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Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Gift of the Givers Founder Imtiaz Sooliman in Top 100 South African Newsmakers for 2014

Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the GiversImtiaz Sooliman has been named one of the top 100 headline makers in 2014 in a list compiled by The Star. Sooliman is the founder of the largest relief organisation in South Africa, Gift of the Givers.

Photojournalist Shafiq Morton captured his experiences with Gift of the Givers in his book, Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers: A Mercy to All. Morton recently shared his most memorable experience with News24.

Gift of the Givers has conducted over 20 expeditions to countries in need, such as Bosnia, Palestine, Japan, Haiti, Indonesia, Malawi and Mozambique. In 2013 City Press also named Sooliman one of the 100 world class South Africans.

In 2014 Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers were responsible for the attempted rescue of Pierre Korkie who was being held captive by Al Qaeda in Yemen, after being seized along with his wife in May 2013. Korkie was shot and killed mere hours before he was to be released. Sooliman’s negotiations regarding Korkie was big news last year and most likely why he was one of The Star‘s top 100 newsmakers of 2014.

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The Heroes category featured the 9-year-old ‘Save the Rhino’ campaigner Afeefah Patel who shot to fame two years ago after President Jacob Zuma responded to a letter she wrote to him requesting his assistance in saving the endangered rhino from rampant poaching.

It also named Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of the internationally-renowned relief organisation ‘Gift of the Givers’ which has assisted in natural and man-made disasters such as war in myriad countries, including India and Pakistan

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Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers: A Mercy to All Author: South Africans are Well-loved in Africa

Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the GiversShafiq Morton recently spoke to Nancy Richards on SAfm Literature about his book, Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers: A Mercy to All.

Imtiaz Sooliman is the founder of Gift of the Givers, the largest relief organisation in South Africa. Morton spoke about his working relationship with Sooliman and the things he witnessed during the months he spent with the organisation as he travelled with them on their missions.

“Gift of the Givers is such a unique story, and it’s such a unique South African story, it’s something I don’t think any journalist could resist,” Morton said.

The author spoke about Sooliman’s trip to Turkey in 1992 which sparked the idea for Gift of the Givers, adding that Sooliman will help humanity wherever humanity finds itself, irrespective of borders or distance. “He’s done 41 international missions in 22 years but at the same time he’s got 21 major South African projects that are running right now,” he said.

Morton says his experience with Gift of the Givers has shown South Africans to be compassionate, loving people who are well-loved across the continent.

The conversation begins at 19:00. Listen to the podcast:

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Excerpt: Shafiq Morton tells the Syrian Story in Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers

Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the GiversBookstorm has shared an excerpt from Shafiq Morton’s book, Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers: A Mercy to All, about Dr Imtiaz Sooliman and the largest relief organisation in Africa, the Gift of the Givers Foundation.

Sooliman, a medical doctor, is the director and founder of the Gift of the Givers Foundation. Morton is a journalist who accompanied Sooliman on several relief missions across Africa.

This extract is from Chapter 15: The Syrian Story. When the team arrived in Syria, Sooliman observed the absence of the media and relief organisations in this war-stricken country, despite their obvious and desperate need for help.

Read the extract:

* * * * * *


“Syria is the only war in 21 years where I’ve seen no media – and one or two journalists do not count as media. There are no aid organisations inside Syria – and one or two organisations do not count as aid.” – Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, Muir Street Mosque, Cape Town

