Contemporary and Social Issues

Humanity First 25th Anniversary: Interview with Chairman Ahmad Yahya Sayed

Humanity First was established in 1995 as a non-political, non-religious and impartial relief development agency focused on protecting human life and dignity. Since its inception, Humanity First has grown and expanded a great deal and is now commemorating 25 years of service to humanity. On this occasion, The Review of Religions spoke to Ahmad Yahya Sayed, Chairman of the Board of Trustees and the Executive Board for Humanity First International. He spoke about the early days of Humanity First, and how the organization has grown from its inception to a leading, global humanitarian organization. Below is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation with Ahmad Yahya Sayed and The Review of Religions’ Senior Editorial Board member Sarah Waseem.

SW: Today I am absolutely delighted to be joined by Ahmad Yahya Sayed, who is the chairman of the board of trustees and the chairman of the executive board of Humanity First. Assalamo Alaikum Yahya Sahib.

AYS: Walaikum Asalaam.

SW: Thank you so much for joining us today, it is a real pleasure. I wonder if you could start by telling us a little bit about your own role in Humanity First?

AYS: Just to also give you, where Humanity First stands today and what I’m serving, I’m serving Humanity First International as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and the Executive Board. By the grace of Allah, since its establishment, Humanity First has now grown to be present in 58 countries and the International Headquarters basically coordinates all the activities of the branches around the globe. So, that’s where my role comes in, to assist on the International space.

SW: Jazak’Allah. Can you tell us a little bit more about Humanity First’s objectives? A bit about, typically how it’s organized and funded throughout the whole organization. I am particularly interested in how it might differ from other relief organizations. There are a lot of charitable organizations serving humanity, how is Humanity First different?

AYS: Humanity First was established as a non-political, non-religious, and impartial international relief and development agency that focuses on protecting human life and dignity. Initially, Humanity First started to provide aid relief post-disaster, which was after the Bosnian conflict. But later it developed into a proper non-governmental organisation with the aim and objective to provide aid on the basis of necessity alone, irrespective of caste, creed, colour, or religion. In terms of our mission, it is to serve socially disadvantaged individuals and families in the poorer communities and disaster struck areas of the world. We also aim to offer sustainable development solutions to society while providing and empowering local communities with resources to help themselves. We promote peace and understanding based on mutual respect and acceptance. Through advocacy, emergency response and efficient programs, Humanity First prioritises health and safety of those most vulnerable.

As you said, how we organize ourselves in terms of funding and how we are differentiated from others, in terms of the funding we are supported directly by individuals who fund and support our activities and these funds are raised through different appeals and events organized by each country. In terms of the difference, I think there is a key difference in what Humanity First offers in comparison to others. Humanity First has a very strong volunteer base; the majority of our workers are unpaid volunteers and they make the difference. Most of these are professionals or skilled workers and students and retired people who want to devote their time and their efforts and I think this is the key strength that makes us different from others. Of course, I think all the NGOs who are working to serve the socially disadvantaged and the poorer communities, they are always trying to help in their own objectives and means, but Humanity First is trying always to keep our costs at the lowest and the human resource cost is a major contributor to that and that’s where we make a huge saving by using our volunteer work so that makes us different.

Humanity First 25th Anniversary

SW: Thank you. That’s a very important point, isn’t it? Because when I give money to a charity, not all of that money is going to go completely to the cause that I’m giving to? As you say, it will go on perhaps some administrative costs etc. But I think, Humanity First, from what you’re telling me, is quite different like that?

AYS: Yes, absolutely and this is always our key priority from our management as a goal and one of the KPIs which we always put in every program, and in every project that we have to make sure that we deliver at the lowest cost, but in the best quality as well. Cost-saving is not the objective, it is so we can spend more on the real project. So this is where Humanity First has been successful and this is I think, one of the main reasons that we managed to expand our activities very rapidly because we had limited funds though, but we managed to spend them wisely and we have delivered a lot of good size projects which I will be able to give you some details later.

