An effort to burn bridges of discrimination through interaction
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By Xari Jalil | 7/10/2017 12:00:00 AM
LAHORE: For Kinza Roma, being the only Christian girl in college forced her to go through experiences that continue to haunt her even today.

`The discrimination I had to face varied from being taunted about my religion to being spat at whenever they passed me by,` she remembers. `They did not want to share a room with me, but that was nothing. They even made me wash the bathrooms.

As a result, she became anxious and nervous of ever having to face anyone from the Muslim community.

Zahid Javed`s story is different.

Being from the majority Muslim community, he did not face discrimination, but it was normal to hear elders admonish interaction with non-Muslims to sit with them, and to eat with them.

`In the Punjab University where I was a student, there is little opportunity for most students to come across and be friends with someone belonging to the non-Muslim community,` he says. `Even if there is one student in a class he or she tends to keep a low profile.

And this is not the case with just one institution; in fact, it is slowly becoming more and more awkward especially for young people to have any kind of interfaith interaction in a society where religious and sectarianintolerance thrives.

For this very reason, Shahid Rehmat, executive director of the Youth Development Foundation, has been working closely with colleges and schools to bridge any gaps between religions.

`YDF has managed to sign MoUs with a few institutions,` he says, mentioning UET, PU, Minhaajul Quran and LUMS among the names. `We start off with very soft activities like peace walks and capacity building. We have seminars and conferences. But the more interested a student is the more we pursue him and her to join us in further activities.

In this way the very last of activities entails camping, usually out of city, for three or four days, where young people share rooms with those from religions other than their own.

`Once we had an incident where a Muslim boy was hesitant to share room with a Silch because he had to say his early morning prayers. He quietly switched rooms with someone else. A day later he shared with me that he had realised something: Sikhs too get up early morning to say their prayers, and this became the basis of a strong bond between both of them,` says Rehmat.

What could be more fulfilling then seeing people let go of their rigidity, and move on to friendlier pastures.

He quotes another case, where a family kept a glass separate for thegarbage man because he was a Hindu.

`After the boy took his training with us, and met other Hindus and Christians, he suddenly realised how inhuman it was to keep their dishes separate. He went home and his family agreed. Eventually they actually broke the glass as a symbol of breaking their old mindset.

In actuality during the camping there is not only sharing of rooms, but everyone cooks for everyone else. That means Muslims will end up eating food being cooked by Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, and it is the same for the others. There isalso a session where scholars and academics are on the panel and young people can ask them whatever they want to about other religions. Any questions are answered and confusions cleared. Of course this tends to become a little too controversial at times because many people ask about blasphemy and Rehmat says some times it is better not to answer such questions in front of a large audience.

`We want everyone to see how much commonality there is between everyone,` says Rehmat. `We don`t want to highlight differences because that is already being done.Zahid, who has now graduated from PU`s Social Work department, says the problem is that society often confuses culture and social norms with religious practices and that people are judged through their religious practices for no reason. He himself has become so interested in learning about this area that he wishes to take it up as a profession. `But family support must also be considered, because when your family stands by you, you can go much further in creating good relations with others.

The `Diversity Camp` also includes activities like going to each others` worship places. In a society that is quick to judge if someone goes inside the worship place of another, it becomes a bigger challenge to do this for YDF. Being a small organisation, YDF has had issues in arranging security, and as a result it is not advisable, says Rehmat, that for example schoolchildren are taken on such field trips.

`Their parents do not allow it and we also would not want that kind of responsibility,` he says. `But we give them an in-house flavor of other religions then. We have ceremonies or events celebrating other religions. We aim at taking out older students. On the other hand, there are some places in KP for example and even south Punjab where it becomes insecure and even difhcult to take a group to a church, mandir or gurdwara so we choose other areas instead where it issafer.

He says if the government wants to encourage them they should do so because it`s integral that the state also gets involved in such a project.

Perhaps one of the other huge changes took place last year was when a group that had been trained in interfaith harmony under a YDF program actually set up a medical camp in Bahawalpur`s Christian community which was neglected and suffered lack of health facilities. Inspired by this, another trainee Gurjeet Singh also organised a medical camp for Nankana Sahib this year.

Kinza, who is traumatised because of her experiences, also agrees that it has helped her gain more social confidence now. `I have many Muslim friends whereas before I could not even think of standing in front of them without collapsing in fear.` She and Zahid both smile, comfortable in each other`s presence.

Chaman Lal, who has also done a training programme with YDF, says he saw a lot of injustice against the Hindu community where he lived in Cholistan.

`I saw the Muslim shopkeepers there wrongly accuse us of forcing Muslim women and children to drink from our water cooler,` he said. `I had a terrible impression of them. But if we work on trying to understand differences and accepting them, only then could true humanity be promoted.