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Protecting the Peace

August 2004
Protecting the Peace

By Viren Mayani

Anyone who has received an email from Khurram Hassan immediately gets a sense of what he stands for. Tagged at the bottom of the message, is a line quoting the sufi poet, Rumi: "Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

That is Khurram (?Ko') for you?a man who has journeyed through numerous cultures, but believes that differences are in the mind, and faith is about serving others. By the time he was a teenager, he had lived in seven countries and learned to accept diversity?a trait he attributes to his mother, Ammi. Speaking about Ammi's influence, he says, "We may have our frailties as humans, but we were taught to develop a natural comfort level around all kinds of people."

After many years of peripatetic living, Khurram has settled in Atlanta, and serves the local community in his capacity as a leading member of the non-profit circuit. Although he is involved in a number of interesting organizations, his primary impact to the community comes from his role as Board President of Raksha, Inc., a premier social services organization for South Asians in the region. Khurram pulls off this responsible position while being employed with United Way, the fund-raising giant where he is a strategic director. At Raksha too, he is responsible for strategic planning, over and above community outreach. The organization plays a vital role serving in cases of domestic violence, elderly abuse and such issues that would otherwise go un-addressed in absence of our native support structures.

One can see the bent towards social service in Khurram's credo: "To respect and treat all humans alike, and to be grateful for what we have, and to be understanding of those who do not have enough." Wherever there is conflict, whether between persons or nations, he seeks to serve and protect the peace. No wonder Khurram has also been a key activist with South Asians for Unity (SA4U), a local organization seeking to build bridges amongst Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and others from the subcontinent.

Khurram's life trajectory could have been that of any other immigrant from South Asia. But his journey has unfolded quite unlike that of most of his compatriots. He was born in 1968, in Dhaka, Bangladesh (then, East Pakistan). Like innumerable families displaced by Partition, his father's family was originally from Patna in Bihar but later moved to Chittagong. His mother's family, also from India, crossed the border on the Western side and settled in Karachi. It is a journey that still goes down in family lore?Khurram's grandmother, with her six children, trekking across Bombay, doing long stretches by foot, and eventually ending up in Pakistan.

After Khurram was born, his father moved to Karachi, but Khurram has very sparing recollections of his home country, mostly just the flat they lived in and his aunt's sprawling mansion. Soon after that they moved to Kuwait, where his father was an officer with the then famous BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International).

Most of his youth was spent traveling from place to place, as his father was entrusted with opening new branches all over the world. After Kuwait came Saudi Arabia, a brief stint in London, the Cayman Islands, and private school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But it this exposure that has shaped him into who he is today. "My mother made sure we were never afraid of people. We attended churches with Christian friends, and participated in Hindu prayers at homes of Hindu friends," says the soft-spoken young man. "My mother shaped our acceptance of diversity very early on and this really affected my brother and me, spiritually and socially."

He has vivid memories of his years in the Cayman Islands?which he describes as almost Utopian?and came closest to a place he could call home. "It is heaven, a naturally beautiful tropical island country that is not too big, nor too small, and does not have the complex problems of large nations, like poverty and crime. Everybody got along and there was a South Asian party every weekend, be it Indian, Pakistani or whatever, we all celebrated together. Friendships were very close and soothed the soul. The Caymans have a big music culture. It is a spiritual place with lots of churches, yet no one feels threatened by diversity."

Why leave Utopia? Well, the family eventually had to leave because events at BCCI took a turn for the worse and the company went bankrupt. His father went back to Pakistan. In 1986, Khurram came to Atlanta. He started out as a pre-med student at Emory. Like most other immigrant children, he was under great pressure to perform.

But soon he found himself getting bored with this pre-med courses and started veering towards the liberal arts. He finally chose to major in sociology, and had a particular interest in African-American and African studies. Predictably, his father did not approve of anything outside the traditional professions of business, engineering, law, medicine and finance. "This was way outside that realm," says Khurram.

But it was too late. A move into the liberal arts had already started guiding him on how to be a self-learner, to communicate, and to organize himself. He realized that his niche was in public health. Health is what drew him to pre-med in the first place, and the public had been his love all along. It was a perfect mix and he also knew deep within that it would bring him both a job and money.