SW: Thank you, Jazak’Allah for that. So, let’s go back a little bit, let’s go back to those early days and I understand you were very involved at the onset of the inception of Humanity First. Can you tell us a little bit about those very early days, how Humanity First started and your own experience with Humanity First because I understand, your involvement started around the time of the Bosnian conflict or perhaps I’m mistaken there?

AYS: No you are very correct, so back in the early 90s initially it was Khuddam [youth auxiliary] volunteers who began to deliver eight convoys to Bosnia the other Balkan countries and of course it was not just Khuddam, there were also Lajna [woman’s auxiliary] members a part of these convoys. I particularly remembered this when you said it was one of my first aid convoys.

We went to Hungary where there were a lot of Bosnian refugees and we were asked to support some of the refugee camps, and we had a large contingent of convoy members who came from the UK and some from Germany, and I had the opportunity to be in that group and I believe that you also have participated in this convoy. This was the beginning and under the directions of Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IV (rh) then Humanity First was formally established under trust deed as a registered charity with the UK Charities Commission in November 1995 and as I mentioned, now we are registered in fifty-eight countries and across six continents and Humanity First provides aid and resources to millions of people in need. Expanding the purpose of this charity, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih once stated that he envisaged that irrespective of faith, colour, and creed, noble souls who shared the same vision would be drawn towards Humanity First and would quickly surpass the work done by other major global charities.

Now if we look back this was, although 25 years have passed, but because all of us who are involved [from the beginning] we see it like yesterday and this vision of Khalifatul Masih, and we have seen that Humanity First has grown from a very modest beginning to what we stand here today as a large organization. So we have seen the growth of Humanity First in the years when we started from just the conflict after the Bosnian war, and from there onwards we started to mobilize teams to respond to some of the natural disasters, and then initiated a few projects in Africa, and from these humble beginnings we have now an incredible past that can form the cornerstone of future progress. Again I had the opportunity to be present in the early part of Humanity First’s inception for the tsunami relief and also in the number of other earthquakes which struck globally in different parts of the world, in Asia mostly, and Humanity First took a very active role in the relief work in these disasters.

SW: It is quite amazing to think how much it has grown. But going back a little bit to the beginnings, can you tell us a little bit more about Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IV’s (rh) involvement with Humanity First at that time. I mean what I assume is you would have worked very closely with Huzoor (rh) and what was his vision? You have spoken about what he wanted Humanity First to be about but what was that like in those early days? How was that? What role in terms of you were involved with coordinating but what was your contact with him and his overall kind of vision for this?

AYS: Earlier I did give some of the mission statement of Humanity First, that is drawn from what Hazrat Khalifatul Masih [His Holiness, the Caliph] has guided us and also it is important to remember that the inspirational name of our organization is our vision, which is Humanity First. We facilitate humanitarian activities to alleviate human suffering caused by natural disasters or human conflict. This was the beginning when Hazrat Khalifatul Masih started to give us the guidance that you need to develop this organisation to a level where you will one day surpass leading organisations at that time in the world that are known to be very few. And that is the goal of Humanity First to be one of the leading global organisations in the relief work. To be, obviously, Huzoor always guided us to promote peace and understanding based on our mutual tolerance and respect.

Then Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IV (rh), we remember little examples we can relate to, where he was showing his kindness to the workers of Humanity First, who were visiting these convoys. Khalifatul Masih IV (rh) used to, for every single convoy at the time of its departure, it became a practice, that we used to lead the convoy from Fazl Mosque and it would complete its journey at Fazl Mosque. Huzoor (rh) used to lead us in prayers and he used to give us his personal guidance and instructions on the safety measures of how to treat those who we are victims of war. Huzoor (rh) used to insist every single time ‘please do not care about the financial resources that you have available to you because if you need more, get back to me’ and he will basically extend resources to us. So, he was taking a personal charge of all the relief activities at that time when Humanity First was basically starting up and that is how we had the blessings of Khalifat in the foundations of Humanity First.

