The Grief Directory's summer interns visit Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore in July. (Photo courtesy of Fatima Ali)
Fatima Ali never knew the religious flag atop her house would cause her to lose her family.
In 2013, her husband and 12-year-old son were killed by armed motorcyclists in Lahore, Pakistan. They were Shia Muslims. Two years later, a militant belonging to banned Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi confessed that they were killed for sectarian reasons.
"He was a patient of my husband, an eye surgeon. He was offended by the alam [Islamic flag seen during Muharram mourning processions] at the clinic," Shia doctor Ali, 45, told ucanews.com.
"That day I realized that I also belong to a minority religious group. Many Shia doctors have been assassinated in Karachi as well. A well-known person in our community is a walking target."
Ali was advised by security agencies to post the alam where people could not see it or turn off the lights on the roof at night.
In 2015, she founded The Grief Directory (TGD), which is dedicated to the memory of her lost family members and connects grieving families with those who can provide support.
It also displays memorials of terror attack victims including Abhishek Masih, an 8-year-old Christian child who died in front of Christ Church in Youhanabad settlement of Lahore in 2015 when suicide bombers attacked two churches and killed 15 Christians that Sunday.
"It was one of the first photos our volunteers collected while the project was being designed. Once attacked, non-Muslim communities take years to return to a normal life. Both Christian and Hindu communities now prefer Muslim names for their children to avoid persecution. Many adult Hindus even change their names," said Ali.
The mother of two also offers annual internships to teach youngsters about compassionate conversation, needs assessment of victims and keeping contact with them through personal visits or phone calls. She also uses her contacts in hospitals and clinics to help those injured in bombings.
The Grief Directory founder Fatima Ali (second from right) with a Rescue 1122 team in Lahore this month. (Photo courtesy of Fatima Ali)
TGD's Facebook support group shares guidance on dealing with grieving friends experiencing mental health problems, updates on terror attacks and theological discussions on suffering. It also publishes regular statements on minorities' protection while posting reported incidents of violence.
TGD interns remain in regular contact with hundreds of terror-affected families through monthly phone calls or personal visits. These include 50 victims of the 2016 Easter bombing in Lahore.
"Sadly, the protests which usually follow such sectarian killings look more like a religious procession than an actual demonstration. Only the followers of targeted sects are seen at the forefront. Typically, these events include their rituals and prayers," Ali said.
"It is hard to convince a sectarian NGO to help other believers. Likewise, communities also display a lack of trust and hesitate to reach out to organizations that do not share their faith. Our nation suffers from a ghetto mindset."
The government estimates that more than 74,000 people have died in 14 years of violence that have cost the country US$123 billion in economic losses. According to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, 158 people were killed and more than 670 wounded in about 120 attacks in the six weeks leading up to general elections held last month.
"The government only pays one-time financial compensation to victims' families but their needs continue for their whole life, especially after the loss of a sole breadwinner," said Ali.
"Rescue 1122, the emergency service, only shares the names of bomb victims. A lot of time is spent in getting their contact details or addresses from government offices. Even these first responders lack emotional training and sometimes need help themselves."
Ali is now in discussions about introducing counseling departments in 1122 command and control centers.
Jane Dean, a Christian, thanks TGD for supporting the college expenses of her son. Her husband and two sons were among those injured in a 2013 twin suicide bombing at All Saints Church in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. At least 85 people were killed in one of the deadliest attacks on the religious minority in Pakistan. Dean's 48-year-old husband is paralyzed after the attack.
"The boys recovered but my husband had to retire after a serious head injury. The infection in his left leg has now become chronic. He has to undergo surgery every year," said Dean, who had to quit her teaching job to take care of her husband.
"A visiting Muslim doctor helped us in getting connected with TGD. I have never met my benefactors but we are thankful to them. At least someone is there to help us. We are also taxpayers but there is no government facility to support survivors."
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