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Silent Heroes

“I remember feeling intense fear, just as I was about to step into the Marriott after the 2008 bombing. We had to go to the top floor, where temperatures were as high as 400°C. My training had taught me what could happen under such conditions, so I knew what I was getting into.  I just closed my eyes, said a prayer and took a moment to focus – I was a volunteer and I was going to try and save lives. Fear was replaced with courage. The next few hours just whizzed by.” 

– Rozina Kadir, Search and Rescue Team member,
Focus Humanitarian Assistance, Pakistan

Kadir is among a team of people who risk their lives to save those of others – all in the spirit of volunteerism. It is this ethic of selfless giving that turns the wheels at Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), not only in Pakistan, but across Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Canada, India, the UK and the US, where this Aga Khan Development Network-affiliated, disaster-preparedness and response NGO operates.

FOCUS has a two pronged objective: to provide relief and assistance against man-made or natural disasters; and, to build capacity within the community to reduce reliance on humanitarian aid and promote self-sustainable, community-based, long-term solutions.

Since its inception in 1998, FOCUS Pakistan has been working for the local communities. The organisation carried out extensive relief operations following the 2005 South Asian earthquake, for which it won the Sitara-e-Eisaar award from the Pakistan government. In 2007 alone, FOCUS Pakistan provided relief efforts during the heavy rainfall in Karachi, mudflow and glacial lakes outburst floods in Sonoghar, snowfall in Parag and Garam Chashma in Chitral and floods in Damas and Gitch in Gilgit-Baltistan. FOCUS Pakistan has also played a key role in responding to national tragedies, following the suicide attacks at Marriott hotel in Islamabad, and providing emergency relief response after the Baluchistan earthquake in 2008. It also provided rescue services in Mithadar Lea Market and the Liaquatabad Firdous Market building collapses in Karachi in July 2009.

FOCUS’s main strength lies in its voluntary teams of rescuers and responders at community levels. FOCUS Pakistan provides technical training in first-aid, search and rescue, fire fighting and disaster management to specialised groups of volunteers: The Search and Rescue Team (SART) consists of 40 volunteers, 11 of whom are women, and responds to emergency situations across the country. Complementing the SART, are volunteers of Disaster Assessment and Response Team (DART) and Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), which help communities in developing crises and emergency plans and provide stockpiles of essential survival items such as tents, blankets, first aid kit and basic search and rescue tools. There are 146 FOCUS-trained CERTs across Pakistan, consisting of nearly 34,000 volunteers trained in basic disaster management skills. These volunteers are the first respondents to major emergencies.

Another mission is to prepare disaster-resilient communities and equip locals with the skills and knowledge for disaster risk reduction. Training programmes are strengthened with the component of risk anticipation – a feature whereby communities are provided with hazard and risk maps through which they can visually identify areas that are at high risk for natural disasters, such as landslides, debris flow, cyclones or floods, among others. The maps also help identify assets at risk, provide information on land-use planning and help communities prepare emergency and evacuation plans. “These maps help communities avoid investing in high-risk zones, and save not only their lives, but also their livelihood and livestock,” said Nizammudin, a CERT member from Sherqilla in Gilgit-Baltistan. “We’re lucky when we can identify the risk areas before it is too late,” he added.

A key strength for FOCUS Pakistan has also been its numerous collaborations and support from international organisations, such as RAPID UK, the European Commission, as well as local organisations and key government institutions. FOCUS Pakistan has been collaborating with the Disaster Preparedness, European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department, (DIPECHO) since 2006 on various community preparedness programmes, including the Building Local Leadership and Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction in Northern Pakistan, being implemented in three districts of Gilgit-Baltistan and one district of the North West Frontier Province. Through the programme, FOCUS Pakistan strengthens disaster preparedness initiatives and builds partnerships with local organisations.

FOCUS Pakistan has also extended support to the local government in Chitral to develop a District Disaster Management Plan, which proposes strategies and actions that different stakeholders can take, given their capacities and resources.

In Karachi, FOCUS Pakistan is helping the City District Government build capacity in search and rescue. The organisation has also conducted trainings for the government’ Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority, as well as the National Rural Support Programme.

Since 2006, FOCUS Pakistan has been operating a School Safety Programme, designed to train students as young as six years, about personal safety during natural disasters. “Our students don’t even know about basic fire safety. It is sad that we had to go through the 2005 earthquake to prioritise something so important. The reality is that Pakistan is a high-risk zone and our students need to be prepared. These school trainings can help save numerous lives, even during low-risk emergencies,” said Shugufta Saqib Ansawaria, Principal, Army Public School and College for Girls, Westridge, Rawalpindi.

The efforts of FOCUS Pakistan and its contributions in safeguarding communities have received recognition at national and international levels. Recently, FOCUS Pakistan was selected by the Jury of the 2009 United Nation’s Sasakawa Award for Disaster Reduction to receive a Certificate of Merit for enhancing Disaster Risk Reduction. The certificate recognised ideas and recommendations proposed for enhancing disaster risk reduction and for correlating humanitarian response mechanisms at the Second Forum of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.

FOCUS Pakistan has come a long way since it started its journey in 1998, when a team of expert volunteers deployed by FOCUS USA visited Pakistan and worked in the region for two months in the field, drawing maps and conducting interviews with local communities to design a relevant and practical programme to address the local risks, natural hazards and vulnerabilities. Today, the systems developed by FOCUS Pakistan, to minimise the impact of both natural and man-made disasters, are being implemented in the communities across the country. These systems not only help in saving lives, but also contribute in safeguarding resources for economic generation.

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