BCCI finally shut down?so did the financial backing to his education. Khurram delayed his graduation and started working multiple jobs, finding ways and means to get past the international student employment restrictions. He worked at the student center at Emory and at Grady hospital. His internships at the Carter Center and Grady Hospital further fuelled his interests of studying international health.

After he graduated with a Master's degree from Emory, Khurram got a small job working in the area of HIV through some contacts at Grady. He earned a mere $20K for a full-time position, but that hardly deterred his enthusiasm and he worked with all sincerity with adolescent inner city children in the metro Atlanta area, covering twenty counties. He was recognized among noteworthy individuals in the entire country working in HIV prevention efforts, targeting high-risk African-Americans and minority youth. Difficulties over his immigration status in the country prevented him from jumping into another, more paying, job, but he was eventually accepted for permanent residency by the INS through the NIW (National Interest Waiver) process.

The mammoth fund-raising organization United Way had a position that involved training people and organizations that were using its funds. The training helped these non-profit groups evaluate, through models, how effective they were. Within five months there, the department director left, leaving Khurram to lead this group of three as an interim director of impact measurement. He was prompt and efficient and began to realize that he did not need to get a PhD to continue in this line. Within a few months, he was appointed a full time director of the Impact Measurement Department and three years later he became the lead for two of their five strategic areas of work ? thanks to his earned reputation as a problem solver.

This took him into two important areas of work?the first was independent living, which helps people with functional limitations, and addresses their needs for housing, transportation and such. Khurram had to work with a variety of groups, including the Atlanta Regional Commission, disability organizations and area agencies on aging. The second was ?strengthening families', which meant dealing with addiction issues, mental health, family violence and parenting skills.

The logical outcome of this experience was Raksha, the outreach group. "It was more of a community to me than an organization." He says, adding that it was Raksha's mission, culture, organizational strength, and its people that really attracted him to it in 1997.

At the time, Khurram was also volunteering with an organization called American Friends Service Commission, a peace organization. With its roots in the 400 hundred year old Quaker Christian tradition, this is a devout peace-loving Quaker based organization that welcomes people from all faiths and backgrounds to support its peace work around the world. His local effort was to emphasize peace in the Middle East through them. "It is here that I learnt a lot about Gandhiji and Nelson Mandela," he says, both of whom have been inspiring voices in his life.

"I learnt that Raksha is about non-violence?all forms of it. It deals with physical violence, emotional violence, financial abuse, elderly abuse, child abuse and abuse of power. I concluded that these two organizations were related," he says. Khurram was apprehensive at first because he had not done much with the Atlanta ?desi' community before Raksha. "Of course, now I do nothing outside of it for fun!" At one time, there was a person of South-Asian origin who was affected with AIDS and was dying. Khurram was asked to help the person out and hook him up with a South-Asian organization that could perhaps break his myth about his people shunning him or hating him. He got Raksha involved and received an impressive response from the organization. Since then Khurram has worked with Raksha?first as a volunteer, later as a board member and now as board president.

Elaborating on the function of Raksha in our community, he says, "American organizations are great and will help, but it takes a lot to completely understand our culture. Why not support a native organization that will full comprehend the complexity of issues surrounding a specific crime or abuse?

When he is not working, Khurram loves the movies-- mostly international art films and documentaries. "I believe movie is a great way to tell a story," he says. Of late, Khurram has developed an interest that also keeps him fit! He has joined a dance group called Bhangra Elite, which performs locally and is a melting pot of South-Asian individuals.

And marriage? "Until recently I did not know where I was going to be?in the sense, whether here or in Pakistan, or another country. Additionally my mother has become my responsibility?someone I need to take care of physically. These two things made me remain very cautious. But in the last few years I have settled down and my mom is also doing much better. An arranged marriage would just not work for me but I feel confident in saying, "very soon you will be coming to my wedding." In fact, forty or fifty years from now, he envisages himself "surrounded by my children, my grandchildren and my extended family." Only a few weeks ago, he was in Canada emceeing his cousin's wedding of about 350 people.

Khurram may have been inspired by formidable icons such as Gandhi and Mandela, but he is equally open to music groups like U2 and the messages they have sent into the world. "I do not go to one particular place of worship but go everywhere there is peace and meditation".

At the end of Khurram's email messages, following the line by Rumi, comes a series of icons?a Hindu ?aum', an Islamic crescent, a cross and the star of David. These symbols are aligned together in peace and harmony?much like the message that Ko sends out to the world.

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