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Canadian Red Cross Luncheon (Speaking Notes) - October 6, 2011


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

I thank the Canadian Red Cross for inviting me here today to speak to you about my visit to Pakistan last year, following the flooding that devastated the region. Before I begin to tell you about my experience, it is important to mention that the Red Cross has always been a visible force in Pakistan, its most well-known counterpart being the Pakistan Red Crescent Society.

Established in 1947 by the Governor General of Pakistan at that time, the Pakistan Red Crescent Society was recognized by the International Committee of Red Cross in 1948. From then on, the society became a household name. If you grew up in Pakistan, you knew about Red Crescent.

The Canadian Red Cross has been working in Pakistan since 2005 and has a strong relationship with Red Crescent. Both factions responded immediately to the flooding of 2010. Thousands of Pakistan Red Crescent staff and volunteers provided basic supplies, emergency first aid, and help in evacuating communities; while the Canadian Red Cross launched a massive health operation in affected communities.

These efforts were sorely needed. One-fifth of the country was underwater, affecting close to 20 million people – one in ten Pakistanis. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called it the worst disaster he had ever seen, even more terrible than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 Pakistani earthquake.

I took part in the relief efforts here in Canada and decided to visit Pakistan myself in November 2010. Upon reaching the country, the first thing I did was visit a Pakistani governmental department focused specifically on flood relief. I asked them what we were all thinking –  why? Why didn’t we see this coming? The answer they gave me was unbelievable - that this could never have been predicted. The floods were driven by unprecedented monsoon rain, in excess of 87 per cent.

I visited affected regions in North-West Pakistan, namely the worst-hit districts of Nowshera and of Charsadda. Nowshera was almost completely under-water. There were reports of waves up to 14 feet high, which were unheard of in the region. Homes, bridges, everything was destroyed. Of the 2600 bridges in the region, 2200 were swept away.  Later on, I was happy to learn that Canada had supplied two shipments of emergency bridges to the country. These weybridges were beneficial in the flood relief efforts.

In Charsadda, I was met with mobs of people. It was absolutely heartbreaking. These were people who had just lost everything; all their possessions had been swept away. They were just begging for some kind - any kind - of help. About one million people in the Charsadda district had been affected by the flood, many of them staying inside schools or in camps on the outskirts of the city.

Throughout the trip, I could not stop thinking about the women affected by the disaster. I badly wanted to meet with them in the camps, but could not, due to security reasons. Instead, a gathering of about 300 women was arranged for me at a personal residence in Nowshera. You could tell that even the residence itself was affected by the flooding - the doors and furniture in the house were warped, and you could see marks on the ceiling to where the waters had risen. The women gathered in the yard of the house, where I was able to speak to them personally. Many of them had remained in the camps months after the flooding, simply because they had nowhere else to go. I distributed money among them, in an attempt to help them any way I could.

By far, the greatest tragedy took place in the Swat Valley, where just a year before, millions were displaced because of Taliban control. Months after they had returned to rebuild their lives, just when they were getting back on their feet, the flooding drove thousands of people from their homes once again. My own family’s summer home was part of the devastation in the region.

I was especially concerned for an orphanage in the Swat Valley to which I had a personal connection. I had learned of it on CTV and had traced it to the city of Peshawar when I visited Pakistan in 2009. This orphanage, and the 86 boys in its care, were originally displaced because of the Taliban. It was doing quite well, running on funding from its lands and a catering business, and even sending one of the children to study abroad.  After the Taliban took hold of the region, the catering business was shut down.  To help the children as best as we could, my sister and I provided them with clothes, shoes, and socks. We had found shopkeepers who were kind enough to sell us the items we needed at cost price, and ended up bringing back two truckloads of things. That same day, after dropping off the truckloads of items, I had also provided them  with some much needed water, dry milk, and rice.

To this day, thinking about that orphanage still brings tears to my eyes. As soon as I heard of the flooding in 2010, my initial reaction was about those little boys. When I finally got a hold of them, offering to send them money, they told me not to give it to them, but to those who really needed it. I was amazed. These were ordinary people who were doing their utmost to help others around them, without asking for anything in return. And it was not just the one time, I saw a similar outlook throughout my visit in Pakistan - something so terrible and devastating as the floods had somehow let the true beauty of the people shine through. I even saw it on my own father’s lands, where among thousands of campers seeking shelter, two couples were married!

The need, however, still remains in Pakistan. The flooding of this year has affected 8.9 million people, among which many had already lost everything in the summer of 2010. Over 1.52 million homes have been partially damaged or destroyed, and 6.7 million acres of land affected, threatening the health, livelihoods and living conditions of hundreds of thousands of families in the province of Sindh. Just two weeks ago, the United Nations launched an appeal of 365 million dollars for flood relief.

Despite another flooding crisis, I know that the people of Pakistan will pull together, helping one another in any way they can. Red Crescent has already risen to the challenge, mobilizing stocks from all over the nation to help the affected families. There is still, however, much more that can be done.

I am reminded of Willam F. Halsey’s quote: “There are no great men, only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet.” I know that these people exist.  I have seen it Pakistan, and I see it here today. By being a part of the Tiffany Circle, you are showing true commitment to the help of your fellow human beings.  I commend you and I look to you to rise and meet the challenges faced by the Canadian Red Cross today and in the future.

Thank you for allowing me to share my experiences with you, and I hope that you enjoy the rest of your afternoon.