Islamic Insights Person of the Year: Yusuf Yusufali
This year, the writers and staff members of Islamic Insights recognize Br. Yusuf Yusufali as our Person of the Year. Br. Yusufali is the founder and head of Comfort Aid International, a charitable organization dedicated to the welfare of Shia Muslims in the most destitute and neglected parts of the world. For his tireless dedication to this cause, we offer this recognition as a humble token of our admiration.As a publication dedicated to the ideals of the Qur’an and the Holy Household of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny), Islamic Insights recognizes individuals who truly exemplify the teachings of our Holy Guides. The Islamic Insights Person of the Year is an annual recognition extended to a particular individual who we believe has gone beyond the call of duty to not only uphold but also practice and epitomize the teachings of the Qur’an and the Holy Ahlul Bayt.
This year, the writers and staff members of Islamic Insights recognize Br. Yusuf Yusufali as our Person of the Year. Br. Yusufali is the founder and head of Comfort Aid International, a charitable organization dedicated to the welfare of Shia Muslims in the most destitute and neglected parts of the world. For his tireless dedication to this cause, we offer this recognition as a humble token of our admiration.
Islamic Insights: What is the background and history of Comfort Aid International (CAI)? What kind of projects did you start with?
Yusuf Yusufali: CAI loosely began in 1994 and was formalized after 2001 as a US 501(c)(3) charitable organization. It began in response to the shock and dismay I experienced while on a routine trip to the slums of Ghovendhi just outside Mumbai, India. The abject poverty and helplessness of Muslims there prompted me to do something, anything. With help from family and friends, especially my Marhoom brother Mohammedreza Yusufali, I began channeling funds for poor children’s education and constructing homes for those that were without shelter, especially widows and single mothers.
II: What motivated you to start this organization?
YY: Natural instinct, I suppose. I could not – would not – accept that humans lived in such a manner. Western nations treat their slaughter animals better. I formalized CAI in response to the growth experienced, to be complaint to US laws in transfer of funds, and for greater transparency and accountability.
II: What kind of time and commitment does CAI involve? Is this your sole occupation, or do you also have a regular job as well?
YY: I currently devote 100 percent of my time to CAI, and I still run out of time, Alhamdulillah. I have a small business in the USA that virtually runs itself with the help of my nephew, Hasnain Yusufali, and I am also a Forex trader; I trade major currencies on the internet. Allah has taken care of me, Alhamdulillah.
II: What are the current projects that CAI has got going on?
YY: Several, Alhamdulillah. Here are a few:
- School in Kabul that will insha’Allah educate 4,100 internally displaced children.
- Small maternity hospital in YawKawlang for a 35,000-strong community where medical care is nonexistent.
- Water projects in Mazaar Shariff, where there is acute shortage of water. The water projects we develop not only provide drinking water but irrigation for food growing; this helps eliminate poverty.
- Widows self-empowerment project, where we provide five sheep to widows; this is instant relief and poverty reduction. Sheep provide milk and warmth in the winter and milk, wool, meat, skin, and young ones in summer.
- Ongoing housing, food and medical assistance to over 3,000 widows and orphans who lost their support to Taliban massacres.
- CAI has five orphanages that it directly operates – Herat, Bengal, Kargil, Srinagar, and a new one under construction in Sirsi, UP. CAI indirectly supports two orphanages in Mumbai, in Mumbra and Andheri.
- More importantly, education for above orphans and thousands of other poor who cannot afford fees. CAI helps educate poor students who cannot pay fees and drop out; poor girls get priority over boys due to general discrimination of girls in our communities.
- Medical – CAI get at least two life/death saver cases per week; we underwrite all life-saver cases and then look for donors.
- Housing for poor, especially widows and single mothers; CAI has built over 320 such homes.
- Marriages for poor girls, another black mark against our community. CAI gets hundreds of applications from girls who cannot marry due to money constraints and the pressure that they get from future husbands for dowry. A gift of a bed, mattress, cupboard, and few utensils costing about USD 500 can change the future of a girl’s life and bring marital harmony.
II: What are CAI’s main sources of funding? What kind of budget do you operate on?
YY: CAI operates 100 percent on donor generosity and Khums funding. CAI has no administrative budget; 100 percent of collected funds go to donor specified projects, as there are zero admin fees.
II: What has been the community’s response in regards to CAI’s activities? Have they been encouraging or lukewarm?
YY: Mostly very receptive public, Alhamdulillah, but very lukewarm and (sometimes) almost hostile reactions from other Ahlebeyti groups. I don’t understand this, and it hurts to see the animosity at times, but we work with humans, and we are all prone to our unique egos, so perhaps this is at play here? But all praise is to Allah, I do not let this affect me for too long.
II: What kind of obstacles do you face? Have these obstacles made you more hopeful, or can they have a disappointing effect?
YY: I would like to term them “challenges”; we constantly face challenges. However, Allah opens many opportunities for each challenge, and we grab them. Challenges in India are more manageable because we share a similar culture and language; in Afghanistan, there are similar challenges like India but an element of urgency and danger as well. I cannot afford disappointment, as all the activities we take on at CAI is for the pleasure of Allah; once we grasp this all-important concept, there is no room for disappointment.
