Prepared for a Crisis - Jehangir Malik Interview
Issue 63 December 2009
This year marks 25 years of unwavering contribution to the humanitarian cause by Islamic Relief. Remona Aly catches up with UK Manager Jehangir Malik.
There are few choices you make that truly shape the course of your life. One decision might lead to great success or unforeseen loss, another to untold happiness or sinking disappointment. Yet all the paths you take will almost certainly be riddled with challenges.
A young graduate from Birmingham made such a choice that was to mould the next 16 years of his life and has resulted in him heading up the largest Muslim humanitarian aid organisation in the UK. For someone who has witnessed human suffering firsthand the world over, and for one who faces the intense struggles of being UK Head of Islamic Relief, Jehangir Malik is surprisingly jovial. In fact, the hour I spend with him is filled more with good humour than gravity. Yet he never takes his job less than seriously and he always goes well beyond the remit.
We are sitting in Islamic Relief’s Head of Operations in London, a modest building that overlooks the bustling Waterloo station. Open plan offices where the Manager works alongside his team, show employees engrossed in work like their counterparts in the Birmingham Headquarters, and those in the field and fundraising offices across Africa, Asia, Europe, the US and the Middle East. To consider that all this began with the first donation of 20 pence nods to a story of success peppered with challenges right from its modest beginnings 25 years ago, and this story parallels its current UK Manager.
As Jehangir sits in his steel-grey suit and light shirt complete, as ever, with the badge of honour – the charity’s gold logo pin, he reminisces about his student days and his first encounter with Islamic Relief as a volunteer back in 1990. His memories prior to those first days at the charity are ones he does not wish to dwell on, as he glosses over a misspent youth. I oblige him and leave stories of being banned from BHS behind, while we get back to the question in hand: how Jehangir Malik got to where he is today.
Jehangir graduated from the University of Wolverhampton in 1992, which was also the year of the Pakistan floods. He was given a truck and a mission to drive from mosque to mosque collecting clothes. A year later he was on the road again with Dr. Hany al-Banna, the founder of the charity. But this time Dr. Hany was in the driving seat – steering Jehangir towards the next 16 years of his life. Jehangir speaks of his mentor with warm affection and deep rooted respect. He jokingly names Dr. Hany as the “culprit” for his own time at Islamic Relief, and divulges a rather bizarre tale that cemented his involvement with the charity.
“I graduated in Law and wanted to enter the legal field, but Dr. Hany had other plans, asking me to work full time for Islamic Relief. Then he suggested we make a contract there and then and recited Surah Fatihah. I was slightly bemused by the whole thing. It was a bit like an Islamic marriage contract – I don’t know if I’m married to Dr. Hany!” It proved an intriguing and binding union. A year after joining Islamic Relief, Dr. Hany had a greater test for his nuptial commitment by asking Jehangir to go to America to set up Islamic Relief USA. “I said yes, of course,” Jehangir relates, “But I told him I had a mother at home, I was newly married and had many responsibilities. I categorically said ‘I’ll only give you six months’. He replied, ‘Okay. But you’ll be staying longer’. He was right – I stayed in the US for seven years.”
His American tale is of a mini adventure in itself. Having been made homeless by an earthquake a month after arriving, and then sharing a house with six other families, Jehangir eventually found his feet on solid ground and set up operations, with mission instilled firmly in his mind from Dr. Hany. After months of working out of his home, Islamic Relief USA was set up. The US is now the second largest funding country for the charity.
After leaving America with seven years of experience, and the first addition to his family – a baby daughter – the next port of call was Afghanistan where Jehangir was appointed Deputy Director. It was an eventful year. It was here that he witnessed the repercussions in the hours following the 9/11 attacks. “The world became a very different place for charities. Many of the Middle-Eastern charities with multi-million dollar budgets closed down in a matter of hours. The burden increased immensely on Islamic Relief. The whole situation at that time was paralysing. After prayer one night, Dr. Hany gave us much needed words of encouragement saying, ‘When the hour comes, plant the seed and continue irrespective of what’s happening, even if it’s the eleventh hour.’ So, we kept focused and stayed true to our purpose, which is solely humanitarian.” Often finding themselves as the only Muslim charity at the table, the onus was on Islamic Relief. Yet all their sowing began to reap. The work spoke for itself, and gained respect from institutions such as the UN, the EU, and DFID who began to regard Islamic Relief as a vital partner.
