Flying high with just one engine

The folks over at have been taking an early peak at some of the films that will be playing at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin. This one immediately caught my eye as a film that more people need to know about:

FLYING ON ONE ENGINE captures the story of the severely disabled Dr. Dicksheet, a man who has donated his surgical skills to the cause of alleviating suffering among India’s poor. The film both highlights the problems of cleft lip and other congenital deformities, and also tells the dramatic story of a person risking his life to help those in need. Emphasizing Dr. Dicksheet’s frailty, his surgical brilliance, and the spectacular effects of his actions, this film juxtaposes the Nobel Prize nominated surgeon’s godlike status alongside the incredible desperation of the Indian community in which he serves.

The website of The India Project which Dr. Sharadkumar Dicksheet (from Brooklyn) runs is filled with inspirational pictures and stories, so I am glad someone has made a documentary about his work to spread the word. He is an eight-time Nobel Prize nominee and although he is himself hobbled by sickness, his patients think of him as a “God” for the help he brings to their lives.

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The Tronie Foundation

Since we’ve already had one depressing story about child slave labor in India today I thought, why not end the day with an…errrrrr, uplifting story about child slave labor? Thank goodness for the Seattle Times for reporting on this gem to take some of the earlier slime off:

As a 7-year-old girl in southern India in 1978, she was taken from her parents and sold into slavery.

At the same time, a 9-year-old boy in Southeast Asia was surviving alone in a cave, after the fishing boat on which he was fleeing Vietnam became shipwrecked.

Rani and Trong Hong would eventually be rescued from their separate childhood nightmares and brought to safety in Washington state. They would meet as adults on a blind date, fall in love and marry…

Now, motivated by the pain of their early years to help others, they are renovating a home exclusively for victims of human trafficking — people recruited, transported and harbored for sexual exploitation or slave labor. [Link]

Talk about a power couple! Click on their names in the passage above to read about their unfortunate childhoods. The non-profit they’ve established, partly on the profits from their lucrative home-building business in Olympia Washington, is called The Tronie Foundation (and it could use your donations):

Rani works with victims who have been abused by all forms of Human Trafficking. Whether the victim was part of a mail-order bride schemes, sold into servitude, sexual slavery or victimized as part of an international adoption ring, Rani because of her own personal experience has a heart for these women and children. She shares openly her own personal story, in hopes that they too can be restored and live a productive life, free from the pain of their past.

“No woman and child should be so severely abused that they end up looking like they are mentally and physically ill. As a survivor of human trafficking, I personally have chosen to speak publicly to give hope and encourage those of you that may be afraid to come forward. [Link]

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My life as a loan shark

I wanted to write a quick follow-up post to this one I wrote last year about the micro-credit organization In May of this year I lent $100 to Farzhana Mosah Khan, a tailor in Afghanistan:

Farzhana lives in district 17 of Kabul, Afghanistan. She is a tailor. She is married and lives with members of her family and she wants to help her husband support her family. She wants to take a group loan to expand her business and buy new machines because she wants to send her children to good schools to be educated. She hopes that if she works hard to be a good business dealer in the future she will make a good monthly income for her family. [Link]

The total loan amount requested by Farzhana was actually $175, which means that another lender provided the difference. Farzhana needs about a year to pay back my loan (interest free). This isn’t a charity. You get your money back but simply have to forgo the interest. What that means is that if you already have a “charity portfolio” that you give to every year this isn’t really another charity to spread you thin.

I decided to check out who the other lender was and his page documents the tremendous success he has seen during his involvement with Kiva. He gets paid.

Farzhana posted the first installment of her loan ($22) in June. I think I am going to make some more loans. Need a demo? Check it:

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Desis and Philanthropy

I read this article in the Cultural Connect (thanks, Sumaya) on desis and philanthropy that I’ve been mulling over for the past few days. NYU law student Maneka Sinha argues, among other things, that: a) South Asian Americans are more likely than other Americans of color to engage in international philanthropy and less likely to donate to American causes, b) the reason for this trend is because most South Asians identify as brown first rather than as American, and c) brown people should donate to domestic causes in order to assert our American identity to the mainstream population.

I have many thoughts on the article. But first, let’s go through Sinha’s arguments:

The national US population only donate to international causes at a rate of 2.2% of all charitable activity. Minority groups, on the other hand, tend to “give back” on an international scale at a higher rate of 13%. Though as a whole minority groups focus on international giving at higher rates, there are discrepancies between these rates among different ethnic groups. While all minority groups demonstrate a strong tradition of giving at home and abroad, African Americans tend to focus a large degree of their charitable activity on domestic efforts supporting community churches, other community organizations, and education. Asian Americans place the least emphasis on international giving, focusing a majority of charitable efforts on the Asian American community and education. The Latino community gives internationally at a level somewhere between those of the Black and Asian American communities and also tends to focus its charitable efforts on its own community here in the US as well as on education. However, South Asian Americans in particular often give back to communities tied not to their own upbringing, but to their parents’ upbringing – namely, communities in South Asia.

