The Art Of Giving Thanks
By Laura Norton
Copyright – Artvoice
How an E. Amherst Couple Show Their Gratitude
Shaheen Hassanali is a charming young woman with striking looks and a near perfect complexion. Although she smiles generously and is blessed with a musical voice, the story of her family’s sudden departure from her childhood home in Tanzania remains a particularly harrowing tale.
“It was during our month of fasting and I was playing outside our house in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. I was just a little girl of five years old. Gentlemen would often come to our door and we would give them food. They would sometimes bring tambourines and they sing for you and you give them food or money. Some strange men came towards our house one day and I thought they had come for food. They said to me, “Go get your dad.” Thinking that they wanted food, I went to get my dad and he came out to talk to them. I just went back to playing. And then my dad shouted at me, “Go inside, right now.” And I said, “No, I want to stay here.” And he growled at me, â€˜Now! Go inside right now.â€™
“What I didn’t realize was these men had said to him, “Are you Mr. Hassan Karim?” And he said, “No.” And they said, “Yes, you are. Don’t lie to us. We’ve been watching you for two weeks now. We know all your movements and we know who your family members are. If you don’t come with us we’ll shoot them.”
“So they took him and they blindfolded him and put him in their car and laid him on the floor. Then they drove him about 30 miles away into the jungle, and they took him out of the car and took off his blindfold. They had machete knives and they beat him with the machete knives. Then they dug a grave for him and told him to get inside the grave. By this time it was night and it was dark outside. He got into the grave and they shot him in the stomach and left him for dead, bleeding badly. Actually, he pretended to be dead until they left. Then my dad managed to climb out of the grave and stumbling and in pain he made his way until he came to a small hut. But they wouldn’t let him into the hut or even open the door because they were afraid when they saw this man profusely bleeding. So he left there and he managed to walk another half-mile until he came to another hut and these people opened the door. And he said, “I need to get to a hospital.” But they said, “We have no way of getting you to a hospital.” They only had a bicycle and were far from town. Just as they were talking a bus came by, which was very unusual, especially for 10:30 at night, because a bus almost never comes by that area. So they put him on the bus and took him to the hospital. However, the bullet was lodged so badly in him, and the conditions at the hospital were so bad that they couldn’t operate on him at the hospital there, and so they had to fly him to London immediately. Our whole family went and we never really went back after that, not to live, anyway.
“I still had family in Tanzania, my grandmother, and after a few years I visited. My father still had businesses there, so he eventually started going back, too.
“There were lots of rumors about what happened, but we never found out who shot him or why. At the time he was young and successful and the shooting was probably motivated by jealousy or someone who just wanted him out of the picture. It was definitely a contract killing.”
Today, the Hassanalis, sitting in the comfort of their luxurious E. Amherst home with their two small children running about, seem far removed from tribulations on the African continent. Yet, Shaheen’s husband, Dr. Riyaz Hassanali, MD, who has a very successful cosmetic surgery practice and patients all over the world (including several members of the royal Saudi family), has an almost equally horrific tale of being uprooted from his childhood home in Uganda.
“Actually, although I was born in Tanzania I grew up in Uganda,” said Dr. Hassanali, who is of Indian origin. “As a child, I was raised in a privileged family and we were insulated from all the suffering and poverty of Africa. My shock to reality came at the age of 12 when Idi Amin came to power in Uganda.
“When Idi Amin came to power everyone who was not black had to go and stand in line for three days to show proof of citizenship; then they would decide whether to grant you permission to live in the country. Amin was kicking out anybody who was not black.
“But after three days my immediate family was granted permission to remain in Uganda because according to Idi Amin’s criteria we were considered to be useful. This was because my father was a businessman who had money and contributed to society. However, only about 1,000 people were permitted to stay and so my extended family had to leave Uganda within 90 days, joining an exodus of over 50,000 people.
“During that three-month period schools started closing and shops started closing down because all the businesses were run by foreigners. Eventually, most of the businesses could not be run and were shut. We also recognized that our safety could not be guaranteed because there was a lot of looting and stealing and chaos everywhere. There was absolutely no law and order. Women were being raped and people murdered daily and no one took responsibility for any of that.
