AHA! Awareness with Human Action

A conversation with Ahmad Riaz, Program Manager for the South Punjab Region at the Youth Development Foundation (YDF)


February 2022

Background: The Youth Development Foundation (YDF) is a nonprofit organization in Pakistan, where Ahmad Riaz is the Program Manager for the South Punjab region. He has served as Project Coordinator for a European Union (EU) funded project, Awareness with Human Actions (AHA!), that has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by seeking to prevent conflict and building social cohesion in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the broader South Asia. Ahmad played an instrumental role in designing and implementing several communications materials that focused on interfaith harmony and positive messaging in Pakistan. He spoke to Sudipta Roy, WFDD, (by Zoom) on February 5, 2022, about his on-the-ground experience and challenges in peacebuilding, equity for women, and youth leadership work in Pakistan, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

“When COVID-19 arrived, we shut ongoing programs immediately and decided to focus on economic rehabilitation and public awareness programs. As we observed that the social and traditional media was filling up with rumors, mis/disinformation, and outright hatred towards minorities in the context of the pandemic, we acted fast and contacted the Government of Punjab with plans for a media campaign, to work with the religious leaders from all sects to encounter hate speech and mis/disinformation.”

Sudipta Roy: What brought you to your current role as a Project Coordinator at YDF [one of the consortium partners for the Awareness with Human Actions (AHA!) project]?

Ahamad Riaz: It goes back to my college days in Pakistan. Religion is a very sensitive thing here, and it has a very specific place in our lives, so I speak only for the community I grew up with. I grew up in a very dedicated and practicing Muslim family. I went to a madrasa at a local mosque for four hours a day for seven years. My family always appreciated me whenever I went to any religious program or activity. It started from there. I began to go to many religious seminars and religious activities during my college life.

I was quite naïve then. I didn’t have many tools to differentiate between what was right and what was wrong. My father was a businessman. He used to stay out of Pakistan most of the time because of his marketing campaigns, etcetera. I am the elder son so had some autonomy. So, whenever I came back from school, I used to go to the religious education institute, the Madrassa near my home, to complete the teaching of the Holy book. Whenever I had a chance, I stayed there longer.

It was a time in Pakistan when militancy was just starting up in the area. We had a proxy war with our neighboring country and a lot of religious militants. They used to roam around very freely. The law-and-order agencies did not stop or interrogate them as if they were part of the national narrative. They used to come to that mosque where I was going every day, sometimes for prayer and then after some time for other activities. Gradually, I found it very attractive to carry a camouflage jacket and a weapon. I used to interact with them a lot. I was a very young boy at that time. Whatever they shared, those IEC (information, education, and communication) materials with me, I used to trust them.

Then gradually, I used to visit them, and they started teaching me how to use the weapons, the nitty-gritty of a weapon, and how to aim it, and then it moved further. A few boys started learning how to fire and how to use the weapons. There were holograms on the wall with the name of some countries that were taught to us as the enemies. We started learning to aim at them. We were taught how to take revenge.

During that time, I became very aggressive, very extremist. I asked my father not to let my sisters go to university and complete their education. Then I asked my mother to not watch TV anymore, et cetera, et cetera.

What year was that?

Somewhere between 2008-2009. I was very young and very extreme then. I used to confront different opinions very violently.

You were a college student then? 

Yes. I was a college student then.

Which part of Pakistan did you grow up?

Multan. It is a very urban place–the third or fourth-largest city in Pakistan. It’s located in Southern Punjab I came from a privileged, upper-middle-class family. We had a lot of things at home. It was not like I was underprivileged, or these things only happened to those who are underprivileged or are in the rural area. I was in a very urban elite area. As far as I remember it, we were the only ones who owned a car back then.

What happened next?