II: How has this work affected you personally and spiritually?
YY: I cannot begin to tell you the benefits CAI has contributed to my spiritual and personal life; I would settle for no less. It is both a privilege and a blessing that Allah has bestowed on me and my family. There is no greater feeling of ecstasy than to see a widow freed from desperation, or a poor girl who has gone door to door begging for tuition fees or books or marriage assistance and we can help her, or to provide medical help to a dying person and the tears we can help wipe from a desperate relative. I pray I am also washing some of the very many transgressions and sins I have committed, insha’Allah. No sir, I would settle for no less, Alhamdulillah.
II: You have witnessed horrible conditions suffered by those you help. Have your experiences made you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of humanity?
YY: I am very optimistic and bullish about India; the investments CAI and its investor donors made in the field of education about 14 years ago are paying off big time now, Alhamdulillah. I see reason for hope for India, for the economic boom and prudent steps in education by everyone in this country will see her transform into a major economic powerhouse in the next 25 years or so, insha’Allah. India should not see degrading poverty after this period, insha’Allah. Sure, there will be pockets of poverty in rural India, but the degrading poverty of the past should be gone, insha’Allah.
Afghanistan is another matter, for she saps my strength, and I often come close to despair. The problems of Ahlebeyti Muslims in Afghanistan are multiplied manifold compared to India, or anywhere else for that matter, in my opinion. Not only are Ahlebeyti Muslims poor, dirt poor, but they have been actively suppressed and oppressed as a minority. Men have been brutally butchered and women tortured just because they are not mainstream. The saddest and heartbreaking fact is these people accept their lot without complaining, because it is the way it has been for a hundred plus years, so it must be okay. A child suffers from a disease and has to bear the pain and discomfort because there are no affordable antibiotics; a pregnant woman with complications is told she will die because she will not be able to bear the drive to the nearest hospital, accepts here fate, and prepares to die. This, to me, is not acceptable; I will be held accountable if I just folded my hands and accepted this situation as part of poverty. It is not!
These people have been killed and put down like animals for one reason only – they are firm believers in the Wilayat of Imam Ali (peace be upon him), and this fact by itself makes it incumbent on us to go to their defense, to console them, and to pick them up from despair and desolation. Up to 50 percent of people affected are Sadaats, children of Lady Fatima (peace be upon her). Being lovers and followers of the Ahlul Bayt, how then can we remain mute about reports that some widows are now turning to prostitution for want of food for their children? Enough said.
II: In our communities, there is a stigma attached to donating to Islamic charities. People often prefer to donate to the Red Cross, etc., because they don’t trust Islamic charities. How can we change these attitudes?
YY: Alhamdulillah, CAI has been fortunate and I personally have not heard anyone say this to me. Alhamdulillah.
II: We don’t hear too much from the media about the state of Shias in Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh. How bad is the situation in those countries?
YY: Although the killing have stopped in Afghanistan, the situation is awful for Ahlebeyti Muslims. It is not bad at all in India, although they remain backwards in many areas, especially in states other than Gujarat and Maharashtra. I have limited exposure to Bangladesh; our community there is comparatively very small.
II: Many youth are interested in getting involved in philanthropy and helping out those who are less advantaged. What advice would you give them?
YY: Start right away! If you cannot help financially, get involved in donating your time or your expertise instead, but do something. Do not be intimidated with anything or anyone when you set your mind to serve for the pleasure of Allah, for you will be guided by Him, and that is all you need. I will promise you this: helping the less fortunate, poor, and desperate humanity is the highest high you will get; you will be addicted, no question about it.
II: For those who are interested in helping out CAI, what kind of steps can we take?
YY: Immediately help with our Afghanistan projects in whatever form you can: financial, prayers, and moral support all count, and make it a point to talk about the situation there to those not informed. If not through CAI, support other agencies working there, but please help, however immaterial the help you offer might seem to you.
II: Anything else you would like to add?
YY: Afghanistan is a basket case; it will take time and sustained efforts from all of us, including individuals, organizations like CAI, world bodies perhaps (UN, World Federation, NASIMCO, COEJ, etc.) and certainly our Maraja (Religious Authorities) to get the Ahlebeyti community on the road to recovery. Egos need to go out of the window, and all of us need to address the situation in Afghanistan by taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. Education, in my opinion and experience, is a great equalizer for addressing poverty; whatever we can do in this area will pay big time in the next 15-25 years. I have seen it happen, no reason it can’t in Afghanistan as well, insha’Allah. I am passionate about Afghanistan because it needs help NOW but has been largely ignored by the larger world Shia communities. Iraq has rightly grabbed our attention; however, focused attention must be towards Afghanistan. Else, God forbid, we stand to lose big.
CAI is receiving considerable appeals for help in countries that are new frontiers for Ahlebeyti Muslims: Burma, Indonesia, and Philippines. We have credible and first hand reports of organized repression of Ahlebeyti Muslims; CAI intends to act, insha’Allah. We will be making field trips to these countries for consultations and then render assistance in humanitarian and educational areas.
Please pray for the safety of my Imaan and the success of all CAI projects.
To read more or to donate to Comfort Aid International, please visit their website.