Our friend Aslam

We met Aslam due to his friendship with another foreigner in our city. The two of them had collaborated and been close personal friends for perhaps a decade. From the beginning Aslam was keenly interested in our educational work in the slum and told us he’d do anything to help.

Over the years as we got to know Aslam better, he ended up helping us set up a center where foreigners from numerous organizations could hold meetings, take language lessons, or just have a place to rest. He frequently helped us host people from out of town who weren’t capable of staying in our slum. He became our go-to “fixer”, the guy who could solve logistic or practical issues that were beyond our knowledge base. And he always showed deep interest and compassion for us personally.

In the times that I hung out alone with Aslam, I found him to be a wealth of knowledge on the city. He shared with me the stories of the worst riots the city had experienced, as well as the details of his own years of work in nearby factories. When we had religious or cultural questions he gave us an important and honest perspective that wouldn’t have been easy to get elsewhere.

P1030642Aslam was my age but had lost his father early, and the responsibility of taking care of his mother and other relatives played a part in delaying his own marriage. But finally, in 2018, it happened. Aslam held a simple service, completely planned and orchestrated himself, with the best local food I’d ever eaten.

(Trust me, Aslam prefers not to smile for posed photos but what you see there is definitely his version of beaming.)

Just a few months after the wedding Aslam announced that his wife was pregnant with their child. As our baby had herself just been born, we saw that they would grow up together and be friends, and often talked about that.

Around April of last year, just a month before his baby was due, Aslam was diagnosed with cancer. The initial process was a roller coaster of confusion, as the doctors said it was malignant and then it wasn’t, surgery was successful and then it wasn’t, then it was malignant again and chemotherapy was necessary. Aslam was deeply affected emotionally and it was difficult to see him in such a state, and to think about his concerns regarding his major responsibilities and new family.

IMG_1620Thus Aslam was forced to prepare to undergo chemotherapy and prepare for his son’s birth at the same time. There had been many things to worry about leading up to the birth, but when he sent us the announcement that they had a healthy baby son, it was accompanied by some of the happiest pictures of Aslam I had ever seen.

Those next few months were difficult ones as Aslam underwent weeks of chemotherapy during his infant’s most vulnerable time, placing strains financial and otherwise on the family. I made an appeal for Aslam here so that he wouldn’t have to move into the slum, and a couple of you responded with generous donations. That assistance helped, but it was Aslam’s own “fixing” ability that allowed him to negotiate a practical long-term solution for his family.

IMG_1876The chemotherapy went well, and we also held group prayer meetings for Aslam, and soon his health was much improved. Doctors were not able to detect any cancer remaining and he was able to get on with much of his life as normal, but at reduced capacity. Aslam often joked that his love of our city’s rich food were what caused his cancer in the first place, but despite this love he did an excellent job of holding himself to a vegetarian diet.

It was during this period of recovery and increased strength that Aslam organized Shakeenah’s birthday party and rushed us to the hospital after Shakeenah’s fall, two wonderful acts of service that I will be forever grateful for. His son continued to grow up strong, and huge! Despite our little Shakeenah having a nine-month head start, it was not long before the robust young man had matched her in weight. Aslam was able to spend most of his time at home with his son during this period and was deeply attached to him.

In January a routine checkup revealed that the cancer had returned. More chemotherapy and radiotherapy were scheduled, but even before they could begin, his health started to decline and eating became difficult. Doctors decided that another surgery would be necessary, and with it would come even more profound changes in Aslam’s daily life. He shared the news with me in his usual style, with a brevity of words and calmness that still betrayed deep emotion. Though not as obviously apparent on his face as before, he was again taking it very hard.

Radiotherapy was difficult. Still, Aslam never lost his concern for us. One day as news of Covid was spreading, he came to speak with me and told me to gather up basic necessities and be prepared to be under lockdown for at least a month. At that point nothing had been announced. Due to his advice we stocked up for the first time and got some essential business done outside the city. Just two days later, a multiple-week lockdown began.

During lockdown (especially the first few weeks) travel was extremely restricted, and we were also afraid of exposing Aslam or his elderly mother in their vulnerable states, so we were not able to visit him. We got word that radiotherapy was continuing, and eventually the side effects began multiplying, and in April Aslam had to be admitted into the hospital again. Within the hospital his condition was touch-and-go for a while. After blood transfusions he got better and was able to return home, but in May he had to be admitted again.

In mid-May, while Aslam was still in the hospital, I was able to finally “break lockdown” and visit his family. Shakeenah was overjoyed to get the chance to visit Aslam’s son, who was already walking, and they ran around the apartment and played with his toys together. The next day Aslam was released back home and I was able to visit him. He was clearly in a great deal of pain, but his ability to converse improved as the conversation went along, and everyone in the family expressed joy in how much he had improved from where he had been before. His return had almost coincided with his son’s first birthday.

The next day my friends and I, with Aslam’s blessing, organized a food distribution for the poor from the garage of Aslam’s apartment building. We transported several thousand pounds of rice, flour, lentils, oil, and fruit there, measured and sorted it out, and then drove it to several slum communities. I went to visit Aslam a couple times while we were working but both times he was sleeping and I didn’t want to disturb him. However, his family relayed to us at one point that Aslam had remembered a poor family they knew that was likely struggling, and asked that we save one box of rations for them. I carried the box of rations up to their apartment, saw Aslam lying in bed, and left it in the main room.

The next morning I received a call from Aslam’s brother-in-law. “This morning Aslam has died,” he shared. I tried to ask more details but he had already hung up.

Later in conversations with Aslam’s wife and mother, we found that his health had taken a sudden turn for the worse during the early morning and his breathing had become difficult. They were able to procure oxygen for him at home, and then rush him to a hospital, but it didn’t help.

As the family was gathered in mourning, someone noticed an ambulance pulling up outside. The initial fear was that they were taking away another COVID-19 patient, as someone had already been diagnosed in the apartment next door a few weeks earlier. But then they heard applause, and the applause grew. People were standing out on the apartment balcony next door at different levels, and soon people in other buildings stood outside and applauded as well. Out of the ambulance stepped the COVID-19 patient from weeks earlier. The patient had fully recovered, and now tested negative, and was being welcomed home.

Aslam’s mother shared this with me as a bright spot on a very difficult day.

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