“I remember going to school in the middle of this Amin revolution and there were soldiers outside the classroom shooting guns just to scare people and let them know the country was now under siege. Bullets were flying through the window of our classroom. We were children hiding under the desks, fearing our lives. When the bullets stopped I ran, but as I was running I saw that a man from my classroom was shot. So I turned around and helped him back inside. That was the beginning of my realizing that medicine was for me because blood didn’t bother me.
“Meanwhile, when everybody was leaving the country my dad kept buying his partners’ assets that they had to abandon. Then Idi Amin went on national television and said, “I’m declaring martial law and I’m nationalizing everything.” So Amin nationalized everything and my father lost everything he owned, everything. He was completely broke.
“Then my family was told that although we could stay Uganda, we could no longer live in the city. We had to go out into the suburbs or jungles and do manual labor. This was something they expected of us since this was payback time for what foreigners had done to blacks.
“We realized it was no longer possible to live in Uganda because my dad was handicapped from childhood polio and could not labor in the country. We had to get out of Uganda. But we were in a precarious situation because since my dad’s papers said we had been given permission to stay, technically our lives were not in danger.
“So my dad tore up his papers and passport and went to the American embassy for help, and they asked, “What’s your citizenship?” He said, “We don’t have any citizenship. I don’t have a passport.” They said, “In that case you will be sent to a refugee camp for people who are considered stateless.” A United Nations refugee agency had set up camps in Italy, Sweden and England for Ugandan refugees.
“So we escaped Uganda. We just left everything. In fact, the day that we were leaving the servants even stole all the luggage from our car. We got to the airport with nothing. My dad just left the key in the car, a brand new Citro’n, and left it at the airport.
“We were sent to a refugee camp in Italy, just outside of Rome. Some people stayed in the camps for as little as a month, some stayed years. We would have liked to have been with our extended family, uncles, aunts, cousins, but we had no idea where anyone was because there was no way to track anybody. So we thought we should try to come to the United States because my mother’s sister was living there and perhaps she could help us out.
“The United States had very strict criteria as to who they would accept from the camps” you had to be English-speaking for one. Fortunately we all spoke English and we were all granted refugee status to come to the U.S.
[In fact, Dr. Hassanali is fluent in English, Swahili, and four different Indian dialects.]
“We arrived in New York City, and with very humble beginnings tried to start our lives over. I enrolled in public school, and we lived with no luxuries whatsoever, not even a television.
“But in public school I began dealing with the inner city crowd and slowly I came to understand that there was a whole world of people in need who needed to be recognized.
“I felt very fortunate to have escaped from Uganda and to be living in the United States and I began thinking of how to give back to show thanks for my good fortune.
“I learned about the art of giving back from my dad. While we were privileged during my childhood, I didn’t realize the wealth that we actually had until a newspaper in New York City wrote an article on him. They did some editorial research and found he had been one of the wealthiest men in Uganda. But he always kept a very low profile and he actually believed he was just a servant of this money which was to be given to the less fortunate. So charity was a hallmark in my family for many, many years.
“After college I came to Buffalo to study medicine and I did my residency here, too. Then I went to Minneapolis to do a fellowship in cosmetic surgery, but I returned because I thought Buffalo was a great place to live. It certainly has all the things that a big city has to offer, but the key thing is the people.
“I met my wife Shaheen in London. I was only there attending a wedding and saw her at the wedding reception and I said to myself, “I’m going to marry this girl.” I spent the next several months courting her and getting to know her mom and dad very well. I was living in Minneapolis at the time and her parents gave me permission to write to her. I didn’t get to see her again until 15 months later when I flew back to London for a weekend. I stayed at her family’s house and we talked all night and found we had nothing in common. I said white, she said black. I said tall, she said short. We argued continually and by the end of the night we were both exhausted and moody. But in the morning I saw her brushing her teeth in her pajamas and I said, “So what do you think? Will you marry me?” And she said, “You’re kidding, right?” I said, “No, I’m dead serious. Will you marry me?” And she said, “Hmm. I suppose so.”
“So I returned to Buffalo and set up my practice and Shaheen and I married in 1992. And as my practice grew I realized I was now able to give something back to the community. Fortunately my wife also believes in the same philosophy and supports it strongly.”
