Born out of the concern for Kashmir a group of Kashmiri origin students in the US, the KashmirCorps brings volunteers from around the world to lend their time and skills to organisations in Kashmir. Aliya Bashir reports.

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In the summer of 2006, a group of Kashmiri-American students met at the Georgetown University Library in Washington to discuss ways in which they can contribute to their motherland.

The discussion gave birth to the idea of summer camps or the ‘summer public service program’.

The idea was to rope in organisations in Kashmir to connect with potential volunteers from across the world willing to work in Kashmir.

“A few of us and some other friends had already visited Kashmir to conduct individual research and volunteer activities,” said Hafsa Kanjwal, who co-founded the volunteer program in Kashmir under the banner of KashmirCorps.

For the last three summers, volunteers have arrived in Kashmir and shared their skills and experiences by working with local organisations.

KashmirCorps describes its mission as the welfare of Kashmiri society through service and research.

Kanjwal is in her early 20’s. Her family had migrated to US some two decades back. Kanjwal says the volunteers come from strong academic backgrounds with most having worked with community organisations in parts of Africa, Middle East, East Asia, and South America.

“The aim behind the program is to utilize their knowledge, experience, and resources, networks to support individuals, to mobilize volunteers, integrate technology solutions in Kashmir,” she said. “We also want to assist with strong and effective programs through various organizations for creating lasting positive social impact in Kashmir.”

Since 2007, each summer, KashmirCorps ropes in volunteers to work in various organisations in the Valley ranging from the corporate J&K Bank to aid groups like Help Foundation, Mercy Corps or INTACH.

Kanjwal says the volunteers are a part of a transformative experience in Kashmir. “We are trying to contribute for a positive impact. We want to serve as models for a culture of service and innovation,” Kanjwal said.

The public service program is part of a larger vision, towards which they are steadily working.

“In the longer run, our vision is to transform apathy and isolation among Kashmiris resulting from decades of conflict, into community building and empathy,” she said. “We hope that our efforts will contribute to the increased awareness of Kashmir’s challenges and the steps being taken to address them.”

Kanjwal is a PhD scholar in the joint degree program in History and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with an interest in the study of gender, modernity, and Islam in the Middle East and South Asia.

She has graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University with a degree in Regional Studies of the Muslim World and a certificate in International Development. She also worked as a Leadership Associate with the Interfaith Youth Corps.

This summer six volunteers are working with three new organizations—the Kashmir Education Initiative, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and Mercy Corps, in addition to their old partner, HELP Foundation.

Volunteer Sarah Jawaid is working with INTACH, a non-profit heritage preservation organisation on a project focusing on the revitalization of the Jhelum riverfront in Mahraj Gunj and adjoining areas in Srinagar.

“I am working on a project to see the housing policy with legal framework and how to improve facades where people can recognize responsible use of land. This can benefit them economically in terms of heritage tourism,” said Sarah.

Sarah said that she was inspired by the beauty of the place but felt a sense of tension on her field visit to the old city.

“When going through the lanes and by-lanes of the congested area I feel that there is a need to sensitize people how can they make themselves better in the way of planning their spaces,” she said.

In her project, Sarah has come up with recommendations to highlight the copper industry, road connectivity for good accessibility, preservation of important buildings of historical relevance and good walking space to pedestrians.

“For all the developments in old city, there is an immediate need to make a change in society in terms of good infrastructure and better transport facility to make the area a business hub,” said Sarah.

Besides this, she said willingness of people can play a vital role to contribute in revamping of the old city with traditional touch. The environmentalist, developers and policy makers should jointly work to protect the heritage so that the people living in the interiors feel connected with their roots and better modernized services, she said.

Sarah said she volunteered for the summer camp to help preserve the heritage of old city in Kashmir.

“It was very heartening to get the helping hand from all my colleagues in INTACH. Whenever I feel any difficulty in getting the information about the land, art of design or any historical perspective of old city, they always help me out,” she said, adding, “This boosted my confidence to help the people of Srinagar in preserving their heritage and environment.”

About continuing her journey as a volunteer with KashmirCorps, Sarah said, “I am looking forward to work with KashmirCorps partners and be a part of their work. It had really helped me to get lot of exposure and experience in my field.”

Sarah is also working at Urban Land Institute in Washington, a think-tank doing research on water infrastructure, transportation and land use issues. In 2006, she graduated with a BS from the University of Southern California in public policy and in 2008 from UC Irvine with Masters Program in urban planning.

Convenor INTACH (Kashmir Chapter), Saleem Beig said that their coordination with KashmirCorps is helping to connect resources with organisation and individuals. “The way in which the summer programme is putting their efforts in a self-sufficient way is highly appreciable. But, we are expecting more upgradation from them for future requirements with other critical issues addressed,” Beig said. “We want them to use their resources in a more appropriate way to broaden their research. I believe the commitment to our land is the basic ingredient which is already behind the founders of the summer program.”

The mission of KashmirCorps is to improve the welfare of Kashmiri society through service and research. They have four official board members to carry their initiative.

Besides Kanjwal, the other board members are Osman Ashai, Samma Ishaq, and Esa Syeed. Osman is an Engagement Manager at Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, the world’s largest organization of social entrepreneurs. Samma has just graduated from the London School of Economics with a MA in Development and was involved in a number of research activities linked to human rights, women’s economic and social well-being in Kashmir. And, Esa is a PhD candidate in the Sociology of Education at New York University, and has worked as a social studies teacher in Washington and continues to be involved in community-based youth development and educational programs.

About their future engagements in Kashmir, Kanjwal said that from students to established professionals, they want to create a network of local change makers who are committed to advancing service, innovation, and empathy in Kashmir. “We also hope to host individuals for year-long research and long term volunteer fellowships,” she said.

Aya Batrawy, a freelance radio journalist from Cairo is another volunteer this summer. She is organizing media workshops for university students.

“I had a presentation on my experience of reporting on the Gaza war. It was nice to see the similarities of the journalists from Palestine and the Kashmir. Our conversations were centred to see how journalists can be better agents of truth,” Batrawy said. “We discussed whether the journo should write to an American audience who has more power to change policy or write to a local, national or regional scale.”

Batrawy also teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and is working as a Senior Program Specialist for Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership scholarship in Egypt.

She said that the students in Kashmir had questions about how to stay true to themselves. “Our focus was also to discuss the cause, given editors who want to water-down or change their stories .The exercise was very informative,” she said. “I spoke to some of the women and it was very inspiring as they shared their experiences.”

Tabir Akther is working with the Kashmir Education Initiative to aid in developing evaluation measures for the organization’s scholarship program. Belal Batrawy and Jasim Khan work with Mercy Corps on an agribusiness project with low-income farmers. Farheen Wani is associated with HELP on a project focusing on women’s mental health.

Last summer, KashmirCorps hosted the first conference in US to discuss and network around the developmental and social challenges in Kashmir. “Our thrust is to harness resources across multiple sectors, NGOs, universities, businesses, individuals, and research institutions all interested in positively contributing to the welfare of Kashmiri society,” beams Kanjwal.

Information about the group and its programs is available online on, www.kashmircorps.org and kashmircorps.wordpress.com

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