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Pakistani-Canadians get hands-on in quest to raise funds for flood victims

A boy sloshes through the floodwaters in a village outside Punjab, Pakistan, on Aug. 21.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

It's a common refrain from grassroots Pakistani-Canadian and Muslim organizations in Canada frantically raising funds to help flood victims halfway around the world: Trust us, we are delivering the aid ourselves.

Distrust of the Pakistani government and its reputation for corruption have donors insisting on giving aid to organizations with an independent presence on the ground, those scrambling to raise funds say.

Some groups raising money to aid flood victims make a point of emphasizing that their own staff and volunteers actually make use of the donations themselves to provide food, medical assistance or other help on the ground in Pakistan, as opposed to handing the funds over to other NGOs or directly to the Pakistani government, which has set up its own national disaster relief fund.

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Large nongovernmental organizations have complained of a slow start to donations by Canadians, given the scale of the disaster, something expected to change thanks to Ottawa's announcement to match private charitable donations. Canada's biggest banks announced Monday they were each pitching in $100,000 for flood relief.

But smaller organizations with links to Muslim communities across the country have been holding fundraising dinners since the crisis began.

Seema Javid of the Muslim Welfare Centre in eastern Toronto said her community organization had raised about $100,000, with $50,000 going toward 1,400 boxes of food - canned goods, sugar, dates - and blankets, being shipped out for free on flights from Pearson International Airport organized by Pakistan International Airlines.

Local youth volunteers - all fasting for Ramadan - were packing the last boxes on a truck Monday afternoon. Ms. Javid said her organization's branch in Karachi would take the aid and deliver it to flood-stricken areas itself.

"People never trust [the government]" Ms. Javid said. "They ask us, if you are doing it yourself, we will donate. We are doing it ourselves this time."

Khalid Usman, a former councillor in Markham, Ont., raised $420,000 for Pakistan flood victims at a dinner last week. The proceeds, he said, will go to the International Development Relief Foundation - a decision he says he feels good about because he knows the money will go to the people who need it most.

"There is a credibility gap," he said of the Pakistani government. "People like myself will not take the chance."

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Sallah Hamdani, the executive director of Islamic Relief Canada - the local arm of a large British-based charity that counts Prince Charles as a patron - said he estimates his Hamilton-based group has brought in $1-million, with $20,000 pledged at a recent dinner in St. Catharines, Ont.

He said the pace of donations hasn't been slow when compared to the level of giving seen after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

Mr. Hamdani, who is now completing plans to send 15 Canadian doctors to the region, acknowledged some people are reluctant to give money until they are assured the country's government won't get its hands on it.

"The hesitation of people giving is out of fear that the government is going to take it or it's not going to get to the people," he said. But he added that the Pakistani government so far has helped his organization's efforts with its boats and helicopters.

Word that his group's people are actually in Pakistan using the money themselves does reassure donors, he said: "We are on the ground … that's the line that usually gets people to give $1,000 instead of $100."

Mr. Hamdani was critical of reports he had seen that some Pakistani expatriates were loading up with supplies and food and taking them to Pakistan by themselves, out of distrust for charities or the government. Without an organization experienced in delivering aid, these well-meaning individuals will end up doing little good.

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"Don't try to pick up and do it yourself. … People have tried, with good intentions, and go with a container full of food, and just get mugged," he said.

(Plus, only cash donations are eligible for the federal government's matching funds program, which will be administered by the Canadian International Development Agency.)

Mr. Hamdani said the fact that he and most of the volunteers at the charity's Hamilton office are fasting during daylight hours for Ramadan reminds them, a little bit, of the suffering they are trying to alleviate.

"As hungry as we are, and as thirsty as we are, we know that there are people across the world that are hungrier and thirstier," he said.

Much of the money is being raised through mosques. Farrukh Alam, the B.C. president of the Pakistan-Canada Association, said that of the $100,000 his group has raised, about half has come through mosques. He also said local community radio fundraisers have come up with more than $170,000.

Syed Aga of ICNA Relief, an arm of the Islamic Circle of North America (Canada), said a $50-a-head fundraising dinner in Toronto's low-income Thorncliffe neighbourhood raised $40,000.

"They are not really well-to-do, but in spite of that, they bought the tickets," he said.

Another fundraiser in Mississauga scheduled for Aug. 29 should raise twice that, he said. Already, his organization has committed $1.3-million to flood relief, anticipating at least that in donations. He said his group, which also raised funds to help with Haiti's earthquake and the Asian tsunami in 2004, is now running medical clinics in Pakistan and is delivering tents and food aid.

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Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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