My father caught me! I still remember that day. He came from an international visit, and I was not at home. He asked my mother where I was. She told him that I was at the mosque. I don’t know why, but he came to the mosque to check on me. Since there were a lot of sexual abuse case stories in the media then, maybe he was concerned about my safety. He came to the mosque where I was supposed to take my Holy Quran lessons, but he found out that I was not there. He asked the cleric where I was. The cleric initially refused to tell him. But when my father became a little aggressive, he told him that I was at a different mosque, a bigger one, and I was attending some seminar. My father drove all the way to that mosque. When he came there, I was actually holding a weapon in my hand. I was practicing when he found me.

He was furious. He was not expecting me to be there in that condition. He used force. He dragged me to the car and dragged me home. He locked me up in a room for a week. And then after a week, he came back. He unlocked me. I was like in a prison. I was getting food just below the door. He came back with a lot of books. He sat with me and told me that there were a lot of things in the world I did not know. The version of knowledge I knew was not the only version. I needed to expand my world views and I needed knowledge of the arts and humanities.  He introduced me to the famous writings of Khalil Gibran, Jawaharlal Nehru, and others. I started reading. I read a lot of books then and they changed my perception. I started writing.

What did you write?

I wrote poetry and plays. I also started performing. When I was in university, I joined several literature and performing arts clubs. I met some very famous peacebuilders then that changed the course of my life. I met Jennifer Jag Jivan, a very famous peace activist in the subcontinent from the Church World Services. I had a chance to camp with them for 10 days. They taught us concepts such as interfaith harmony, coexistence, and pluralism. From that day, I never looked back.I wrote poetry and plays. I also started performing. When I was in university, I joined several literature and performing arts clubs. I met some very famous peacebuilders then that changed the course of my life. I met Jennifer Jag Jivan, a very famous peace activist in the subcontinent from the Church World Services. I had a chance to camp with them for 10 days. They taught us concepts such as interfaith harmony, coexistence, and pluralism. From that day, I never looked back.

It looks like both your family and early interactions with the peacebuilders helped to shape your commitment to peacebuilding. Please tell me about your father who seems to have played a really important role in your life. He was a businessman?

My father was a doctor, an MBBS medical doctor. But he never practiced. He was in one of the law enforcement agencies, but he resigned from there. Then he traveled the world. He traveled a lot by road with his friends. He used to tell us a lot of stories. He traveled from Pakistan to Iran, and then to Turkey to Syria, to Saudi Arabia. He settled in Saudi Arabia for about 10 years. Then he came back to Pakistan and started his business in pharmaceuticals. The business is still running. Nowadays, he is involved in charity work. He is running three free dispensaries in the town. When he was in college, he used to write as well. He was a poet. He has gone back to writing again. We exchange our writings. He is in retirement mode now—just helping people and enjoying his retirement life.

That’s wonderful! Please tell me about YDF. How did you learn about the organization and why did you join?

I have a great appreciation for the way my life transformed. Each passing day, I ponder over the fact that I had my father to pull me out of the dangerous direction my life was heading. What if someone doesn’t have such a person in their life. Where are they going to end up? My niche is that I have to try my best to help my community. Although Multan is a large city, it is in a very large rural area where violent extremism has spread. I wanted to work to free people from the grasp of extremism.

I have an MBA in Communications. It was 2013 or 2014 when one of my long-term friends on Facebook reached out to me. I was working as an RJ (Radio Jockey) at that time. I used to speak about interfaith issues on the radio. So, my friend asked, “Have you ever been to any church? I said, “No, I have never been to any church.” He said, “Have you ever been to a temple?” I said, “I never had a chance to visit a temple because they’re usually closed for outsiders because of security concerns.” He then introduced me to YDF, which was running a diversity training camp program in Lahore and wanted to expand it to Multan. Part of the program was to organize tours to churches and temples for youths. I always wanted to visit the beautiful cathedral in Multan. Architecturally, the British-built building is beautiful! I joined as a volunteer. I was very hungry to learn, and I was asking a lot of questions. There were two trainers from Sri Lanka who were very impressed with me, because of my interest in learning. They recommended me to the YDF team.