We have seen that those volunteers who used to travel on these convoys, although sometimes it was two weeks, three weeks of tiredness, away from home, away from family, but they used to have one of the main kinds of ambition and target that they should reach back to Fazl Mosque so that they can report back and meet Huzoor (rh) and share some of their stories and their experiences and get Huzoor’s (rh) views so that they can use those as Huzoor’s guidance to bring to the next level our convoys and so on. So, these are some of the old days of Humanity First, when we were starting up our foundation in a way. But Alhamdullilah [all praise belongs to Allah] as you see Humanity First has grown every day and that we are today. And when we see where we started from just one post-disaster and Alhamdulillah we will be able to review what Humanity First had delivered up to today.  

Khalifatul Masih IV(rh) meets with a Humanity First team about to leave for a trip abroad to deliver aid to the neady.

SW: Jazak’Allah. That was really very inspirational. Out of curiosity how did the name ‘Humanity First’ came to be? How did you come up with that name? Was that kind of a group thing or was that from Huzoor (rh)?

AYS: As always, when the organisation was set up, the Ameer and a number of others who were involved. And we had the couple of names chosen as a shortlist and they were presented to Huzoor (rh). Huzoor (rh) selected the name at that time, Humanity First.

SW: Jazak’Allah. That sums up perfectly the name and how you described the various projects that Humanity First has been involved in. That brings us to today and brings us to thinking about the projects you are now doing, and you have talked about some of that work. I am wondering about how you select projects amongst the number of projects, how are you guided by Hazrat Khalifutal Masih V (aba) now, how are you guided to selecting which projects Humanity First is focusing on and how do you decide need and how do you work with that.

AYS: It is important to mention that we are always guided in our global activities by Khalifatul Masih (aba) which is a strength and blessing and under Huzoor’s (aba) guidance Humanity First has managed to deliver a world-class health facility in Guatemala, where you will remember that two years back that Huzoor (aba) specially visited Guatemala to inaugurate this facility. We continue to expand our education and healthcare facilities and Huzoor (aba) has given us a lot of guidance towards the provision of free access to drinking water. I can give you a birds-eye view of how Humanity First relief activities around the world and how we select programs.

Humanity First 25th Anniversary

Some of the key programs: Food Security, Water for Life, Global Health, Gift of Sight, Orphan Care and Knowledge for Life. These are our key programs. And each country is following under the same umbrella programs and sometimes come up with a project that fits into one of these programs and then we give the approval and that is how the project is approved and executed. In terms of our Food Security, we have over 2.5 million people who have benefited from some of our programs, where we assist farmers with their crops and we also assist communities for some of the machines for maze grounding, and so on, and we also assist in delivering the food ration acts to these communities. During the Covid program, which I will brief you later, we have under the same program- Food Security, we have delivered over 10.4 million meals. Again, these are the ration packs and hot meals.

And under ‘Knowledge for Life’ program we now have 43 schools and approximately over 200,000 students have used the facilities of Humanity First schools till today. I would like to highlight that one of our senior secondary schools in Ghana, for ten years, has been in the top three positions in the country and has excellent results throughout. Some of our students have achieved extraordinary results in their degrees and postgraduate masters and their careers. We also have 33 training centres where we teach IT and vocational training centres. Where approximately 67,000 students have passed through. We have 8 hospitals and clinics and we have provided over 460,000 kind of beneficiaries from these medical camps and hospitals. We have delivered almost 3,062 water pumps. These are the water pumps in Africa, Pakistan and Indian and remote parts of Africa you would find many of our ‘Water for Life’ projects.