    IT WAS A COLD, damp July evening in Cape Town, but the mosque was full. A technician adjusted a sound desk. Dr Sooliman was about to address the Muslim community in a simulcast to four community radio stations, Voice of the Cape, Radio Islam, Radio Al-Ansaar and Channel Islam.
It was the first time since 1992 and Bosnia that he’d done a tour to raise awareness about an issue. Syria was in the headlines, and had been naggingly so since March 2011. In 23 months over 100,000 civilians had perished and a quarter of a million injured in the 21st century’s most devastating conflict.
    Not since the days of the Mongol hordes had the Middle East experienced such a humanitarian disaster. Nearly one-third of the Syrian population had been rendered homeless and surrounding countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Turkey bulged with growing refugee camps.
The Arab Spring in Syria, inspired by notions of democratic freedom – but sparked off by the death in detention of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib – had begun to divide the global Islamic community on sectarian Sunni-Shi’ah lines, with the ruling minority Alawites (regarded as a quasi-Shi’ah sect) in the Iranian Shi’ah camp.
    Iran’s intervention via Hezbollah and its Republican Guard in support of the Arab Socialist Ba’athist dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in a cynical Cold War power play with Russia had not gone down well among Sunnis, who worldwide constitute over 90% of all Muslims.
    Bashar al-Assad – a former dentist – took over the reins from his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. Al-Assad senior, a secular army officer who wrested power in a 1971 coup, ruled Syria with an iron fist. For human rights activists his defining moment is the 1982 slaughter of 20,000 people in the town of Hama.
    Damascus had blacked out media coverage and the propaganda of Islamic terrorism had come to define the discourse on Syria. The infiltration into the country by small groups of Salafi jihadists had provided a useful red herring to the bigger picture – Assad’s unremitting onslaught against his own people, aided and abetted by Hezbollah and Iran.
    With Voice of the Cape and eTV journalists being hounded for ‘incorrect’ coverage on Syria, and Gift of the Givers coming under fire from the local pro-Assad camp, Sooliman had decided to tackle the issue head on. As one of the few organisations in the world operating from within Syria, he’d decided to take the gloves off in an appeal for understanding and much-needed aid.