“I revisited my birthplace, Tanzania, in 1993 and again 1997. On my first trip I contracted malaria and became very ill. But I also realized that things you take for granted in Buffalo, like a CT scan [computer tomography, sometimes refered to as a CAT scan] or an MRI, they didn’t even have one in the entire country of 30 million people. In Buffalo the population is less than a million and I’ll bet you there’s probably 30 CT scanners around. So I decided that I wanted to supply some kind of humanitarian relief in Tanzania, but when my first trip to Bosnia came into the picture my attention got diverted.
“On the second Tanzania trip in 1997, I almost lost my life because I had gone two or three hundred miles away from the city to a very small town and on my return I was in a serious car accident. I was left to take care of myself, not knowing if I was going to make it back alive because there was nothing anyone could have done for me there.
“After five days without any medical assistance and in severe pain, I returned to Buffalo only to find I had broken three ribs, fractured my sternum, punctured my lung, and had severe whiplash and a herniated disc in my neck. I said then I would never go back. When you are faced with that kind of situation and you have children you have to think twice about whether or not you should be doing these kinds of humanitarian relief missions. You have to take into consideration that you may not come back alive or you may not come back in one piece. But somehow after a while you forget these dangers and your focus of attention is still wanting to help and that draws you back again.
“A group from a foundation here called the Hope for Tomorrow Foundation approached me and said, “We understand that you have experience in Tanzania and we would like to come with you on your next trip.”
“Hope for Tomorrow is a local organization founded by my associate, Dr. Meilman [a plastic surgeon], who has been giving his talents to people in different parts of the world for some time. He’s done work in Poland, Jamaica, Cuba. His goal in Tanzania was to bring a child to Buffalo and operate, and at the same time go and see what he could do over there.
“So I got the ball rolling and within six weeks we were all in Tanzania. One excellent contact I have is the American ambassador in Tanzania, who rents the embassy property from my father-in-law. So I was really able to help arrange this trip for Hope for Tomorrow. The Lion’s Club of Tanzania sponsored us along with the First Lady of Tanzania, who was our hostess.
“Shaheen and I left Buffalo for Tanzania on October 9, and spent ten days there providing humanitarian relief. We were joined during the last four days by Dr. Jeffrey Meilman; Dr. Jack Kotlarz, MD [a facial plastic surgeon, originally from Buffalo now living in Pensacola, FL] and Dr. Frank Korn, DDS [a dentist who practices in in the same office as Dr. Hassanali and Dr. Meilman]. Each person paid their own passage.
“The Hope for Tomorrow Foundation also asked WIVB News 4 to come and film a News 4 special feature. Without hesitation WIVB station manager Lou Verruto sent news anchor Don Postles and cameraman Tom Vetter. Don also brought his wife Ann. Ann Postles is a wonderful woman who was extremely moved by what she saw and she is now doing some fundraising of her own to buy Braille machines for the School of the Blind.
“The children from the school of the blind sang a song welcoming all the people from the United States. With some of these kids, their blindness can be reversed, they just have cataracts but can’t afford to have the cataracts removed. We’re hoping we can find an opthamologist to come with us on our next trip and do cataract surgery. “The new arrivals didn’t really know much about Tanzania and I don’t think they expected it to be as severe as it was. [Don Postles told me that he found the trip extremely rewarding, but if he never went back that would be okay with him, too!”J.M.]
“The reason this group of doctors who arrived dealt with facial and plastic surgery was because that was the focus of Hope for Tomorrow. Yet in an African country like Tanzania which is concerned about issues such as blindness, infectious disease, HIV, amputees and things of that sort, you can see that plastic surgery would not be a priority. They need doctors who are much more focused on saving lives, so the government never encouraged plastic surgery to develop. It’s just not considered a priority, as is opthamology, orthopedic surgery, general surgery, internal medicine and similar specialties.
“If you can survive past the age of two, the adult life expectancy in Tanzania is only around 48. But 70% of children die before the age of two because of nonnourishment, tuberculosis, malaria, or AIDS. Those are the four top killers in the country. Unfortunately, it has become so commonplace for people to die that the companies that make caskets have their shops right outside the hospitals.