Nasir Hospital, Guatemala

We have also focused on ‘Orphan Care’ – we run projects for orphans, and we have our own orphanage in Benin. Where we have the capacity for 100 orphans. This is an orphanage where I have had the opportunity to visit two years back. Mash’Allah, it has been organised by our local Humanity First in Benin, which is overseen and supported by Humanity First Germany. So, in terms of our overall beneficiaries for disasters that we have responded, which is almost 150 disasters, we have responded to in the last 25 years and overall over 2 million beneficiaries have been helped through disaster relief programs. So, this is just to give you a very quick overview of what are the projects and how we have managed to take from little and it has grown to strengths. As I have mentioned, the Guatemala hospital is a very modern and world-class facility in South America.

His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) at the inauguration of Nasir Hospital in Guatemala

SW: That is quite an amazing story in terms of development. From those humble beginnings, with trucks taking supplies to people in war zones involved in conflict, now to expanding into all these other areas. That is Mash’Allah really quite an inspirational story. You’ve been involved in a lot of the disaster relief work as you’ve said particularly reaching [out] to populations that are suffering around the world and you have personally witnessed the suffering of people first hand. What is that like for you? What is the impact of that on you and how do you feel with that?

AYS: Well first I am very grateful to Allah for this great opportunity to serve from this platform and it has been truly humbling to witness the progress of Humanity First over the last 25 years. You will remember the very first foreign operations during [the] Bosnian conflict when we were in Hungary and how all the volunteers who were assisting, how deeply they were affected because seeing the pain and the trauma of those victims we had to face this challenge. Most of our volunteers who had no past formal kind of training or experience of dealing with these situations, how they were affected but what noticed and what we have always come up with is that those volunteers have become so committed to the cause and obviously it is always painful to see the suffering of humans due to either man-made or natural disasters or due to poverty.

But personally, I have also seen this that all the volunteers always come back more motivated and dedicated to serve and this is I think the beauty of our organisation and our volunteers who are guided by [the] khulafa and always reminded that the reason they are involved is to serve mankind and humanity for the pleasure of Allah, is through serving humanity, so this is where I think our volunteers get their satisfaction that when they go into the field and they go with some commitment and always they are very much dedicated to the cause. Alhamdulillah, we have seen the growth in the numbers of our volunteers who are becoming a big strength for Humanity First as an organisation.

SW: Alhamdulillah and I guess on that same theme, when one goes out to these places there is not only the challenge of having to deal with one’s own feelings but also how to deal with the feelings of the people who are suffering. I wondered if you had any stories about that or any kind of personal experiences of where you or the team have had to deal with suffering on the ground of people and how that has been.

AYS: Of course there are many accounts when we have faced such painful experiences. I will take you out of the war zone and take you into the territories and areas where people have the challenge of access to drinking water. I have seen and visited those areas where women and children had to walk sometimes between five to ten kilometres in the morning just to fetch water for their families and it’s the water which we all have you know the luxury of opening our tap and getting a drinking water glassful. We have seen that these families have no access to drinking water and their livelihood is all surrounded by that the families the women and children go out to fetch drinking water and men have to go for their work and all day they have to go around these challenges and difficulties then a lot of times the water is not clean and it’s polluted and that brings a lot of sickness and illness for these communities. So when I have visited I see [a] queue of people have come up because they say we are coming sometimes 3 [or] 4 hours just to bring water for our family. Can you bring a water well for our family or community in this village? And this is how sometime[s] our donor support helps us to put up these water wells in these communities.

And the same thing I would also highlight here that some of these communities have no schools and no facilities to use for their children in terms of education and Humanity First has started to establish from primary schooling by creating little infrastructure of [a] couple of rooms in those villages and gathering all the children who used to have no activity at all and now Alhamdulillah we have as I mentioned over 200, 000 children have passed though or used our schools and these are some of the very humbling experiences that we have seen that some little initiatives which Humanity First has taken has started to bring great results in terms of either healthcare or education or access to drinking water and I also mentioned that there are millions of children who are orphans and there is a huge I think shortage of orphan care programmes and Humanity First whatever [is] in our capacity we have tried to assist these orphans through either taking care of their food rations or their school fees or uniforms and these are small little initiatives by again the donors and supporters of Humanity First who assist and we are able to go in the field and assist these people and as I mentioned that the orphanage that we have when I visited the youngest child was only [a] 4 month baby and the eldest was around 12 year[s] old, so all the children were between 4 months and 12 years old and taken care by the mothers of Humanity First in that orphanage. These are some of the examples of the programmes Humanity First is conducting today.