* * * * * *

The lapel microphone rustled. Sooliman greeted the audience, saying that it was a great occasion, but a sad one too. It was great because four radio stations had joined forces to broadcast a message that the whole of South Africa needed to hear. It was a sad occasion because of the desperate plight of the Syrians, and because nobody was aware of the situation. ‘Wherever I’ve been people have expressed disbelief at what is going on … before I went to Syria I also didn’t know what was going on,’ he explained.
    ‘We are one of the fastest reacting disaster relief organisations in the world. Yet this disaster started in March 2011, and in October 2012 we at Gift of the Givers were still sleeping.’
Sooliman said the Gift of the Givers’ Syrian chapter started when he received a visit in his Johannesburg office at the beginning of October from Al-Jazeera’s former bureau chief from Turkey.
    ‘He didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him. He’d been referred to me by someone from Durban. He said to me, “Doctor, you’ve got to see these pictures …”
‘His name was Fekri Sha’ban, a Palestinian. While he was speaking to me he kept on breaking down. I realised that something was seriously wrong here. Journalists don’t behave like this.
    ‘He told me that even he, as an Al-Jazeera journalist, hadn’t known what was going on inside Syria until he went across the border. A week later I decided with one of our team members, paramedic Ahmed Bam, to go and see for ourselves.
‘By 11 October we were in Antakya at the Syrian border. Speaking to its inhabitants we soon realised they didn’t have a clue what was going on a few kilometres away.’
    Sooliman said that it made him wonder how the propaganda machine was working in Syria. ‘What was it telling us? It was telling us that there was a sectarian war; that there were different rebel groups; that there were extremists; that there was Al-Qaeda; that there were huge armies of terrorists fighting Assad; that there was an American plan.
    ‘We’d been told not to worry; that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were taking care of everyone. And when you hear of Saudi and Qatar you think of mega dollars, and in normal circumstances this would have been the case.
    ‘Then there was Turkey, a Sunni country in sympathy with Syria’s majority Sunni population. They had over 100,000 refugees under their care.’
    For Sooliman the point of the Syrian media blackout was to diminish the dimensions of the conflict and to create the illusion that things were ‘under control’. He crossed into Syria at Azzaz on Thursday, 11 October.
    ‘We were taken to meet the army, but I could find no army. All I saw were young men, some still teenagers, in jeans. Ahmed Bam and I tried to figure out: where is this army we’d heard about? This was no army! We met a leader, another young man. He said that he would take us wherever we wanted to go. I said: “Take me to where there was a battle.” He took us to an area only 2 to 3 kilometres from the border post. There we met people who were very friendly; they were softly spoken with good manners, full of hospitality and warmth.
    ‘Then we travelled to a bombed out area where there was a destroyed tank. We got out of the car, and as we approached the tank, a group of young men appeared. When they saw us they began to sob. It made me wonder: it’s very strange. This is not normal behaviour. Boys are usually strong. They don’t break down like this. So I asked the one: “My brother, what is wrong?”’
    The youth told him that a few days before a man from one of the bombed houses had gone out to find food for his family. He explained that after 18 months of war there was no food, no economy and definitely no international aid.
    The youth said that after four hours the man had managed to procure some dry bread that was five days old. But when he returned home, he discovered that Assad’s forces had shelled their houses, killing 72 civilians – including all 13 members of his family.
    ‘An unarmed man with stale bread for 13 corpses! Can you imagine the pain and suffering? What does that do to you psychologically and emotionally? And yet nobody knows about this. Syria is the only war in 21 years where I’ve seen no media – and one or two journalists do not count as media. There are no aid organisations inside Syria – and one or two organisations do not count as aid,’ said Sooliman.
    ‘There is an international plan, yes, but the international plan is to destroy Syria. That is the international plan, not Israel’s as some people think. The international plan is against the people of Syria, not Assad.
    ‘On the Friday we performed the congregational Jumu’ah prayers in Atma. On Saturday we travelled to a place in between two mountains called Darkoush.’
    Sooliman, whose actions are often inspired by the inner heart, said he’d felt no ‘sparks’ in Azzaz or Atma, but in Darkoush he’d immediately felt something.
    ‘The moment we crossed the river and walked into the plantation something inside me said “yes, this is it!” Again the first people we met were young men, smiling, hospitable. They were carrying guns. But there was no army.
    ‘One of the young men reminded me of a saying by Prophet Muhammad. He said if you wanted to see something of Paradise you had to come to Syria.     There you would find its fruits. I looked around me. Pomegranate trees.
‘These young men took us into the town pointing out to us where snipers had shot at the townsfolk. They were taking us to the mosque where they’d caught one of the men in the minaret with an Iranian passport, when bombs started to explode around us. They said we had to go. I said: “Why?”
    ‘They said: “The bombs are falling.”
    ‘I said: “So what!”
    ‘They said: “You can’t die here. We don’t want you to be martyrs here. We are your hosts and you are our guests. You have to get out of town now.”
    ‘Ahmed and I were taken to the plantation again. We saw a wave of cars fleeing the bombing and people coming through the mountain … injured, battered and bruised. The targets [of the bombing] were women and children.
    ‘As I’m watching all of this I see a Syrian woman walking towards me. That made me uncomfortable. This is a conservative society, but I had a feeling she was going to approach me. And she said: “Can I talk to you?”
    ‘I was surprised because she spoke English. She was the town’s English teacher and told me her name was Nud.’
    She asked Sooliman to come with her, and that he shouldn’t worry. Her husband was with them. They walked about 100 metres towards a group of people.
    ‘See this woman here,’ said Nud, ‘her husband was tortured and killed by Assad’s people. See this woman, her son is missing. See this woman, her child was tortured. Tell me, can you see any soldiers? We are civilians. We are Assad’s terrorists!’
Nud said that even Israel had more compassion than Assad.
    ‘Can you imagine? An Arab saying that Assad is worse than Israel? This is a powerful and potent statement,’ said Sooliman.
    ‘Nud explains that the Arab uprisings were accepted by the world in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but that when it came to Syria, the picture changed and everyone’s minds became confused.
