Aslam’s inspiration for the new Saba Homes orphanage came when the northern Pakistan earthquake struck in 2005, exacting a hefty human and geographical toll. The government, media and other relief groups immediately went to the more populated and accessible areas of Balakot and Muzaffarabad.
Aslam, instead, was drawn to the devastated villages. He has been doing that since 1965 when, on a visit to the country, he was treated in a hospital and saw that the poor lacked access to the same treatment. He used some vacant land he owned to build his first medical clinic and has been contributing in Pakistan and to Islamic causes in Southern California since.
Aslam understands the need in his adopted homeland. He was born in Jullundur, India, to a middle-class family that left everything behind during the bloody 1947 partition between India and Pakistan. After spending five months in a refugee camp, the family settled in Pakistan. He took out a loan to go abroad in 1956, working menial jobs in England to pay it off, and then came to the U.S. a year later to study at then-Sacramento State College. He worked his way up at The Broadway department store and also made money through other business ventures, real estate and the stock market.
With his wife, Bushra, Aslam created the Saba Aslam Education & Welfare Trust 15 years ago and converted his home in Rawalpindi to the trust’s headquarters. He now splits his year between the U.S. and Pakistan, and the trust works with more than 100 organizations on projects worldwide, including the Sabin Children’s Foundation, the Human Rights Organization, the U.N. Millennium Development and the Irvine-based Free Wheelchair Mission.
In the days after the 2005 earthquake, Aslam, 72, gathered his Pakistan-based team and other volunteers, filled trucks with food, aid and tents, and went to some of the most remote and devastated villages, many inaccessible by road. In the end, the trust helped 75.
Aslam’s involvement with the area did not end there. Most orphans in Pakistan, especially girls, have no place in society or a future, he says. So he’s housing them at his orphanage. Aslam hopes that through his example, he can pave the way for others to make helping orphans a priority.
The no-nonsense, energetic Aslam usually rises by 3 a.m., walks four to six miles a day and puts his whole heart and all his resources into any project he undertakes.
“I call this history in the making,” he says. “No expenses were spared.”
The five-story, marble-walled Saba Homes, which is connected to the trust headquarters, has classrooms, a large playroom, two libraries, a cafeteria, gardens, a computer lab and state-of-the-art sleeping rooms. Construction began in June 2006 on the orphanage.
From the top of the waterproof and insulated roof to the plants whose roots dig deep into the soil of the gardens, Aslam has overseen every detail of the facility, buying the best doors, tiles, marble, windows and even light switches. More than 12 tons of steel bars will hold the building in place during an earthquake – government regulations require up to 5 tons.
Each of the 4- to 7-year-old girls can snuggle into her own hand-quilted comforter – 60 in all – that were donated by Tom Thorkelson of Newport Beach, director of interfaith relations for the Southern California chapter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thorkelson was also responsible for putting Aslam in touch with Mormon aid organizations, including Deseret International, which works with the trust in setting up eye camps and clinics in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan.
Murals on nearly every wall were painted by Basheer John, one of Pakistan’s top artists, and incorporate famous local fables that depict unity and tolerance.
“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,” Aslam says.
The trust also sponsors the annual World Interfaith Peace Conference, which brings together Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis and Muslims. At Christmas and Easter, the trust also invites people of different faiths for an informal gathering that Aslam says helps build bridges. 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.
Aslam’s next project is an eye hospital in Baffa, in the Himalayan mountains.