16 December 2005
by Margaret Smith
Neelam Wali is from the Indian-controlled area of the mountainous region of Kashmir. Her friend, Neelum Dad, is from the part of Kashmir under Pakistani jurisdiction.
Both live in Billerica, where they became friends through their children in the school system.
Now, they are joining forces to help the victims of the 8 October earthquake that struck the Himalayas, leaving devastation that cut across the border between both countries.
Wali and Dad are planning a fund-raiser to benefit aid organizations working with quake victims. The event, which will include an Indian fashion show and other festivities, is set for Friday, 24 February 2006, 6 to 9 p.m. at the Billerica Lodge of Elks No. 2071.
Wali and Dad said they have enlisted the help of the Indian and Pakistani medical associations, as well as numerous cultural and religious organizations and businesses that cater to the area's South Asian community, including Aalok International, a fashion boutique in Lexington.
"I am from the Indian side. She is from Lahore, on the Pakistani side," said Wali, a long-time Billerica resident who with her husband, Anupam, owns and operates Printing & Graphics Services in Billerica. Wali is also a past president of the Billerica Chamber of Commerce and serves on various volunteer boards including the Friends of the Billerica Council on Aging and Billerica Partners for Education.
Dad, whose family has lived in the town for about five years, said the earthquake, which killed an estimated 50,000 people, has left nearly 3 to 5 million people homeless as a brutal Himalayan winter sets in. In addition to concerns about shelter and warmth, Dad said the conditions might make survivors more vulnerable to easily spread diseases such as measles. "We had a lot of aid, and help, especially from the United States, Russia and China," she said.
However, the rugged, mountainous terrain has made reaching many areas difficult and treacherous. They noted the recent crash of a rescue helicopter.
"I think that initially, we didn't think it was such a big thing," Dad said. Only later, as reports began to emerge, did the scope of the destruction become clear.
Dad and Wali also hope to travel to the region in the summer, to visit families and see the area for themselves. They are considering whether it would be feasible to create a means of adopting one village each on either side of the national border between India and Pakistan.
"I think that what we were feeling is, a lot of children were really suffering," Wali said. "As women, in this part of the country, we feel we've been pretty lucky."
Dad said they are especially concerned about the plight of children who might be orphaned or disabled.
They have established a bank account - the Kashmir Earthquake Fund - and are researching reputable organizations who they hope to help with funds raised through the benefit.
Although the future of Kashmir has long been under dispute, Dad and Wali said the people of the region are more alike than different in terms of culture and history. Many families have members on both sides, they said.
"We have to kind of go beyond these differences," Dad said. "A lot of people don't agree on these things. They need to realize all these people over there are connected and interlinked. The basic feelings are the same. These people have got nothing right now."
For more information on the Kashmir Earthquake Fund, call 978-667-6950.