Oct 24, 2010

They need our help, now

The launch of the British Pakistan Foundation in London was a glittering affair that raised over 200,000 pounds for flood relief

By Murtaza Ali Shah and Beena Sarwar

It was certainly something to write home about: a black tie affair, fundraising dinner with a heart, attended by a glittering galaxy of the who's who of Britain's Pakistani community and their friends. The occasion: the high profile launch of the British Pakistan Foundation (BPF) at London's Hilton Park Lane hotel last weekend.

Guests were welcomed at the entrance by eye-catching women in white with British and Pakistani flags, balancing on stilts. The dining hall inside, packed to capacity, testified to the desire of expatriates wanting to contribute to the home country, particularly in the wake of the floods that have devastated Pakistan.

"We didn't expect so many people to buy tickets," said Kashif Zafar, a banker, one of the organisers, who has recently moved to London from New York with his Indian-born wife Sujata. At GBP 150 a plate, his initial apprehension prior to the event was understandable.

"Now we are worried we will be over capacity," his friend and fellow organiser Faisal Mir told The News at the opening reception. Also a banker based in London, Mir worked in his student days as a journalist with The Frontier Post in Lahore and is also, coincidentally, married to an Indian woman.

Pakistani born bankers and hedge-fund managers like Zafar and Mir bought the bulk of the 10-12-seater tables crammed into the dining hall. Over 700 guests are estimated to have finally attended the event that had an initial seating capacity of 600.

At the launch, BPF Chairman, the charismatic British-Pakistani entrepreneur, television personality (from BBC's hit series 'Dragon's Den') and philanthropist James Caan (born Nazim Khan in Lahore, 1960) told the audience how the Foundation had started, inspired by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi -- along the lines of the American Pakistan Foundation that he had earlier encouraged, launched in 2009.

The Foreign Minister, suave in a black sherwani, was present, accompanied by the High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan and other members of the Pakistani mission in London. Seated at the main table with Qureshi was British Foreign Minister William Hague, along with Baroness Saeeda Warsi and several other front-benchers from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

They listened intently as Caan spoke simply, and from the heart, about the devastation caused by floods in Pakistan. He spoke from personal knowledge, having just returned from a trip to the flood-hit areas where the James Caan Foundation (JCF) is working on a just launched, ambitious 'Build A Village' project. "I have to tell you about a man I met near Nowshera. He told me how he saved his 80-year old blind mother from the flood waters and in the process, lost his 13-year old daughter, who was swept away, never to be seen again. This is just one of so many tragedies caused by the floods."

He drew inspiration from the dedicated hard work of volunteers in the affected areas. "I'm proud of our community and what we have done," said Caan. "I can't explain the devastation I saw, traveling with the US Army, seeing a land mass the size of the UK under water. The level of tragedy is beyond anything I have ever seen. Once an issue is out of the media spotlight, it gets forgotten."

But we can't afford to forget this tragedy, he stressed. The BPF, being launched at a critical moment in Pakistan's history, is dedicated to improving the socio-economic condition of the people of Pakistan, he said.

Caan, who has been active in raising awareness about the plight of flood affected victims in the mainstream British media, believes that the British Pakistani community can be a potent force for development for Pakistan through remittances and philanthropy, as well as through the promotion of trade, investments, knowledge and technology transfers. "Please be generous, please donate because they need our help, and they need it now," he concluded.

His speech was followed by brief addresses by Mr Qureshi and Mr Hague, who stressed the need for Britain and Pakistan to work together to further strengthen socio-economic and cultural ties at the government and the people-to-people level. Shah Mahmood Qureshi said he was inspired by the enthusiasm of young British Pakistanis. Commending those at the forefront of starting the BPF, he termed the launch as a turning point for relations of two countries, as it testified to the desire of expatriates to be part of the process to strengthen Pakistan, rejuvenating hopes about the country's future.

"British Pakistanis are the ambassadors of Pakistan and an integral part of the close relations between the countries," he said. "We all have stakes in a strong and prosperous Pakistan. A deep partnership exists between the UK and Pakistan and it is made possible by the over one million strong diaspora of Pakistanis who have given back to Pakistan on every difficult occasion. The people of Pakistan are deeply appreciative of the generosity of the British people in flood relief efforts."

He appreciated the visits of senior British political figures to Pakistan's flood affected areas. "They have helped Pakistan raise awareness about the true scale of the disaster," he said, detailing the scale of the devastation caused by the floods. He appealed to the British government and public to continue supporting Pakistan's recovery and rehabilitation efforts.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced British government's "100 percent support" to BPF and its vision of helping the socio-economic development of Pakistan and its people. "Pakistanis are talented and rich in ideas. They have contributed greatly to life in the UK. Their intellectual ability can be utilised to engineer the prosperity and development of Pakistan but it needs help from friends of Pakistan abroad. The role of diaspora Pakistanis is crucial in this regard."

"Pakistan," he added, "is a young democracy beset by complex problems which could have taxed the resources and stability of any state in the world. The human toll exacted by the challenges demands our concern and our passion."

Hague said Pakistan was a key strategic partner to Britain in the region. "Britain will always help Pakistan wherever it can, whether during natural calamities such as the recent floods and 2005 earthquake or advocating for concessions to Pakistan at the European level."

"Pakistan needs the support of the international community over a long term," he said. "Britain will be the staunchest supporter of Pakistan's democratic future." He referred to the recent meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan where Britain strongly advocated the case of Pakistan. He also spoke about the dire need to bring necessary reforms to Pakistan's economic structure.

The event was attended by leading Pakistanis from the field of sport, business, music, film, politics and entertainment as well heads of major NGOs, mainstream journalists, heads of financial institutions, key figures of the three main parties and heads of international banks and other financial institutions. They included Lyse Doucet of the BBC and the legendary Shoaib Sultan Khan who pioneered the rural support programmes that have done much to alleviate the lot of the rural poor in Pakistan. Hitan Mehta, Director Operations of the British Asian Trust (one of The Prince's Charities) was also there, eager to help with Pakistan flood relief.

The speeches were followed by dinner and then a live auction taking up from where the silent auction had left off. Carolinne Oliphant, the experienced auctioneer from Bonhams, coaxed and lured the audience into bidding higher and higher amounts for the dazzling array of art works and memorabilia donated for the fundraiser.

A "Bismillah" engraved in Swarovsky crystal, went for GBP 5,000 (way over the reserve price of GBP 1,200). A limited edition print titled 'Red Silks 4' by Nusra Qureshi (donated by Green Cardamom Gallery) sold for GBP 3,000 (reserve price GBP 800). A series of M. F. Husain's 'Mother Teresa' prints went for a steal -- GBP 10,500 (reserve GBP 7,000). And so it went.

By the end of the evening, the BPF netted over GBP 2,25,000 (they are still calculating the profits) to be given as donation for Pakistan flood relief.

Typically for a Pakistan event, it went way over the original closing time. The auction itself ran past midnight, and was followed by the popular rock band Strings, flown in especially for the fundraiser. Strings mesmerised the diverse crowd with their hit songs for some two hours before calling it a night. And what a night it was.

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