    ‘She tells me that suddenly, Islamic terrorists were rising up, and that there was a plan to destroy Iran and Syria, all to make Israel strong.     Of course, there was never such a thing! Syrian aspirations were civil liberties and economic opportunity. The revolution only started after Assad started killing his own people.
    ‘Nud relates that kids, some as young eight years old, naively expressed a dream in March for a better Syria in Al-Jizah near Dara’a by writing graffiti and singing songs. But Assad’s men came and tortured them. Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old, was found dead a month later with cigarette burns all over his body, his neck broken and his penis cut off.
    ‘Other parents looking for their children were told to go and make new children, and if they couldn’t, the security forces would do it for them.     Brothers and sisters, is this what Islam stands for?
    ‘I’m not talking as Gift of the Givers here, nor am I making this a sectarian issue, but the Syrian people – our Sunni brothers and sisters, your Sunni brothers and sisters – are getting massacred, and by whom? The Alawites and the Shi’ah’s.
    ‘Iran plays this game of the Islamic Revolution; there’s nothing Islamic about Iran. Say it like it is … when you can cause conflict by sending arms to kill women and children, there is nothing Islamic about you!
    ‘We think it politically incorrect to mention other names. But they’re not shy. They’re not embarrassed to send weapons to kill Sunnis. So why should we hold back in mentioning their names? What political correctness is this? This is political expediency that has got nothing to do with Islam.
    ‘When you go to war the Qur’an tells you to incline towards peace if your enemy does so. It tells you to not harm women and children, to not burn houses, to not damage crops, to not poison wells and to not touch holy places. And when you capture a prisoner of war you do not torture him, you do not tie him up. You even share your food with him.
    ‘Yet Hezbollah and Assad do everything opposite to that. They shut the water off to Qusair when 50,000 women and children are trapped inside. In Homs they burn and slit the throats of 275 women and children. In Tartus they wipe out 1,000 people. Is this what Islam teaches you? Is this what the Qur’an teaches you?
    ‘Hezbollah, you’re a great fighter, but you’re a coward. You’re fighting a docile Sunni nation. You are fighting people who are not soldiers. We always thought that you, Hezbollah, were the big enemy of Israel, but now we know you are the enemy of Islam.’
    Sooliman began to talk about Dr Ahmad Ghandour, his Syrian representative, who is a cardiac surgeon and jack-of-all-trades in Darkoush, a man who trained ordinary Syrian farmers to become nurses and medical orderlies. Ghandour runs Gift of the Givers’ hospital with 70 permanent staff, the only functional one in a 50 kilometre radius.
    ‘When Ghandour worked in Aleppo he treated Assad’s men. He told me that if they were caught treating their Sunni brothers and sisters, they would be killed. And if a patient was thought to be anti-Assad, they’d kill him too. Ghandour was warned by intelligence to get out of the city and run.’
    Sooliman told Ghandour he needed a building in which to set up medical services. The Syrian showed him one near the mosque. ‘And when I see it that electric feeling comes to me: this is the place!’
    Sooliman returned to Darkoush in December, this time with Gift of the Givers medical co-ordinator Dr Yakub Essack, to negotiate the use of the building for a hospital. His heartrending encounters with Syrians continued.
    An old man approached him and bluntly warned him not to create false hope. In the biting, sub-zero cold he saw naked children. He related being given a bowl of olives by a young child, and having to eat them, knowing full well that this was the only food the people had.
    ‘You eat the olives, you don’t want to offend, but they don’t go down your throat. This family has sacrificed seven days’ worth of food, yet they still give you a big smile because a foreign guest has come to share their pain with them. It is no wonder that the Prophet Muhammad blessed these people over 1,400 years ago.
    ‘I’m having breakfast one day and a man comes to sit with us. He is General Hussein Haj Ali, a top-ranking Syrian soldier who defected. He couldn’t stand killing his people. But he doesn’t eat. So I say: “Brother, my guests eat.” He says he can’t. Fekri Sha’ban whispers in my ear that he’s fasting. He has taken an oath to fast until Syria is liberated.’
    Sooliman then recalled something his Sufi master, Shaikh Jerrahi, had told him in 1999 shortly before his death.
‘We were sitting discussing general matters when my Shaikh suddenly turned to me and said out of the blue: “My son, they will destroy Syria.” And I’m sitting there and thinking, what has this got to do with anything? But a month later he looked me in the eye and said again: “My son, they will destroy Syria.”
    ‘Twelve years later I can say, yes, they are destroying Syria.’
    Sooliman went on to describe the obstacles that he encountered on his Syrian journey. Ahead of his trip, he met the South African president, the deputy president and Foreign Affairs, but was told that South Africa would not be happy if he entered Syria. He sent a message saying the hospital was being built and he intended to enter Syria, legally or illegally. The government said nothing in reply.
    ‘You see, my Shaikh once told me that if you love Allah, if you have faith in Allah and if you trust in Allah you will always be protected, and if you work for Allah’s government, all governments will work for you.
    ‘We crossed into Syria without the blessing of the Turkish government, the Syrian government or the South African government. But see how Allah works. When we got inside they passed a motion of commendation in Parliament that Gift of the Givers was in Syria! How do you explain that?’
    Sooliman began to conclude his talk, saying that he never asks for money. However, this time he is. We cannot get involved in Syrian politics, yes, but our humanity prevents us from looking the other way, he said. Syria is an unarmed nation facing huge odds, but he was not despondent because, like the Bosnians who triumphed, the Syrians have Allah on their side. If you have faith you get tested, and the Syrians are being tested.
    ‘But that doesn’t mean we mustn’t send medical supplies; we have to extend our hospital which is serving more and more people every day; we must provide aid and ensure that families eat once a day instead of once every seven days. And if you can’t give anything, say a prayer – prayer is the most powerful thing.
    ‘This is a heartbreaking story. When we were about to leave, one could see the pain in the people’s eyes. Syrians are very dignified and won’t say much. But a man came up to us and said thank you. It was a moving moment. Our media cried. Our medical team cried. Our patients cried. Darkoush cried.
    ‘And the people said to us that they might not see us again, but they would make one prayer for us – just one. They are happy to accept what destiny Allah has given them, but they would pray ardently that whatever has happened to them would never happen to us.’