“So facial and plastic surgery is completely lacking in Tanzania. But in reality, they have a population of 30 million and they have thousands of facial burns, war wounds, disfiguring diseases and accidents which are completely ignored because there is no one to do that kind of work. You have to remember there was war between Tanzania and Uganda, war between Tanzania and Burundi, war involvement in Rwanda with the tribal war between the Hutu and
Tutsi'”all those refugees ended up in Tanzania. There are many terribly scarred and disfigured people in the population. So when we asked the Lion’s Club of Tanzania if they could use our service, they said, “Absolutely.”
“The child Hope for Tomorrow Foundation selected to come to Buffalo for an operation is Godfrey Amos. He has had a condition since he was four months old commonly called Elephant Man’s disease, neurofibromatosis. He gets tumors all over his body. One of the hallmarks of this condition is the entire half of his face is a large benign tumor. There was an appeal from the president of Tanzania to help this child, but no one came to his assistance.
“When I first arrived in Tanzania I heard about this child. I paid somebody to go out into the villages and look for him, to bring him back to Dar Es Salaam. And they brought him back. I actually did a biopsy on him and brought it back to Buffalo to confirm the diagnosis. We are all hoping we can bring him to Buffalo in March to be operated on.
“This child’s needs are going to be expansive. His speech is very poor and he can’t speak a word of English. You’ll need an opthamologist, you’ll need a plastic surgeon, a speech therapist, you’ll need a lot of people involved.”
“I went to Bosnia twice. On my first relief mission I joined a contingency of people from Buffalo on a fact-finding mission to see how we could provide assistance during the war between Bosnia and Serbia. Having seen what war can do after living through that experience in my childhood, we ended up deciding what Bosnia needed was unlike what third world countries needed. Bosnia was considered a second world country, which meant that they had talent but they lacked resources. So we became providers of resources, which is basically technical know-how. So rather than us going there for a couple of weeks at a time and then coming back, we were going to bring doctors from Bosnia to Buffalo for training. So through the organization which I helped start, International Medical Relief of Western New York, we were able to initiate an exchange program which provided knowledge to the doctors and nurses from Bosnia.
“After having done that for 12 doctors and three nurses, it became apparent to United States aid agencies that we were doing something of great value in terms of rehabilitating a country. So they approached us to apply for a grant to enable us to have more money to train more doctors. My cofounder, Dr. Jacob Bergsland, who is a cardiac surgeon, wrote the grant and we ended up getting close to five million dollars that enabled Buffalo doctors through a university sponsored program to train an entire university of Bosnia personnel over a two-year period.
“After that was done, I knew I wanted to return to Tanzania. So I took the 1997 trip to Tanzania alone. I brought my own supplies to go and do whatever I could for a two-week period. Partly I have an affinity to the region because I was born there, but partly it’s just a human instinct to want to help. That’s why Bosnia came into the picture. I certainly have more affinity to Tanzania than to the Balkan state but I saw people in Bosnia who were going through what I went through as a child, people who were in refugee camps not knowing what the future was going to be like. I knew the pain they were feeling.
“My personal goal is not to change humanity but just to see if I can make a difference one person at a time. I’ve sponsored children for education in Tanzania, scholarships and so forth, many of them I’ve never even met. If we could all do that this world would be so much better. My family and I do it because we were lucky; we’re alive and in the States. Somebody gave me a chance to come to this country as a refugee and so it’s my turn to help someone else.
“There are people suffering and no one is hearing their voices and I hope more doctors will come forward for this rewarding cause. I’ll tell you, unless you experience it first hand you will never know the benefit you will have from helping others, “it will change you for the rest of your life and put things into perspective for you. Your whole value system will change. You will appreciate the things that you have and you will recognize the things you own become less important.”
And how does Shaheen Hassanali take to her husband’s missions of charity?
“I am very proud of him,” said Shaheen. “Extremely proud. One of the best things in his personality is that he’s able to do this and give back to society, not wanting anything in return. Not recognition. Not money. He just wants to do it. And he is really good with people, wonderful. People open up for him, whatever walk of life, color, religion, it doesn’t matter. This is a big part of our lives, and our children will be raised this way as well. Yes, we will follow these principles as best we can and instill them in our children, too. God has been gracious to us. This is our way of giving thanks.”
Don Postles’ WIVB News 4 special feature on the trip to Tanzania will air in five short parts Christmas week and a full half-hour special Christmas day at noon.
Donations can be made to:
International Medical Relief of Western NY
811 Maple Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221