Saving the Starfish

“The Mother Teresa’s of the world don’t agonize, they act

Uzma Ahmed Khan

“So what if you were in Kabul, where the electricity only comes for two hours”, says Dr Patricia Omidian, when people in Pakistan complain to her about how the electricity goes away for two hours at a stretch. “And remember it always comes back here” Fondly called Pat by her friends, this is one intriguing lady! From sunny California to war-torn Afghanistan and now Karachi, Dr Omidian’s journey is adventurous, fascinating, rubber-meets-the-road kind of positive, and all about surviving the odds!!! With a BA and MA in Cultural Anthropology and a PhD in Medical Anthropology, she currently works as an Associate Professor and Head, Social Sciences at the Aga Khan University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences.


She talks about a fascination and curiosity with ‘all things Persian’, right from her High School days. That, combined with an innate inquisitiveness about what makes people tick, why they do what they do, and the symbols they use to express themselves led her to become an Anthropologist who has mostly worked on Afghan issues.


Her PhD dissertation was on Afghan refugees in the US with generational issues. The first real involvement with Afghanistan happened in 1986 when she and her husband sponsored an Afghan family to the US. She was involved with a primary health-care clinic in those days. The first visit to Pakistan was in true dramatic style – 1988, with General Zia being killed the night after she arrived -everything shut down after that.

She continued working with Afghan immigrants in the US.  In the summer of 1997, she came to Peshawar as a Senior Fulbright Scholar. Here, she taught at Peshawar University and worked on a research paper on Afghan Women and women in the villages.


Wellness issues intrigue Dr Omidian. “75% of Afghan’s are depressed. However, it is the other 35% that I’m interested in. What is it that they are doing that keeps them sane and hopeful”. And hence she spent five years in Afghanistan researching and documenting Pyschosocial issues and promoting wellness programmes. She is now affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee, an NGO providing aid to war-torn and poverty stricken countries in the world. It was during the course of her stay in Afghanistan when in 2001 she was introduced to the Focusing Technique to help Afghan aid-workers deal with their trauma and sorrow. On a website article Dr Omidian writes , Afghan aid staff face the gravest dangers. In interviews most spoke about the difficulty in doing their work now because of flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, non-directed anger and depression, and fear of the future. Many of the men have been imprisoned and beaten or tortured, and found difficulty in keeping resulting anger and other emotions out of their family life. Female staff had also been harassed and beaten by Taliban or their rivals, the United Front forces. Life under the previous Rabbani government had also been brutal, with numerous human rights abuses noted by staff.


The Focusing technique is based on the premise that emotions/pain are first registered and stored in the body and gently focusing on them, rather than burying or fixing it, makes it much easier to handle it. Its not endless analyzing or talk therapy, which wouldn’t work in an Afghan setting anyways as people here are very private and talking about their problems to strangers is not at all common. Focusing is done individually and in pairs. The actual issue is never discussed, rather the feelings associated are ‘felt’; hence the issue of confidentiality breach never arises. A Focusing partner plays the role of a gentle listener.

“It (the Focusing technique) focuses on two important attributes in the Koran. Suspending judgment and witnessing. It is based on the Islamic Philosophy of finding the truth in yourself. It tells you how your body has taken in whatever you are holding in” She uses a lot of Rumi poetry in her work. The poem The Guest House is a hot favorite’


The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

She explains by saying ,“No matter how deep our sorrow, and how horrible it is, it is still a guest, it is not permanent and goes away. Our only real connection is with the Divine. The Koran promises that you are never given anything more than what you can handle. So stop – take time to be with your real self; the true deep self within; not the part that is just reacting”.


From 2004 – 2007, she was the Country Representative of the American Friends Service Committee, Quaker Service for Afghanistan. (The Quaker trademark is prayer in silence with no rituals, reciting or chanting). She calls the Quakers the Sufis of Christianity. “In Silence you hear the message from Allah – which is a message for everyone. If you truly believed that Allah had breathed the essence – the Ruh in every soul he created, would you wage war on anyone?”


Awareness about Resiliency and Gratitude are also part of this work. Resiliency is something she learned from the Afghans. “Their resiliency can be used to train the whole world” We talk about Kevin Carter the famous Pulitzer-prize winning South African photojournalist. who committed suicide after he photographed an African child about to die while a vulture waited nearby – an award winning photo. “How come?”, I ask. She responds by saying they conducted a survey asking people to describe someone they knew who had gone through the worst of the worst and were not doing well, and on the other hand, someone who had gone through the worst of the worst and had survived – Whereas a lot of factors come into play, she says “Trust in Allah, and hope were the key”. And at this point she proceeds to describe her use of the scale  – the local tarazoo and dry beans in her work. It starts with people putting in one bean for every thing that is bad, unhappy and miserable in their lives, and then start putting the beans for all that is good and wonderful in their lives. Nobody is allowed to help. Only once in her life did she did come across someone whose bad side outweighed the good. It was a man who had lost his job at the government. Doing the tarazoo exercise at the same time was a woman, who had lost her husband in the war, had stepped on a land mine and lost her leg, and her only son was being taken away from her by her in-laws on the premise as to how a one-legged woman would take of herself – let alone a son. When even her good side out-weighed the bad, one could easily see it was at the end of the day a matter of perspective.