I have been working with YDF since 2015 in different capacities. However, I took a break from 2016-to 2018 when I took a scholarship to work on an education project at the Pakistan Embassy in China. I completed another associate degree in culture and the Chinese language there. I can speak very fluent Chinese as well. I came back in 2018 and started volunteering with YDF again.

You have had a very colorful career so far! What are some notable works you do at YDF?

At YDF we are committed to peace and social cohesion. We engage youth, religious leaders, political leaders, and women to eradicate sociocultural, religious, and communal barriers. We do this through several multi-stakeholder programs. For example, we still run our diversity tours for university students. In addition to visiting places of worship, students also engage in dialogues on diversity, tolerance, and pluralism. We have a residential diversity camp program where students from both secular and madrasa backgrounds come together and participate in diversity and leadership training. After the initial training, YDF supports them in implementing Social Action Projects (SAPs) in their local communities and institutes. We also organize interfaith consultation series for parliamentarians. We work closely with civil society and both the federal and provincial governments. Currently, we have four offices in four locations: Lahore (Head Office), Multan, Karachi, and Faisalabad.

Please, tell me a little more about Multan. Multan used to be called the City of Saints?

Yes. It used to be called City of Saints because it has a very interesting history. It’s a very beautiful city. It’s a very calm city. Actually, the history goes back to around 4000 BC, before Christ. The Hindus believe that the God Narasimha–a version of Vishnu–landed in Multan. The famous Hindu festival of Holi also started in Multan. There are remains of some very old Hindu temples here. The Narasimha temple, however, suffered vandalization during the Babri mosque tension in India. Currently, there is a Supreme Court stay order against any further damage to the temple. We have a lot of saints, maybe about 11,000 saints of greater and lesser prominence who stayed here. However, all the invaders—the Mongols, the Afghans, the British, caused a lot of damage to the architecture of the city and our spirit. But it is a very beautiful city, indeed.

There is a famous cricket ground in Multan, right? I remember a test match between Bangladesh and Pakistan in the city in the early 2000s –a close match that broke a lot of Bangladeshi hearts!

I was at that match, in the crowd! There was one cricket ground that hosted the 1990s World Cup. Then that cricket ground was declared sensitive. Another, very beautiful cricket stadium was built later.

Multan is also a very diverse city. It has a considerable Shia population. Some Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus, of course. Does YDF work will all minority groups?

Yes, we work very closely with all groups. Multan has quite a large Shia population. At YDF, we have a diverse group of workers from different religions and sects. Our founder, Mr. Jamil, is Christian. We also have Hindu teammates. We have both gender and religious balance in our team. We all try to connect our communities with each other and specifically with the YDF. We celebrate Christmas equally as we celebrate Eid and other events. We just had a very huge Christmas celebration in our head office and we are now heading towards celebrating Holi. We also prioritize involving diverse communities in all our projects as well and work directly with religious leaders from all major religions. We have built a participatory congregation who are trained and tasked to reduce inter and intrareligious tensions.

Right before the COVID-19 pandemic started, there was large tension in Multan. An unidentified person set fire to a Shia flag in front of the town hall. Both the Shia and Sunni communities as well as the law enforcement agencies thought there would be a big riot. The district administrators quickly brought about 30 religious leaders to the discussion table and violence was eventually avoided. The Sunni community leaders were sympathetic to their Shia counterparts’ pain and suffering and agreed to all the demands. 40% of these religious leaders had previously received interfaith harmony training from the YDF.

Thank goodness it was avoided! So, what kind of challenges and difficulties do you face as an individual and an organization when you work on interfaith issues in Pakistan?

It vastly varies by region. YDF is working from the north to the extreme south. But we do not work in the Balochistan province yet. If you look at Pakistan’s religiosity map, the north and south are generally more religious than the central parts. Challenges vary by literacy levels, urban/rural divide, and socioeconomic status. For example, in the north, you cannot just go to the community and start speaking about intersections and interfaith harmony. We just cannot. The strategies there are different. We need to take on board the religious leaders. We need to take on board the community and the tribe leaders. In several areas, we have to work with law enforcement agencies because of the ongoing surveillance over any kind of NGO activities. One cannot just go and risk the existing balance in power.