And that’s a problem because…

Though it may be hard to swallow, the truth remains that we are American – we’ve been raised, trained, and educated here. If we don’t establish ourselves as an active force investing in the development of our communities and in aiding those members of the American population less fortunate than our own “model” South Asian community, our kids won’t either. And not only that, we will continue to remain somewhat isolated in a nation that benefits from our skills, talents and brainpower. Cringing at the thought of being “American” without addressing the underlying reasons why we shy away from that label is not an option – it is necessary to give back to the communities where our future generations will be raised in. Showing the mainstream population that we identify as American and are fully invested in the betterment of our local communities will help the general population appreciate us as such and ultimately allow us to shatter some of those glass ceilings.

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Right to Information

This Saturday, I had the opportunity to listen to Arvind Kejriwal, founder of Parivartan, speak about his work on the Right to Information (RTI) Act of India.

Arvind Kejriwal is an Indian social activist and crusader for greater transparency in Government. He was awarded Ramon Magsaysay Emergent Leadership award in 2006 for activating India’s Right to Information movement at grassroots and social activities to empower the poorest citizens to fight corruption by holding the government answerable to the people.

[He] devotes full time to his work as the founder-head of Parivartan – a Delhi based citizens’ movement trying to ensure a just, transparent and accountable governance… [Kejriwal] campaigned for the Right to Information Act, which was passed in 2005. In July 2006, he spearheaded an awareness campaign for RTI across India. [wiki]

As we all know, the government agency bureaucracy in India is wrought with a culture of bribery and no real citizen accountability. The Right to Information Act has provides a way for Indian citizens to hold their government accountable, and has been doing so effectively.

Right to Information Act 2005 empowers every citizen to; ask any questions from the Government or seek any information; take copies of any government documents; inspect any government documents; inspect any Government works; and take samples of materials of any Government work. The Central RTI Act extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir… All bodies…which are owned, controlled or substantially financed by the Government are covered.

If concerned officer does not provide information in time, a penalty of Rs 250 per day of delay can be imposed by the Information Commissioner. If the information provided is false, a penalty of a maximum of Rs 25000 can be imposed. A penalty can also be imposed for providing incomplete or for rejecting your application for malafide reasons. This fine is deducted from the officer’s personal salary. [link]

It was interesting to hear about the grassroots tactics around the RTI implementation Kejriwal used. This past July they ran a 15 day media campaign where they trained 1,500 volunteers and worked with 700 organizations across India. They worked with all of the major media outlets, and during that two week period 2,200 RTI reports were filled out. They coordinate with volunteers to stand outside of government agencies to inform citizens that if the agency tries to bribe them inside, to come return outside and receive help on filing an RTI report. They even have a blog to spread the word on RTI activities. Continue reading

Online Power

I’ve often talked about the power of online organizing for the desi community. There have been many sites (besides our much loved Sepia Mutiny) that have attempted to faciliate this for our community; The now defunct, the weekly profiles from The Desi Connect, and the still beta networking site Desi Page. Last month, a new site hit the inter-desi-networks, the South Asian Forum.

The South Asian Forum aims to tell the story of South Asians through the lens of its organizations and organizing work. From one-one-one interviews with community Youth Solidarity Summerorganizations to an extensive history and framework of South Asians in the U.S., this Forum hopes to capture the deep and rich history of South Asian collective action in the U.S.

In addition, the Forum brings together a collection of various resources and tools, such as an online directory of organizations and a census fact sheet, to aid those working in or interested in the South Asian community.

Through the collection of data, sharing of resources, and storytelling we can identify current and emerging issues, barriers and gaps, and develop sustainable strategies for the future. [link]

This website has a lot of potential, and is a wealth of information for anything related to the South Asian American diaspora. The website is well divided into different sections- such as the history of South Asians and South Asian organizing in the U.S., to the voices of our community with interviews and surveys that have been done, all the way to Census resources. Most importantly, at least when it comes to building networks and coalitions, is the South Asians Organizations Directory — a database of various types of organization serving the brown community. This fabulous online resource was put together by a task force of leaders in our community. Continue reading

Puppets deployed against landmines

Witness the following horrific string of events:

I know it isn’t pretty and I hope that I haven’t ruined anyone’s lunch hour. The Christian Science Monitor has an article about the puppets of “No Strings,” and that organization’s mission to teach the children of Afghanistan about the dangers of landmines:

“Bang!” The little puppet boy steps on a mine, and now he only has one leg. The Afghan children watching the video at a school on a Kabul hillside gasp.

Puppets have long been used to entertain and to teach children basic lessons such as how to count and the letters of the alphabet

The Story of the Little Carpet Boy,” loosely based on Pinocchio, is the brainchild of No Strings International, a British charity set up to reach children in war-torn areas and teach them vital life lessons through puppetry.

“It’s hard to get a crowd of children to listen to an adult, but the minute you bring a puppet out, kids just light up,” says Johnie McGlade, founder of No Strings.