It was also in Afghanistan that Jehangir was to have the most dramatic experience of his life. In his passion to feel every inch the hardened aid worker, when given the option of flying from Helmand to Islamabad, he took the path that would earn him more integrity. Folly or bravado? Jehangir is still undecided. “My colleagues told me that in order to be a real aid worker you take the road, not the plane. ‘I want to be an aid worker,’ I said.. and I almost died. It was a 26 hour road trip. What my colleagues failed to tell me was there is no road from Kandahar to Kabul! It was a boneshaker of a ride; I was throwing up and suffering from severe diarrhoea. We approached Kabul just minutes before 10pm, which was curfew time after which they shoot on sight.
Our Kandahar car was not allowed to go into Kabul, so the driver dropped me off just outside the city with my bags. I could barely stand and the fear of being shot didn’t help.” Just then Jehangir caught sight of a shining sign of salvation. Like Excalibur, out of the darkness emerged the Islamic Relief logo – one of their vans had been circling the area and rescued the exhausted deputy director taking him into Kabul. “The words ‘road trip’ was given a whole new meaning after that!” Jehangir says in his typical good humoured way. “It just wasn’t my time to go.”
Indeed it was not. God had other plans for him and for Islamic Relief. Since Jehangir’s joining, the staff of the Islamic Relief family has more than quadrupled twice over with around 175 members of staff and volunteers that total up to an astonishing 8,000 people at any one time. But even this Jehangir underplays, moving the focus of the conversation onto what he calls his “real bosses” – the beneficiaries. “We meet our managers, our real employers out in the field. They are the ones who keep us going. Those grounding principles are vital to the operation of this organisation and the role that we play.” It is this sentiment that gets Jehangir through a demanding duty that goes beyond the realms of a mere ‘job’. Mingling the glamorous with the unglamorous, he may find himself on the road for days raising funds with ambassadors like Pakistani cricketers Shahid Afridi and Younus Khan, or US scholar Imam Zaid Shakir, alongside submitting budgets, restructuring, lobbying and advocacy.
At this point I wonder, after his heart-wrenching experience at Islamic Relief, was he prepared to be its head in the UK? “I don’t think I was really prepared for it,” he admits candidly, resting his hands on the table. “It’s a challenge to try and fulfil demands with the amount of resources available.” But his stories are the stuff of legends. “I’ve met some amazing people. How do human beings who have nothing stand with so much dignity? I saw a woman in Kashmir lose everything – her child, her home, everything. She was crying her eyes out, but she said, ‘Still I thank God. There is probably someone out there in a worse situation than mine.’ People like her are simply humbling and inspirational.”
Indeed, the quality of determination in the face of human suffering is something vital for Islamic Relief field workers. “Selflessness, sacrifice, empathy with the needy and a high level of resilience,” Jehangir reels off the qualities he sees in the charity’s field staff. “The emotional scars have to be carried by the aid workers from country to country as they continue to help save lives and eradicate the root causes of poverty whilst maintaining impartiality and neutrality. They are the unsung heroes of any humanitarian NGO that thrives on preserving humanity.”
Having established 360 projects in 35 countries worldwide in education, sustainable living, orphan welfare, sanitation, health, emergency relief, and gaining the respect and contribution from the UN, the Prince of Wales and many heads of state and leading institutions, resting on his laurels is far from the UK Manager’s plans. “I want to expand projects in Britain,” he eagerly tells me. “We need to extend the mandate of relief, helping the needy not just in the developing world but in the developed world too. We have an obligation to help wherever there is need.”
With the steadfast resolve that the “cycle of goodness” prevails, it seems the last 25 years have only set the precedent for the years to come. Jehangir himself as a family man with three young children is mindful of what his own commitment to Islamic Relief has meant for his personal life. “I could never have done this without the tremendous support of my wife. She has had to cope with raising the children often on her own because of my work demands. Many people at Islamic Relief help other people’s families every day at the expense of their own. I know that my wife has struggled through all of this with me, and for that I can never thank her enough.”
A choice made by this once carefree lad from Birmingham has certainly led him along a testing path, but he has come a long way. He symbolises the unswerving commitment, the fl awless ethos and the immense growth of a 25 year old international aid organisation. Service to humanity? It comes with the territory.
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