Described as “a citizen of the world,” Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (January 17, 1933 – May 12, 2003), became the longest serving head of UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Morals, ethics and tolerance along with improving the lot of humanity was the essential part of the credo of the late Prince, son of the 48th Ismaili Imam His Highness Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan and uncle of the present Imam His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan.
Mohezin Tejani, an award winning Ismaili author and veteran at Writers Festivals on the Asia circuit as well as a long serving humanitarian himself, expresses his appreciation and deep-felt gratitude to Prince Sadruddin in Simerg’s special series on letters thanking Ismaili historical figures.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
As Ismaili children growing up in East Africa, we were taught by our parents and the Ismaili community at large that “seva,” our own Islamic version of volunteerism for the needy, was not only a worthwhile virtue to practice but an essential part of becoming a moral human being. As children, we saw our elders working as dedicated volunteers to help the elderly, provide home care for the sick, and cook free food at mosque functions – all as examples of human compassion.
For me, as a 10 year old boy growing up in Ismaili community in Kampala, Uganda, that translated into unconditional respect for my aging parents and making sure that all their comfort needs were taken care of at home and at crowded community functions such as Imamat Day, the Salgirah and Navroz. This contagious “seva syndrome” is also what prompted me at school to befriend an ostracized classmate who had a stuttering speech problem as my closest ally for the next ten years.
It is no wonder then that as an adult, after the Idi Amin expulsion of 80,000 Asian from Uganda, I ended up working in humanitarian work worldwide for the next twenty years.
In the early 1980’s, during the post Vietnam War era, while working as a refugee resettlement educator for hundreds of thousands of South East Asian refugees languishing in refugee camps, I recall reading about you as the philanthropic polyglot who, soon after graduating form Harvard with honors, dedicated his life to international humanitarian service. As the head of UNHCR from 1966-78, you were largely responsible for re-orientating the agency’s focus from helping refugees from Eastern Europe (as per its post 2nd world war mandate) to a broader mission of helping worldwide refugees, especially those caught up in war torn conflicts in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. You said:
“…It is true that around this time refugees began to appear in the Third World who did not benefit from United Nations aid. One such case was that of the Vietnamese who had fled from the north of their country after the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In Africa, the first refugees from Angola were entering Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville. Refugees from Algeria were flowing into Morocco and Tunisia. These were new situations for UNHCR, which had been originally created for refugees from Eastern Europe and was a kind of European club. Very early on, and perhaps this is the best thing I have done in my career, I tried to avoid all discrimination between European and Third World refugees.”
At that time, working hand in hand for five years with UNHCR staff on Vietnamese/Khmer Laotian refugee programs in refugee camps in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, I understood and felt first hand the full impact of your vision especially when UNHCR went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981 for its humanitarian work.
This is when you became a role model for me and my refugee work, having been one myself from Africa just less than a decade ago. A humongous thank you for being my inspiration to continue working in the humanitarian field when many of my friends and loved ones never really understood my work in wanting to help the less fortunate of our planet.
I lament the time that you were nominated and passed over twice for the post of UN Secretary-General. Although you won the 1981 vote, the Soviet Union considered you too Western and vetoed your election. When you were nominated again in 1991, the United States and Britain expressed their disagreement with your belief in a policy of boosting aid to Iraq.
Surely, one day soon, history will expose the folly of those power-hungry megalomaniacs who continue to carve up our gorgeous spinning globe into territories of greed and conquest.
Who knows? Perhaps your diplomatic trials may have had something to do with the quote below in a truthful speech that you made to your UNHCR staff in 1977:
“I would be personally extremely unhappy if I felt that this Office was becoming a memo-producing factory. Here again, I am prompted to think of our relationship with our work and with our objectives. Basically, while you may think that you can solve problems by drafting lengthy memos, sending long cables or even making very long telephone calls, the drafting of lengthy notes is something which sooner or later is affected by the law of diminishing returns. At some point, if you or I spend a great deal of time sending extremely sophisticated and lengthy instructions to colleagues at headquarters or in the field, you spend more time thinking about the style of the memo, its drafting, whether it’s good French or English, whether the argument is going to be persuasive enough, whether it’s going to leave room for any dialogue, and you begin to weigh every word and every sentence and every comma. The memo itself becomes more important than the subject matter. The refugee themselves are not going to be helped, I submit, by this kind of bureaucracy. Let notes for the file be brief and to the point.”
In this regard, the consequent history of the UN and its achievements over the next three decades speaks for itself.