There were a few AHA! funded projects in the north which went well. YDF has worked with the government and the local administration in the north before, without any hiccups. They are generally very helpful towards civil society engagements.

Working in the field since 2010, we at the YDF have learned that it’s easier to work on interfaith issues compared to intrafaith. The government is trying hard to improve the intrafaith tensions. For example, they are trying to promote religious tourism in the hope that communication among sects would increase and improve over time. That might help interfaith conditions, but building trust among intrafaith factions is very tough! People are very much drawn to their own beliefs, and they are rarely willing to open up.

Fallout happens mostly over the gender issue. It’s very difficult to convince people about the involvement and inclusion of women, particularly from socioeconomically poorer families, in our activities. Poverty can pose many challenges to our line of peacebuilding work. We often hear people saying that if you want to talk about peace, come on Sunday. We have to work on weekdays. In those circumstances, we try to work with the numbertars (Panchayat leaders) in places where there is no good school or hospital, where spreading the message of peace is often ridiculed or chuckled over. People say out loud, “Okay, we don’t need this kind of information now. We need a hospital now.” Local people have their priorities set around, I would say, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Another problem we face at the local level, particularly among youths, is to convince and motivate them about the worth of our work. I have seen that people generally think about peace as a national, or at best, a community narrative; hardly ever as an individual narrative. People are often reluctant to engage at the personal level. People ask outright, “Okay, what is the outcome of these (peace) initiatives? Where is our incentive?” 

I will give you an example. The diversity tours are usually for 20 young people from a city who we take to temples, churches, and mosques. We do everything—from arranging the trips, taking care of the logistics, and offering meals. We still struggle to find enthusiastic participants. The first question they ask is: where is my incentive? If we say that you will get to see cool places, learn about the rich history, and get a certificate, they would promptly reply, “What’s the use of this certificate? Is it going to give me a job?” Same issue with peace education programs. After each education and training session, we cannot merely ask the participants to go to the community and disseminate learning. They do not have the necessary resources. So, we take a task-based approach. We design small achievable actions for the youth and provide them with support. We also try to make our programs as fun as possible. The diversity camps are usually very fun! We have cultural night, barbecue night, bonfire there to have a win-win situation. But ultimately, we have to get to their level to understand them and then incorporate any activity.

That’s an incredible insight! Then COVID-19 came and almost everything changed, right? How did COVID-19 impact what you do and how you do things?

COVID-19 came and spread very quickly. We were not prepared at all. We swiftly shifted most of our peacebuilding work to calamity response work. People lost jobs due to the lockdown. It helped contain the virus, but people were also suffering from losing economic opportunities. At YDF, we had some youth engagement and peacebuilding camps ongoing. When COVID-19 arrived, we shut off ongoing programs immediately and decided to focus on economic rehabilitation and public awareness programs. As we observed that the social and traditional media was filling up with rumors, mis/disinformation, and outright hatred towards minorities in the context of the pandemic, we acted fast and contacted the Government of Punjab with plans for a media campaign, to work with the religious leaders from all sects to encounter hate speech and mis/disinformation. We used all sorts of mediums to spread the messages of peace: television, radio, social media, billboard, pamphlets, and Tee-shirts. In addition, in cooperation with the Ministry of Human Rights Punjab, we distributed rations to vulnerable working-class people, specifically, people from the religiously marginalized groups in Lahore, Multan, and Karachi.

So, you were already working on media-based campaigns before the AHA! project?

Yes, AHA! came exactly at the right time. We were doing it on a small scale that we could afford. But the AHA! project helped us to amplify the idea throughout Pakistan. We have engaged the second-best TV news channel and cable TV networks to telecast our video messages in multiple languages such as Urdu, Sindhi, and Pashto. We also work with Radio Pakistan along with the privately-owned FM radio channels to spread awareness and words of peace. Through social media, we have managed to reach more than half a million people. We have used the “Boost” option on Facebook to target specific demographics and locations. For example, with the Boost feature, we tried to reach out to women 18 and above with tailored positive messages directed to them.

