The Turning Point

Zayna MianDecember 2, 2019FulfillmentAwesome Moments
The Turning Point

On a sweltering June morning, I made my way through lush, voluminous trees, shanty towns, clustered bazaars, and trails of motorbikes en route to Akhuwat Organization’s office near my ancestral village in Lahore.

Over the years, I had heard many positive things about Akhuwat from family members, teachers, and the media, but was uncertain about what to expect at the office. After a grueling academic year, I was desperate to sleep for days on end, yet the ambitious part of my brain was pestering me to find an experience that would go beyond textbook learning.

As this time period also coincided with the holy month of Ramadan (fasting), thoughts about the purpose of life and a meaningful existence were swirling around in my mind as I headed into the Nawabpura Akhuwat office. My jaw dropped when I encountered a small windowless room with a threadbare carpet, some file cabinets, and four staff members sitting on the floor, organizing papers on a flat rectangular block of wood. For a moment, I was transfixed by my surroundings. I wondered whether I had somehow ended up at the wrong location. However, the cluster of people at the desk briefly greeted me and then went back to listening to an old lady giving an account of her chickens and the money she was making through selling eggs. My expectations of a typical NGO office evaporated as the Akhuwat team invited me to join them. At that very moment, the wiring in my brain got a jolt as the passion and attitude of the team left me in awe. Suddenly, I found myself engulfed by a wave of curiosity and eagerness to embark on a hands-on journey of understanding the spirit of Akhuwat (which means “brotherhood”).

Akhuwat is the world’s largest Islamic microfinance organization, which provides interest-free loans to the underprivileged. Microfinance is a concept that aims to give low-income segments of society access to loans so that individuals have capital for starting up or enhancing their livelihoods. Unlike conventional microfinance, loans under Islamic microfinance are 100% interest free, making repayment easier. Currently Akhuwat loans are benefiting approximately 3.3 million families all over Pakistan. The organization was founded on the essential Islamic concept of brotherhood, which promotes selflessness and generosity to strengthen societal bonds and encourage economic prosperity. Naturally, I was extremely impressed and awestruck by the profile of the organization.

Soon I came to learn what it takes to be part of the team working behind the scenes at the grassroots level. Waves of humility pounded on me as I heard firsthand accounts about the resilience of widows, elderly people, and orphans suffering from a plethora of financial and emotional struggles, yet striving to not only make ends meet, but also explore ways to ensure sustainable living. Within a few hours I was deeply engrossed by the flow of conversation around me as new applicants were evaluated and updates were taken from those coming to repay loans. Soon all reservations about working on a tattered carpet without any air conditioning in 45◦C-plus temperatures evaporated.

The staff at Akhuwat enthusiastically explained the day-to-day work, filing, and documentation process for loan applications, which are dispersed through the local mosque, as community members essentially act as guarantors for each other. Amazingly, the Nawabpura office’s rate of return has consistently been nearly 100%. Initially, the state of the office and enthusiasm of the team greatly puzzled me, but later I realized how these aspects contribute to building trust within the community. Sitting on the floor was an expression of humility and solidarity with the underprivileged. Also, the staff mentioned how funds received were better spent on building the career of someone needy rather than purchasing an air conditioner. By the end of my first day, I was exhausted, tired, hungry, and excessively thirsty due to my fast and the heat, but while having Iftar (a meal to break the fast at sunset), I realized how profound my experience had been. For the first time in my life, I got a tiny glimpse into the lives of the needy in my country and the tremendous responsibility people like me have towards their welfare.

The days at Akhuwat seemed to fly by as I was deeply engaged in the collaborative efforts of the Nawabpura team. Collecting, documenting, and counting hundreds of installments, preparing new loan applications, interviewing applicants, filing papers, and writing down daily progress reports for the branch manager were areas where I contributed. With the encouragement of the manager, I also conducted a mini impact assessment on the efficacy of the loans Akhuwat was disbursing in Nawabpura. This project enabled me to interview and get to know a wide range of local community members, ranging from small-scale tailors, daily wage laborers, salon owners, craftsmen, traders, general shop owners, to even juice and snack stand owners.

One wizened old lady in particular was memorable, as she first lectured me about the need for modest clothing and then went on to talk about her son’s tragic death due to hepatitis and her husband’s mobility impairment. This had left her as the sole breadwinner for her young grandchildren. Despite this major setback in her life, Akhuwat loans enabled her to set up a small toy shop in the Nawabpura neighborhood of Lahore, which is successfully meeting her financial needs. The personal journey of these resilient individuals, assisted by Akhuwat loans, in setting up their own businesses and livelihoods was very inspiring, especially as the results of my impact assessment project showed that people who were previously touching the poverty line experienced a 90-120% rise in income after enrolling with Akhuwat.

Every day at Akhuwat was an eye-opening experience for me where I empathized and learned more about men, women, and their personal journeys, the struggle and toil they had to bear, and the intense hours of hard work they put in for their families. My journey at Akhuwat also brought me a sense of fulfillment in my own life. From the very first day I walked into Akhuwat, my entire mindset was altered and I was motivated to step out of my comfort zone and pursue activities that can have a positive impact on large segments of our society. This experience helped me realize that the only way to achieve a true feeling of fulfillment in life is to give back to society and assist others in need, as the satisfaction derived from witnessing someone benefit from your contribution is the best feeling and surpasses any personal milestone or achievement.

Zayna Mian is a 15 year old from Lahore, Pakistan. She is currently a Year 11 student at Lahore Grammar School Defence. She is a prolific reader who plans to pursue her interest in writing short stories, blogs, and eventually novels. Zayna loves playing the piano and also enjoys squash. She is passionate about scientific research and hopes to become a biophysicist one day.