Saghir Aslam’s sneaker-clad feet kick up dustclouds as he walks to the unfinished orphanage, stopping along the way to point out exterior features and detailing what’s to come. The five-story, marble-halled complex sits next to Aslam’s Saba Aslam Education and Welfare Trust in Rawalpindi, a garrison city that rubs shoulders with the capital Islamabad.
“I call this history in the making,” Aslam says as he wades through sawdust protecting the orphanage’s floors. Most orphans in Pakistan have no place in society or a future, he says. The Irvine businessman, 72, hopes to pave the way for others to help orphans, among the most disadvantaged, through the all-girls Saba Homes. It includes classrooms, a large playroom, two libraries – audio/visual and literary – a cafeteria, gardens, a computer lab and state of the art sleeping rooms.
Most of the 4- to 7-year-old girls who will call the facility home when it officially opens Nov. 2 were orphaned by the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, which devastated the landscape and razed whole villages within minutes.
From the top of the waterproofed and insulated roof to the plants whose roots dig deep in the soil of the gardens, Aslam has overseen every detail of the facility, buying top-of-the-line doors, tiles, marble, windows, and even light switches.
Tom Thorkelson, the director of interfaith relations for the Southern California chapter of the Church of Latter-day Saints and a Newport Beach resident, helped coordinate the donation of 60 hand-quilted comforters for each child. He’s also put Aslam in touch with various Mormon aid groups, including Deseret International, which works with the trust in setting up eye camps and clinics in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan.
Basheer John – one of Pakistan’s top artists – has been painting murals of popular local fables along the walls of the classrooms and other images all over the facility that depict unity and tolerance, ideas that Aslam says he wishes to instill in the girls through their education.
“These girls will become the future leaders of Pakistan. We will teach them to love every human being, no matter their religion, country or color,” he said.
The orphans will live and be taught at the facility until they can get married or find jobs. They can be adopted – parents can sponsor the child’s upbringing and visit – but the girls will live in the orphanage for security reasons, he says.
Aslam has his own counterterrorism tactics. He says interfaith cooperation, literacy and education help build a stronger community and chip away at the conditions that lead to social and political unrest.
The trust works with more than 100 groups on many projects, including Deseret International, Sabin’s Children Foundation, the Human Rights Organization and the U.N. Millennium Development. “We may be the only organization – Muslim organization – that’s getting a good amount of non-Muslim support,” Aslam said.
More online: For more information on Saba Trust projects, visit www.sabatrust.org.