghazala, she could not hold back her enthusiasm to learn more about it and to figure out how the PSRD could benefit from this knowledge base. Throughout the field trials of a knee-joint developed at Stanford University, I kept her in the loop. She asked for a prototype of this new device to be shared with the Orthotics and Prosthetics unit of PSRD and followed up with many inquisitive enquiries. Our discussions were to spill over into many other areas of common interest in this field. Ghazala was passionately driven by the need to generate more resources - in cash and kind - to take the work of the PSRD to newer heights. Not long ago I remember seeking her advice and assistance to help a young child in Lahore. Her response was amazing; she not only arranged consultations with the in-house orthopedic specialists but also suggested a plan that would cause minimal disruption to the child’s education. Providing vocational training for the disabled remained very close to her heart. She would say, “dignity is as important as rehabilitation.”

Whilst I was aware that Ghazala was dealing with some health-related issues, I never heard her dwelling on it. In July 2014, Ghazala and Amar were in the US and my wife and I met up with them in New Jersey. Sadly, this was to be our last meeting. I remember her saying, “I may be slowing down, but I am not giving up”. The work of the PSRD, as always, remained a very important part of her life.

Ghazala’s passing away is a monumental loss for many - her family and friends have lost somebody very special. PSRD has lost a great champion of its cause. Pakistan has lost a daughter who was selflessly committed to helping the less privileged segment of its society. And last but not least, the world has been deprived of a superb humanitarian who never failed to walk the talk.

The archives of the PSRD have photo-clips recording the visit of a nun to its center on Ferozepur Road more than thirty years ago. The visitor was none other than Mother (now Saint) Teresa. At that time this amazing woman had not fully attained the fame of an international celebrity and as such she was not accompanied by a senior politician. She was received at the PSRD by Ghazala’s mother, Tara Turab Ali. Mother Teresa recorded her comments in the Visitor’s Book which are reproduced below:

Keep the joy of loving God by loving one another as God loves each one of you and

Remember – Works of love are works of Peace.

God bless you

M Teresa

Ghazala, in spirit and deed, was a person committed to spreading love as well as peace. I borrow the words of a nineteenth century poet to better articulate the feelings of many who were enriched by her life:

Lives of great men all remind us 

We can make our lives sublime, 

And, departing, leave behind us 

Footprints on the sands of time 

Our sorrowful hearts derive peace in knowing that Ghazala is at peace. The world respected her for her integrity, her cheerful spirit, her intellect and her compassion. We will miss Ghazala.

But Ghazala cannot be gone, for she will always live in our hearts.