Humanity First 25th Anniversary

SW: Mash’Allah. Alhamdulillah. I think that does bring me to my final question I wanted to ask you. We started talking about those trucks, starting off in Germany, and then that first trip to Hungary when you were able to go into a war zone and now here we are under the guidance of Hazrat Khalifatul Masih V, may Allah be his helper, we see that what seems like exponential growth in activities of Humanity First and I guess that brings me really to thinking about this 25 year anniversary and the celebrations that are happening this weekend and I wondered if you could tell us about briefly, what is so special about this 25 year anniversary?

AYS: This year is Humanity First’s 25th silver jubilee. Under the Covid-19 situation, we were not able to fully promote this celebration. So, now Humanity First will be holding our Global Telethon on Humanity First Awareness Day on Saturday 19th September 2020, which is tomorrow. This is an opportunity to mark this day as Humanity First Day by all the Humanity First countries. The theme is 25 years in the service of mankind. An awareness campaign is running to promote Humanity First’s activities and how others can participate. This time tomorrow, I believe over 40 countries will be running live broadcasts, using live streaming facilities by Zoom, Google Meet or YouTube, and people will be able to watch very interesting documentaries and accounts of our workers and beneficiaries. We are running special blood drives and food distribution programs, cleaning the streets and city centres – these are just some of the initiatives, and I am seeing every minute some new documentary sent by countries. And some countries like Indonesia, Ghana, New Zealand, and many others, who are in Europe, USA, UK – they are all making very special programs for tomorrow to take the message of Humanity First to the public and to raise funds for our development programs and relief activities. So, the next 24 hours will be very busy, so I request you also to pray for the success of this event because remember that we are running through the Covid-19 relief campaign as well. This relief requires a lot of funding.

Just to give you a quick highlight of that is that we have been able to deliver Covid Relief Program in 77 countries and under this relief program we had delivered over 10.4 million meals. This is an extraordinary effort by our volunteers and workers, Alhamdulilah. And we have also been actively manufacturing PPE and wash equipment. Many of our countries were very quick to produce their own sanitisers and masks. So, during the last 6-8 months, we have donated over 2,700 bottles of blood and almost a million beneficiaries. So, it was a very important relief activity which just came to us as a surprise. And as you know, that Covid-19 as it is expected, will stay for next year or so. So, we need a lot of funds and this telethon is going to help Humanity First to raise some of the funds by raising the profile and the programs of our activities

SW: Mash’Allah. Alhamdulilah. Did you say 40 countries are going to be participating. Did I hear correctly?

AYS: Yes! Over 40 countries. Maybe, 42 or 43. But I know exactly that there is over 40 countries.

SW: Mash’Allah. Alhamdulilah. What a fascinating story. What an incredible story of growth and development from those humble beginnings. Ahmad Yahya Sahib, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you today. We really look forward to hearing more about the activities of Humanity First this weekend and that Insh’Allah these 25 years celebrations of the work of Humanity First are a great success. We really appreciate, again, speaking to you and for you to give us your time at this really busy time for you. Jazak’Allah. Alhamdulilah. We do hope and pray that everything goes well for tomorrow.

AYS: Jazakamullah. And finally, I again request you to pray for the success of this event and for all our volunteers and all our supporters and donors, who have always been giving us their generous support. Jazak’Allah.

SW: Insh’Allah. Alhamdulilah.