Reaching out with help

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At a time when families of Kashmiri politicians and bureaucrats were seeking more and more protection, Nighat Shafi Pandit stepped out of her cosy protected house to build help for the conflict hit. Shazia Khan narrates the story of the woman who could not turn a blind eye to her surroundings.
From the doorway of a three storied building, she watches children play in the lawn. Her eyes catch a seven-year-old sitting quietly on stairs. She heads towards him and sits close by. The boy is silent but tearful. With motherly care, she takes him in her lap, wipes his eyes with her palm and enquires about the reason of his tears.
The boy hesitantly shows his little injured finger. She takes him to the nearby tap, washes his hand and sends him to the school dispensary along with a helper.      
Most of the children in the complex, which houses an orphanage and a school, look cheerful and confident. Amid her busy schedule, Nighat Shafi Pandit manages to provide her motherly care to each one.
Nighat prefers to call her orphanage, Shehjar, a boarding. Meant for orphans and underprivileged children, it was built by HELP foundation (Human Efforts for Love and Peace) chaired by Nighat in 1998.
“They are not orphans. They are my boarders and deserve every right to live a better life,” she says.
Most of the boarders are victims of Kashmir’s two-decade old violent conflict. Nighat’s HELP foundation itself is a product of the conflict, an effort she made along with friends and sustained to lessen the pain in her surrounding.
“In 90’s, the situation was very tense. There were frequent bomb blasts, violent clashes between militants and forces as a result a number of people were killed and many disappeared leaving behind the helpless families,” said Nighat.
“Moved by the pain of the people” around her, she stepped out of her protected house to lend some help.
A top bureaucrat’s wife, Nighat’s help in hostile environs was fraught with dangers. People like her deemed close to government were vulnerable to militant attacks and public hostility. Families of politicians and bureaucrats preferred to stay in protected houses and move in bullet proof vehicles.  
But Nighat ignored all the risks to reach out to woman and children hit by the conflict.
Along with her friends she scanned villages and towns to identify the victims and their needs. They collected Zakat and donations for distribution.  
“It was not something to show to the world. The urge to help people was something within me. I was restless and passionate. So I decided to help people in spite of the fear,” says Nighat   
Around the same time, her husband, Muhammad Shafi Pandit, an IAS officer then, survived an attack by some dozen militants. The incident shoots her. But she did not alter her determination to help. Even the widows of militants were not excluded from the help she extended.
But the job was not easy.
“At many places, people were reluctant to receive aid. They thought we are government agents,” said Nighat. She persisted and succeeded in winning over hearts.
There were no strategies.  “I never prepared plans for my work, whatever comes to my mind, I follow that.”
In 1998, Nighat observed miserable condition of widows and orphans in a village in the backwaters of Dal Lake. “There were small children that had suffered a lot in terms of everything. Both of their parents were killed and had nowhere to go,” said Nighat.
Soon they took an initiative and established one room school for these children. “On the first day of opening, we got 150 admissions and it extended to 800 students soon. That small initiative led us to open an orphanage called Shehjar (the shade),” says Nighat.
But soon Nighat wanted an alternative for orphanages. “The child at orphanage is cut off from the society and other family members. So we stopped receiving more children at Shehjar. At the same time, we also discontinued to provide the sustenance allowance to widows. We looked for alternatives,” says Nighat.
For children the Help foundation started day boarding schools so that they could live with a parent if alive or a relative in case both were dead. Currently, they have eight such schools in Srinagar and other districts. They also provide loans to students for higher studies and professional education.
Nighat says her schools lay stress on quality education and extra curricular activities. “I want to give these children the best education by every means.”  
In 2006 she organized a children’s film festival in Kashmir – a first of its kind. Next year, a theatre workshop was conducted in valley in collaboration with Sangeet Natak Academy.  
For widows and underprivileged women, the foundation set up empowerment centres that teach skills like cutting and tailoring, embroidery, and spice making to help women earn their livelihood. “We are also helping trained women and children to setup small scale businesses,” said Nighat.
She keeps on expanding the areas of help. A polyclinic set up by them provides psychiatric counselling to women. Speech therapists, gynaecologists and regular physicians also give consultations to patients.
For her services, Nighat was one of the 1000 women around the globe nominated jointly for a Nobel Peace Prize under the 1000 peace women project. In 2006, she was awarded the Stree Shakti Award (Women’s empowerment award) by government of India. Recently, she received Asian Peace and Mehjoor Awards.
Nighat says the inspiration had come early in life from her parents who would help and teach poor children.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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