How Fazal Noor came to work for the ICRC
When I first saw Fazal Noor, she was standing wrapped in a green shawl with a group of other women in the village of Cham, in the Jhelum valley, east of Muzaffarabad. Gaunt-faced and wrinkled with a protruding tooth, she stood huddled up against the cold of a November afternoon, unsmiling.
It was not until several weeks later, during a second trip to the village to visit the ICRC's newly-opened Mother and Child Health (MCH) clinic, that I bumped into Mrs Noor again.
This time, she was wearing a blue overall on top of her traditional baggy shirt and trousers, an d was busy doing the clinic's laundry. Her thin hands were encased in blue rubber gloves and this forlorn woman, whose striking brown-eyed gaze had haunted me for days the first time I met her, appeared serene. The transformation was startling.
So often in Pakistan's male oriented society, women get relegated to the shadows. So the ICRC team who set up the clinic in Cham made it a policy when recruiting staff to give priority, wherever possible, to widows and mothers bringing up children alone.
Fazal Noor's story is typical of many widows living in remote locations in Pakistan-administered Kashmir who are supporting their children and grandchildren on a pittance. And although the details of her life vary a bit with every telling, the essence of what she says remains unchanged. So, too, does her story's message – that the people of this extraordinarily beautiful and now devastated region inspire immense respect, for their determination to live through their present tragedy with stoicism and dignity.
Fazal Noor, who says she is 42 but looks two decades older, lost her husband several years ago following a long illness. After his death she had to sell the family's two buffaloes to pay his medical bills. Ever since, Mrs Noor has supported her family of three married children and four grandchildren by working as a labourer in her neighbours'fields and by selling the firewood she gathers on the precipitous slopes that enclose the Cham valley in shade for much of the day.
Mrs Noor did have one valuable possession, the family home. A traditional wooden Kashmiri house, sheltering both humans and animals, it was badly damaged in the 8th October earthquake and is now uninhabitable. Fearing that another strong tremor would bring the beams down on top of them Mrs Noor removed herself and her large family as soon as she could to a tent pitched close to their ruined house, but out of harm's way.
Were it not for her work with the ICRC, Mrs Noor would be destitute, there being no way she could afford to repair her home, or build a new one, on her meagre earnings as a wood gatherer. But with the money she earns from her cleaning, she says, she can plan for the future. " The most important thing is to repair the house. Although I am not in good health and I feel weak, this job at the clinic is not difficult and I am happy. No one else in the community is going to have mercy on me as they have their own problems, so I must see to the house on my own. "
Word of the clinic's opening at the beginning of December spread quickly through Cham and up into the hills. Within a week, the team's expatriate midwife and two nurses, one a specialist in public health, were receiving over 100 patients daily. Despite the long walk from many of the outlying villages the women kept coming, turning up around midday just when the sun touched the mountain peaks and spilled over into Cham for a few brief hours.
As part of the consultation each mother is given a hygiene kit with soap and oral rehydration salts and is instructed how to use them by the public health nurse. Expectant mothers are also offered antenatal care, and many women come to the clinic just for that, or for other female-specific illnesses and problems.
Since its opening the clinic has slipped almost seamlessly into the rhythm of Cham's days. This was due in no small part to the team's refusal to get caught up in local politics and tribal squabbles insisting that they are there to serve every wife and mother and child, and that every job opening would be accessible to those who fitted the criteria and were suitably qualified, regardless of clan affiliation or village origin. Mrs Noor's place in the team is the fruit of that stance.