‘It was funny’, she recalls. ‘I knew two men, ‘one had lost a leg and the other had lost an arm’. Both men were thankful. The one who lost a leg said he was thankful, he said he could still get a computer job and use his hands. The one who had lost an arm, said he was thankful, he could still walk’ – Again, this was about perspective.

So whats the most horrific thing she has seen in her Afghan sojourn I ask. “Starving babies” comes the answer. But that’s not all – she has witnessed a lot of the war atrocities –  people with mental, emotional and physical scars. So how does she manage to remain sane and so positive and full of life amidst all this? Being with Pat, one cannot but notice, a certain ‘lightness of being’. Given the nature of the heavy work she does and has been doing, this is one part of her that one cannot help but notice and be affected by. She reflects for a while, and then her eyes light up as she talks about a favourite starfish  story – A man on the beach, kept picking up starfish that lay on the beach and throwing them back into the sea. These starfish would otherwise have died. Another man walks up to the first man and mockingly says just how many will he save, its not going to make a difference. The first man continues throwing them back in the sea and says, “it makes a difference to this one”. And so that’s her philosophy, “even if one person has been helped, all my effort has been worth it”

In real life, in Afghanistan, she recalls how she came to know of a woman who was in dire straits; her husband being killed in the war and she had small children to look after. All she needed was a sewing machine costing thirty dollars that would help her sew and feed her family. As she arranged for the money, some of her colleagues discouraged her saying the machine would be sold quickly and the woman back to begging and that just how many sewing machines was she thinking of buying? She stuck to her guns and this woman was back on her feet very soon.


So what drew her to Islam? A blend of her own research and meeting a Afghan Sufi teacher (who would never call himself a Sufi). This teacher had a rich ancestry – caretakers of religious shrines in Herat. He primarily taught her Dari (a Persian Dialect), and regularly answered her innumerable questions with Persian poetry, Hadith, with explanations following later about why he said what he said. ‘It is from him, that I got a great sense of the Koran, my feeling of great kindness and caring’. So with her it was no one great revelation that led her to turning towards Islam, rather a slow and gradual unfolding. There came a time then when she felt she was ready to become a Muslim. Surprisingly, the teacher stopped her saying it would be very hard on her mother who was very old and very fragile, and that she should wait. That she says was THE turning point. This is where she felt the true caring and concern of the teacher came through. “He didn’t grab me the moment I said I wanted to embrace Islam, just so he could collect a lot of sawab for himself”, she says with a dramatic gesture of her hands pointing towards the heavens. He had a totally non-judgmental attitude – the true mark of a Sufi ‘ When we walk in judgment, we have taken an attribute that is not ours to take” she says.

And so, its been fifteen years since she has been on the path and it’s a path and a journey that continues to evolve.


Did she ever fear for her life in Afghanistan? “Never! In fact it was even safer during the Talibaan era. The original Talibaan  were for the country . Not for financial gain or power, which is what it shifted to, half way through the war”  Talking more about safety, with a naughty gleam she says how she drives her son crazy when she is scared at the Oakland California bus station. No wonder her son rolls his eyes at a mom who can live in Afghanistan in a war zone, but is anxious that she not wait for even five minutes at an ‘unsafe’ Oakland bus station


Why Karachi? Why Pakistan? She likes the warm climate, she can go swimming, the electricity goes, but always comes back, the water isn’t salty and when there is a scarcity you can truck it in, and the Internet doesn’t cost 200 dollars a month.  Hence compared to Kabul, Karachi is high civilization!

“Pakistanis are hard on themselves” She has found them to be “gracious and kind, who accepted me in their lives. Peshawaris are the greatest hosts in the world. When I came to Pakistan, I was immediately adopted by three families”. In quite a few ways she feels more close to her adopted families than her biological one.


The Focusing technique has spread its wings – starting with one individual, and then one group at a time, it is now part of the curriculum and recognized in the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan. Thousands of people are getting trained as the domino effect continues. She has started teaching it in Pakistan and slowly its spreading its wings here as well. Andrew Matthews in his books Follow Your Heart says “The Mother Teresa’s of the world don’t agonize, they act!”. And this is the case with her too – She is too busy doing constructive humanitarian work to feel depressed or agonize like so many of us do about the world going to the dogs.  And so we hope for more Pats in the world – a lot more starfish need a lot more saving!!!



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