Despite the overwhelming odds facing your humanitarian vision, as a global citizen (born in Paris, raised in Europe by a French mother and the 48th Imam of the Ismailis, was educated at Harvard and became fluent in numerous languages), you went on to promote various other planetary causes, close to my development work, in your later career.
As a champion of the environment, it was your vision that created the Geneva-based Bellerive Foundation “which promoted the conservation of the earth’s natural resources and protection of all life forms and the environment. In developing countries, the foundation encouraged tree conservation and tree-planting activities, reduction of fuel wood consumption through dissemination of fuel-saving domestic and institutional cooking systems, and education on tree and fuel wood conservation through children’s programs and women’s groups.” In recognition of this initiative, you received the World Ecology Medal from the International Center for Tropical Ecology of the University of Missouri-St. Louis at a ceremony in April 1993 in Washington D.C.
Yet, you are just as fondly renowned with conservationists the world over for the courageous successful campaign that you personally launched against the French industrialists to save the Madagasar monk seal from extinction.
Over the course of half a century, in your fervent desire to promote Art and Culture, you assembled one of the finest private collections of Islamic art in the world and became a knowledgeable and respected collector, accumulating a priceless collection of paintings, drawings, manuscripts and miniatures. Over the years, parts of your collection were exhibited in New York, London, and Zurich, including a touring show, “Princes, Poets and Paladins”, which was organized by the British Museum in 1998, and attended by several members of your family, including your nephew, Prince Karim. You will be thrilled to know that your full collection will soon be housed at the new Aga Khan museum being established by him in Toronto.
It comes as no surprise then that during your lifetime, numerous countries recognized your multiple achievements by honoring you with doctorates and national decorations from states as diverse as Pakistan, Poland and the Vatican, as well as presenting you with the United Nations Human Rights Award.
You continue to be a role model for the new generation of world communities as a man who, as summed up by Kofi Annan at a memorial ceremony in your honour, “combined respect for humankind with concern for our environment. He worked on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, while celebrating humanity through culture and art.”
Man of multiple visions, you still hold a special place in my heart not only for all your worldly achievements but even more so for your simple yet poignant philosophy (still relevant today) of understanding the downtrodden of our planet as summed by your quote:
“Let us show great humility towards the peoples we wish to help, for we have very little to teach them. I think we go wrong when we insist, as some have done since 1945, on using experts who are paid Western salaries, drive beautiful cars and live in air-conditioned houses to teach people in the Third World how to improve their living conditions.”
Know that your legacy lives on into the 21st century as we, as fellow Muslims living in a turbulent post 911 world, strive to present your life achievements as a shining example of a courageous individual who, in 1985, very articulately spelled out the relationship of Islam and the West from a historical perspective that remains as a legacy to the events and mass media coverage that have followed since.
Rest in peace, my gallant global troubadour.
Shantih, Mohezin Tejani
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Copyright: M.Tejani April 2012.
About the author: Born in Tanzania to Indian parents, Mo Tejani lived in Uganda for eighteen years of his life. Along with 80,000 other Asians, he and his family were forced to flee Idi Amin’s reign of terror in 1972. As a refugee, he first fled to England and then to America of the late sixties and early seventies. Fluent in eight languages, he has spent twenty years working in refugee camps in Asia, training rural farmers in Central America, educating First Nation tribes in Canada, and coordinating poverty reduction projects in Africa.
In the first of his three-volume travel memoirs, A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee, (PEN New York book award finalist 2007) Tejani takes the reader with him on his globetrotting travels. Kate Webb from API calls him a “cross-cultural Kerouac,” and others have likened Tejani’s writings to Karen Connolly and Paul Theroux. Travel writer Tim Cahill says reading Mo’s stories “is like eating popcorn: you can’t stop devouring them.” Three of his stories in the second volume Global Crossroads: Memoirs of a Travel Junkie have won prestigious awards in the US.
Tejani is a veteran at Writers Festivals on the Asia circuit including a month long book tour of Australia, presentations at Bali, Byron bay and Melbourne Festivals. His radio and print interview with ABC and Victoria Writers magazine were distributed nationwide and his videotaped panel sessions can be found on ABC 2 Big Ideas website.
He currently resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand and is working on the third volume of his memoir trilogy.
1. Prince Sadruddin’s lecture, Islam and the West, referenced in Tejani’s letter can be read at: http://www.wpct.co.uk/lectures/1985.htm.
Tejani’s other contributions on this website:
For details about the thank you series and how you can contribute to it please click: Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures.
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