Mr. McGlade worked for more than a year with two of Muppet-creator Jim Henson’s original team, Kathy Mullen and Michael Frith, to create a culturally sensitive film using characters from Afghan folklore to teach children about the dangers of minefields.

About 60 Afghans a month are killed or injured by mines and unexploded ordnance around the country, and almost half of them are under 18 years old, according the United Nations Mine Action Center for Afghanistan (UNMACA). [Link]

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To The Ballot Box

I’ve made a slight disappearance from the blogosphere to do some very cool things in the reality-sphere. Here in Los Angeles, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center just launched Asian Americans at the Ballot Box, a report on the voting behavior of the Asian American community.

APALC conducted the study using data from exit polls in the 2004 general election, as well as from the registrars’ offices in Los Angeles and Orange counties, to draw its conclusions. The study found that, in Los Angeles County, 71 percent of registered Asian voters actually went to the polls, compared with 78 percent of registered voters in general. In Orange County, 68 percent of registered Asian voters cast ballots, while 73 percent of all registered voters did. [link]

“Asian American communities are growing dramatically and we’re seeing that growth at the polls,” said Stewart Kwoh, President and Executive Director of APALC. “Increasingly, candidates will have to speak to our issues if they expect to get elected.” [link]

The report is fantastic, if I do say so myself. It doesn’t just look at the general Asian American statistics, it breaks down the results to compare ethnic disparities within the Asian American community. Even more spectacular (and SM relevant) is page 27 of the report, which covers the Asian Indian vote from Los Angeles and Orange county.

Demographics of Indian American Voters 2004 General Election in [LA County]

  • 66% Foreign- Born
  • 13% 18 to 24
  • 47% Female, 53% Male
  • 51% Democrat, 20% Republican, 26% Decline to State
  • 77% Supported Kerry, 23% Supported Bush
  • 12% are Limited English Proficiency, 88% not. [report]

Additionally, we see that Asian Indian youth have a turnout rate of 62%; in other words 62% of Asian Indians who registered to vote went to the polls in 2004. This rate is just slightly higher than the county Asian American youth turnout rate of 57%. A more extensive analysis on the Asian American youth vote will be released in a few weeks on this website in a supplemental report.

A quick thumb through of the Ballot Box report also reveals the following for Asian Indians of Los Angeles County…

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The Love Goat

Imagine, if you will, that the following fictional conversation took place between myself (in my best Jon Lovitz voice) and a girl named “Preeti:”

Abhi: Hey Preeti.

Preeti: Whad up?

Abhi: You know we’ve been together for two whole months now. I just wanted you to know that I’m really excited about us. I think we make a good couple. You complete me. I think we are helping each other grow, both together and as individuals.

Preeti: Uh huh. That’s sweet.

Abhi: Well, since it is our two-month anniversary I thought I would get you something special.

Preeti: Cool, did you get me a brown Zune?

Abhi: No darling. Check this out though. I just had a star named after you. I wanted you to know that my love for you will shine brightly forever.

Preeti: Forever?

Abhi: Foreva-eva. Just think! Every time you look up there in the sky at the star formerly known as ZX56C92 you will think about how much I burn for you!

Okay, has anyone vomited yet? I am willing to bet that at least one reader out there has had a star named after them or named a star after someone. Admit it! We’ve all done things we are ashamed of. This is definitely not how I’d go about declaring my feelings for someone. Then again, I’m not sure I have ever developed a really good method for showing someone I care. The fictional conversation above leads me to a real conversation that took place over this past weekend.

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Social Activism Made Easier

A wise man once said, “When the world around you is full of shit, it is a good idea to pick up your shovel” That man is probably my dad, it sounds like something he would make up on the spot and in turn attribute it to some credible source (“Confucius said it”). The words do ring true but anyone who has ever picked up that shovel will know that between shovel and shit there exists a whole barrage of questions. Where do I begin de-shiting? Will this shovel do OK for all this shit? It is too much shit, how should I get others to help me in getting rid of it all? Snakes on a plane?

Twenty two year old British Columbia native Dev Aujla’s organization Dream Now appears to have some answers. Dream Now is a great initiative that helps youth organize their efforts in creating and running grass roots non-profit projects. They provide management tools and, more importantly, mentorship to participants around the globe. It all starts with an idea and rest is made easier with step-by-step guide from brain storming to project completion.


Dev’s younger brother, Aaron Aujla has also begun spreading the good word through his clothing label Auj. Every cashmere tee has an access code which, when entered, will result in a phone call from a Dream Now mentor. Cashmere tees? Yes. Preppy? Most def. Making saving the world sexy? Hopefully. Current customers include students who patented a free water purification system in Uganda, a “future dentist” who is starting an organization to bring relief to children, and Simon Jackson.

The two brothers, who have relocated shop to the centre of the universe a.k.a. Queen St. West, Toronto, have been featured in CBC’s new docu-series ‘Make Some Noise‘. The series chronicles the efforts made by young people to create change in the world around them. Watch their segment. Watch it! Makes my cynical bones itch with enthusiasm.

Big ups to the Aujlas for their energy and dedication to making and helping make do-good dreams come true.

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