A survivor of the partition of the subcontinent, Saida fostered a legacy of social work by reaching out to victims of ethnic cleansing and natural disasters around the world.
In an interview with TRT World from her London residence, 89-year-old Saida Sherif’s poignant and courageous life story is one that unfolds from memories of the bloody Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.
Only 15-years-old as India and Pakistan were on the eve of being declared independent nations in August, Saida’s life changed forever.
“It was in the evening, when a violent mob from the Hindu community barged into our big house called a Haveli in Delhi. Three men wearing a lungi (Indian attire) told my father to vacate our home within 15 minutes. We had no other choice, but to comply,” Saida recalls, while sitting in the guest room of her home in North Harrow.
"You all must now go to Pakistan, as we have come to live here,” the violent mob yelled at them.
Her father, Shamsul Haq, responded in a trembling voice that he had nowhere to go. That did not help. A woman came forward, grabbed the pram of Saida’s nephew Salam, and threw him on the floor saying, "this is mine now.’’
Violence had spread like wildfire, as frenzied mobs rampaged through the streets of Delhi, where she was born. Many other villages and towns also witnessed similar violence, accelerating communal and sectarian fault lines — 600 years of peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims were destroyed.
In this precarious atmosphere, Saida’s family walked out of the house with some suitcases and took refuge at Humayun’s tomb - a tourist attraction in normal times, but then packed with thousands of people who had been uprooted, like them.
Refugees from the camp started to leave for Pakistan by train. However, many of them were massacred midway through the journey. Saida and her family finally left for Pakistan in a cargo ship as they could not find space on trains and finally reached Karachi.
“We had to apply tilak (a paste) on our foreheads and put on a saree (a traditional woman’s garment) to look like Hindus to escape to Pakistan. We hate Pakistan and Karachi. Delhi was beautiful and was called the city of gardens,” Saida said.
Married to a diplomat at 16, Saida would travel to Switzerland, the US and the UK. Her husband, Sherif Sahib, worked at the International Labour Organization, a UN agency. But that tenure would end after his contract was terminated and they had to return to Pakistan.
With Sherif unable to find a new job, Saida became the breadwinner of the family. While away in Canada, Sherif tragically died in a fire in 1969. By then they had three children and Saida had settled in London. After her spouse’s demise, her life went into turmoil, as she worked in various roles from a bank employee to a teacher.
But the world had yet to see her real strength.
Fast forward to 1993, and Muslims were facing ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Saida decided to take advantage of the summer break at Greenhill College in Harrow, where she was teaching, to visit the war-torn Balkans.
She was associated with the Convoy of Mercy (CoM), a charity organisation established to help the suffering children and refugees. CoM was established by Asad Khan, a British aid worker, who was earlier arrested by the Croats for distributing food for refugees in Bosnia.
After spending months listening to the stories of Bosnian victims, Saida decided to devote her life to refugees and war victims. She resigned from her teaching post at Greenhill College that same year.
“She has always been an independently minded and brave person. She has always had a sense of service to the community. It is also because of her own experience as a young person. She saw the partition of 1947. She knew what it meant to be displaced from your own home, to live in a camp, and what ethnic cleansing was about,” Saida’s son Jamil Sherif told TRT World.
“When Bosnia happened, there was an opportunity for her to do some practical help. That is how she joined the humanitarian jihad. It was not right for anyone to stand in their way,” Jamil said.
It was extremely upsetting for Saida to see Bosnian lives plagued by trauma and agony. She narrates a gut wrenching incident from a rehabilitation centre, established by CoM in the city of Nemira in Croatia:
“There was a 19-year-old boy named Sharif. His mother was raped in front of him and later when the HVO, Croatian official military force shot her, he fell onto her and screamed, ‘please do not shoot her, take me instead.’ The bullets went through him. His mother was dead, and he lay over to her. HVO thought that he was dead too and threw them in a ditch by the river.”
“Another aid worker at CoM Nemira centre Dr Emira tended to his extensive injuries every day while nurse Munevera assisted. On an another occasion, I witnessed a rape survivor’s suicide attempt. When you see such terrible things with your own eyes, then naturally it affects you. One is not human if one cannot feel these things,” Saida concluded with a sigh.
Those were just a few of the harrowing stories she experienced, while facing a number of obstacles along the way. Croatian and Serbian authorities blocked aid to victims on multiple occasions, but she toiled and registered with the UN as a social aid worker to continue her service. It also helped CoM appear in the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, a global network of humanitarian NGOs.
Saida helped CoM build refugee camps and schools in Croatia in 1993, and took the time to teach refugee children English. After January 1994, she helped establish camps in Bosnia.
“While I was busy with relief activities in Bosnia, one day, all of a sudden, many refugees arrived in Jablanica from Albania and Kosovo. From them, I heard the horrifying accounts of torture and imprisonement they are subjected to,” Saida said.
CoM then decided to extend its helping hand to Albania and Kosovo by 1999.
‘Convoy of Mercy’ spreads across the globe
After taking a short break from relief activities, Saida visited Spain with her daughter Jasmine in September 2001. She arrived back in London to the news of the September 11 attacks.
“I felt deeply sorry for the poor Afghans and once the second wave of US bombing over Afghanistan started post-9/11, I decided to leave immediately for Peshawar to help the thousands of refugees at the borders of Pakistan,” Saida said.
CoM distributed food for thousands of refugees and financially helped many camps and orphanages in Peshawar and elsewhere. Saida continued visiting Afghanistan until late 2002, and started construction on a school in Isa Khel village.
Upon a request from a young friend, her next stop was a refugee camp for Chechens in Baku, Azerbaijan. There they helped renovate schools and initiated campaigns to expose crimes committed by Russian forces in Chechnya.
Even at 70, Saida’s mission of mercy would continue. In 2003, CoM entered into a contract with READ Foundation, a Pakistani educational NGO, to construct a school in Potha Sharif. But the 2005 earthquake only exacerbated the situation, and CoM accelerated its mission helping refugees in Atar Shisha, Mandiar and Balakot camps.
“What can I say about her except that I haven’t come across anybody like her all my life. She is an indomitable person, extraordinarily strong, linguist, humanitarian, and everything you call it, is not enough for her,” said CoM founder Asad Khan full of praise.
In 2003, Saida was honoured for her social service by the Pakistan Federation of Business and Professional Women. London-based community newspaper Muslim News also honoured her with an award of excellence in 2007.
Apart from social work, she distinguished herself in various capacities, which included being an English professor at the Sakariya University in Turkey for a couple of years. She is an author of two books: an autobiography titled ‘Sparks of Fire, Memoirs’ and a collection of Urdu and English poetry called ‘Kasak’.
In the end, Saida had all the opportunities to lead a simple and normal life, but chose to pursue a riskier path to fulfil a moral obligation, she explained.
“As Prophet Muhammed said, if you see something bad, you try to stop it with your hand. If you cannot do that, do it with your tongue, if you even cannot do that, then at least think in your heart, that this is bad, and this is wrong.”