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Image courtesy The New Age

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Find Out What Makes for the Ultimate Wildlife Experience with Legendary Safari Guides by Susie Cazenove

Legendary Safari GuidesNew from Bookstorm – Legendary Safari Guides by Susie Cazenove:

What makes for the ultimate safari experience? Your guide is the difference between an indifferent experience and a life changing experience.

Legendary Safari Guides is a new edition of Licensed to Guide published in 2004. 24 safari guides are profiled by experienced safari travel promoter, Susie Cazenove. She tells us their stories of adventure and dreams – of following their passion into the wild and of making their guests see Africa in a new light.

Read of the antics of the guides in the early days of Londolozi, of guests having to cling to trees in the face of charging rhinos, of safaris with Mary Leaky and legends of the Masai warriors. The tales tell of a wilderness under increasing threat and these guides’ determination to share the privilege of a truly wild experience with their guests. The stories take the reader from South Africa to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Namibia in search of legendary safari guides.

About the author

Susie Cazenove was born and brought up in South Africa before moving to the UK with her English husband. She started work in the travel business in 1988, specialising in African holidays. With her fierce passion for Africa as her inspiration, Susie quickly realised that the success of a safari holiday is largely dependent on the quality of the guides. She has been privileged to travel with some of the best safari guides Africa has ever produced. She first published some of these stories in Licensed to Guide in 2004.

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Video: Imtiaz Sooliman Explains How and Why He Started the Gift of the Givers Foundation

Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the GiversImtiaz Sooliman, whose story is told in the new book Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers: A Mercy to All by Shafiq Morton, is the subject of a 21 Icons short film.

In 1991, Sooliman visited a spiritual leader in Turkey who told him to give up his medical practice to devote his life to humanitarian aid. He founded Gift of the Givers, which is now the largest disaster response NGO of African origin, giving disaster relief across the globe.

Watch the video:

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