An accidental humanitarian

Published: August 8, 2010
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Todd Shea went from being a musician to a humanitarian. His major concern is providing Pakistani children health facilities

Todd Shea is probably the most unusual Americans that you will come across in Pakistan’s devastated northern parts.

He came to Kashmir in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake and has never truly left since then.

The reason?

The beh-tereen, khoob-surat and zabar-dust’ children of the area.

Todd set up the Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS) in 2006 to provide health-care relief and recovery service for earthquake-affectees in Chikaar village of District Muzaffarabad. Today, it has evolved into a charity hospital that directly serves over 70,000 people in two villages, and is the sole provider of pre-natal care (they have an ultra-sound machine – a rarity in most rural health centres) and provides access to medicines for two adjoining villages.

Remembering the earthquake

The people of these villages carry the scars of the October 2005 earthquake that killed 74,698 people. Hundreds of thousands were either injured or lost loved ones. Survivors saw their life and livelihood disappear from under their feet. In many cases, these survivors were children.

But for Todd, these children are not just survivors. They are citizens with a right to basic health-care and he is determined to stay in Pakistan until they have that right. Todd and his team of volunteers and local staff live in rustic settings, sleeping on mats and sharing meals.

Journeyman musician to humanitarian

Todd isn’t a doctor. He’s probably not even a trained medic. He is trained in disaster response and has worked in disaster zones. But before he was bitten by the goodness bug, he was a musician. In New York for a major performance, he woke up on September 11, 2001, to the burning twin towers. He rushed to the structure to help in whatever way he could and managed to help several people. There was no performance but he had found a better stage. He continued with his music but focused his energies on helping others. Soon, he was part of the disaster response team working on-ground in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, and after that for Hurricane Katrina. The earthquake in Kashmir followed this quick succession of tragedies.

Todd called the Pakistan embassy as he tried to find out how best to help in the scenario. He was put through to an association of Pakistani-American doctors who were sending a team to the affected area. His credentials meant that he was welcomed on the team.

The devil and his advocacy

A recurring refrain in developmental circles is over the dichotomy between the individual and the cause; and the projection balance within. To rephrase: If an individual is highlighted more than the cause that he represents, than the cause faces the threat of losing its value.

While Todd’s dedication to his cause might be infectious, his gregarious personality and musician-persona is likely to overshadow his work.  He can do an interesting cover of the Vital Signs’ famous Dil Dil Pakistan as well as quite a bit of Atif Aslam but his passion now is the children of northern Pakistan.

Lets Pitch In

I first heard Todd on ‘Dost Scene On Hai’, a radio show that runs on a local youth-centric station, through which I found out about his fund-raiser in Karachi.

Here, I met Dr Zahra one of the young doctors who volunteered at Chikaar. She was full of praise for Todd Shea and the way he ensured everyone’s safety. Dr Zahra has plans to start a youth chapter of CDRS in Karachi that will help facilitate trips for students and young people to Chikaar.

Volunteers say money isn’t the only way to contribute. By visiting the area and talking to people, a young doctor said she helped reaffirm people’s belief that they have not been forgotten; that the frenzy of welfare work that followed the earthquake wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction in response to collective guilt but a manifestation of genuine concern.

For more information on how to help Todd and the  Comprehensive Disaster Response Services you can go here.

Hussain Dada

Hussain Dada

A free-lance journalist (who does not blog or tweet) based in Karachi. He is currently working for a social consultancy.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.