It was really tough to fight rumors and mis/disinformation along with hate speech. People were believing all sorts of things and eating/drinking all sorts of things to get rid of COVID-19. Then there was this vaccination hysteria in Pakistan. People claimed to find electronic chips in the vaccines. Rumors were spreading that people were turning lightbulbs on with their vaccines. So, we had to prioritize raising awareness and combat rumors and mis/disinformation along with religious harmony. First, we created 11 videos and telecasted them via electronic and social media. Then we created a poster about how to spot a rumor and mis/disinformation and posted it all over public places such as health centers, bus stops, schools and colleges, and vaccination centers. We recorded audio-video messages from medical doctors and disseminated those on both social and electronic media. As part of the AHA! project, we also ran a national level campaign called “Hygiene Heroine” where we highlighted the entrepreneurial and leadership work of women. Overall, in my opinion, the AHA! project made a lot of positive impact in Pakistan.

That’s wonderful to hear. For the second component of the AHA! project—the small grants, AHA! selected 15 grantees each from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Did you work closely with the grantees in Pakistan? What’s your impression of their work?

Yes, we have worked closely with the grantees. They are from different parts of the country. We have shared our communication materials with them and vice versa. We also did a lot of monitoring visits with the grantees from YDF. The grantees brought a lot of great ideas. Each of them worked with a diverse group of people and on diverse issues ranging from safe cyberspace to religious harmony. The grantees were very compassionate about their work. There were a lot of challenges during the pandemic, but they kept grinding on and most of them were very successful in their communities.

Reading their progress reports, I was impressed by their work. It must have been great to observe them closely on the ground! But what did not go as planned? What are some challenges that you faced during your work with the AHA! project? In your opinion, what could have been done better?

One of the obvious challenges is working online. AHA! is part of a consortium project and the teams are placed in different parts of the world. Some are located in Europe, some are in Bangkok, others (like you) are in the U.S. It was a new experience for us at YDF and communications, monitoring, and evaluation suffered because of it, as well as the impact. For example, we had several capacity-building workshops organized by the central team of AHA! They were all virtual events. I think the events would have been more fruitful if they had happened in person on the ground.

Another challenge was that despite the AHA! project being a regional one—South Asia focused on Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, we barely had any regional coordination among countries. I bet many of the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan projects were similar to Pakistan’s since they all focused on gender, youth, and religious peacebuilding in the context of COVID-19, I wish there were more opportunities for knowledge and experience sharing as well as meaningful collaboration, particularly among the small grant recipients. The third challenge was in-country coordination among the fellows and country partners such as the YDF. The small grantees were selected by the central AHA! project team. The grantees also had direct communication channels with the central team—they received their grant monies directly from the consortium as well. However, we at YDF, were supposed to provide monitoring and evaluation services for the small grantees. This triangular model created confusion and coordination challenges. For example, the grantees did not clearly know who to report to—YDF or to the central team in Bangkok, or the EU. I had been telling the grantees every few days, that they should be keeping their documents ready, recording their expenditures, etc. But they did not know whether they should be listening to me or waiting for instructions from the central team. At last, when the documents were requested from them by the central team towards the end of the project, the grantees were in shock! As a project coordinator and a person with a background in communications, I think we should have established a well-defined accountability system and a chain of command ahead of time. This would have taken care of a lot of last-minute surprises and confusion.

These are excellent insights. The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely rattled the way we used to work. Looking to your next project, what’s your plan after the AHA! project ends?

I am going to take a break. It’s been two very hectic years. I want to switch everything off for one or two months and be with my daughter, do some writing, and hopefully travel again.

That sounds awesome! We all need a break! Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me. I truly enjoyed our conversation.

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