Ghulam Dastgir – Making Amendments Beyond Blood
Life in a village might sound very pure and close to nature for some people, but the hardships that must be endured in a village can really not be ignored. Ghulam Dastgir was born in a village near Raiwind district, Lahore, but his childhood was not spent playing marbles or cricket. He had to start herding cattle at the tender age of five, since that is precisely what his father did. As a son of parents who were not very well-educated, Ghulam was admitted to a local government school where the students did not even have rugs to sit on. Even after shifting to a public school in the city, Ghulam was constantly bullied because of his crude rural look, and his inability to speak proper ‘shaista’ Urdu. Perhaps, it was the hardships that Ghulam had to face since early on, which made him sensitive enough to realize the plight of Thalassemia patients worldwide, and start a movement called Jehaad For Zero Thalassemia (JZT).
It was the effort of a learned teacher which turned Ghulam from a crude kid to a totally revolutionized individual, and helped him get admitted into Sharif Education System on full scholarship. Despite being on scholarship at one of the most elite schools of the area, Ghulam had to return hunger-stricken to a home with a gloomy atmosphere due to joblessness of the only bread winner of the home. These circumstances, however, were not enough to deter Ghulam’s determination. He worked harder and harder still to compete with girls and boys from highly educated and well-off families. He even sold ‘aloo chanay’ on vacations to help make ends meet. With a brilliant O-Level Result, Ghulam succeeded in getting 100% scholarship at Lahore Grammar School. Along with his studies, he also started teaching some kids in the afternoon as a home tutor in order to lessen the burden on his family as much as possible. He was also a member of the student council at LGS. After his A-Level, Ghulam was denied the opportunity to go abroad due to some circumstances, and had to spend almost two years in an attempt to motivate sponsors to help him continue his studies. It was after a lot of effort that Ghulam succeeded in getting partial scholarship to start pursuing his Electrical Engineering Degree at University of Central Punjab.
‘It was there at UCP one day that this huge, life-time social enrichment and servitude program was planned and launched.’
It was during a Calculus class at UCP that a team of doctors from Fatmid Foundation came and conducted an information session about Thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder, and started motivating the students to donate blood in a camp that had been organized. Even though several students donated blood, the awareness part was neglected by many. However, Ghulam was deeply affected and he decided to make a presentation explaining how Thalassemia results due to genetic crossing between two Thalassemia Minor parents who appear to have no symptoms of the disease.
‘My presentation was not only liked and appreciated by my classmates but also by the university management especially the Dean and some professors who assigned me to spread that awareness in all other classes too. Some of my classmates joined my planning phase and we came up with an excellent and organized program of raising awareness about Thalassemia. This was named Jehaad for Zero Thalassemia by our worthy dean Dr. Tabrez Aslam Shami.’
JZT started with just four individuals, Ghulam being one of them. The other four included Umair Zulfiqar, Usama Ali, Mariam Muzaffar and Khadim Hassan Shirazi, and all these people worked together to chalk out a complete strategy to motivate people to get tested before marriage, hence bringing Thalassemia to ZERO in Pakistan. Fatimid Foundation was asked to provide the medical expertise in this whole process along with almost free testing facilities. The three major aims of the movement included awareness about Thalassemia and the need of pre-marital testing to stop another Thalassemia major individual’s birth, free blood donation service for previously existing Thalassemia major patients and free blood donation service for any emergency anywhere in Lahore. The last major aim has now been extended to include the whole of Pakistan.
Even though the idea behind JZT is fairly simple, it matters a lot. And it is the thoughts that have transformed JZT into one of the most influential movements of its kind. It is the largest network of volunteers working for the prevention of Thalassemia in all the four provinces of Pakistan. Within a relatively short time of 5.5 years, JZT has to its name the donation of more than 20,000 blood bags, the adoption of more than 400 thalassemic kids, and the contribution of more than 10,00,000 for better health facilities for Thalassemics. JZT’s activities have been endorsed on several occasions by the World Health Organization and its Surveillance Department.
There are 100,000 Thalassemia major patients in Pakistan, and almost 5000 more are born every single year. A single Thalassemic patient needs more than 1.5 million rupees annually for a satisfactory treatment other than the blood needs. About 10,00,000 blood bags are annually required to fulfill the needs of these patients. The psychological and traumatic impact of upbringing a Thalassemic child is yet another gruesome dilemma. JZT has helped more than 1,000 thalassemic families and the journey is still on. They have not left the suffering mothers alone, and have helped in the adoption of many kids on the basis of their blood and medicinal needs.
‘We promote awareness through seminars, walks, lectures, blood testing drives and observations, making it possible that every individual could be effectively motivated to get tested before marriage so that no other Thalassemia major child is born. This is how it can be eradicated and the socio-economic burden can be minimized too.’
Ghulam believes that through JZT, he has helped to produce many leaders and social entrepreneurs, blood donors, speakers, organizers, social activists, philanthropists and above all, conscientious citizens belonging to almost each one of the numerous diverse cultures and races resident in Pakistan. Bringing awareness to even a small amount of people about a subject as crucial as Thalassemia is a huge task in itself, because this disease is something that we see often, but ignore.
It is not as if JZT’s journey has been very easy. Several times, the members were forced to stop working in many areas due to some groups being against social work organizations. There were also times when the team was denied entry to prestigious institutions, which are actually supposed to inculcate knowledge and awareness in their students. When it comes to social awareness causes, many educated individuals behave like illiterate people.
‘For the extremist mindset, our volunteers themselves took lead in taking help of the tribal chiefs to call jirga and/or similar regional gatherings to let their localities know the worth of the work that JZT volunteers are doing.’
Ghulam holds the belief that most of the stereotypes existing in Pakistan are a byproduct of poor educational facilities and training opportunities. A major stereotype is the society’s reluctance to accept something new, especially when they are told to get tested. Families would never like someone telling them that their daughter needs to be tested before marriage for the better future of their kids. They would take it as disrespect and dishonor to their family. As a way to cope with this attitude, JZT has started to motivate more and more male members to get tested. If their test for Thalassemia Minor trait comes positive, only then the other partner ( girl) is informed that since the boy is minor, and the flaw in gene is already there in one of the two and so the girl must get the test to insure that this couple would have safer offspring. This has been achieved in many areas especially by the help of clergies and religious scholars.
‘The journey is still on. We will InshaAllah soon achieve our targets.’
Ghulam’s personal journey has not been easy either. But he has not lost hope.
‘I am a crazy scientist capable of making almost anything possible, given the required circumstances.’