Paani Cultural Night highlights sanitation crisis and importance of community building

Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 10:57pm

Just a few days after Julia Putnam and Tim Wise delivered a keynote address at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium, Paani—a humanitarian organization—partnered with eight cultural organizations at the University of Michigan for “Culture Night” to raise awareness about the sanitation issues facing their respective countries and to share their unique cultures.

Paani is an organization that focuses on improving the living standards in Pakistan through bettering the environment and implementing clean health technologies, especially through building wells, inputting clean energy sources and working with health clinics. Pakistan is currently undergoing the world’s third worst water crisis, with the prime minister predicting the country to have no more clean water by 2025.

More than 100 students filled the Rackham Assembly Hall as Paani and the Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, Pakistani, Persian and Yemeni student associations shared various aspects of their culture, including food, dance and traditional clothing. The evening included a presentation, traditional dance performances from the Yemeni Students’ Association and the Iraqi Student Association among other events.

Business junior Sikander Khan, the director of strategy and operations for Paani, explained how the event developed after the various organizations realized they all had common challenges with sanitation in their respective countries.

“We found a bunch of different cultural organizations that all struggle with the same common struggle, which was sanitation conditions,” Khan said. “So we reached out to these different orgs and they were very excited about working together to raise awareness about these humanitarian crises going on and just bringing people together to experience their culture.”

The event began with a presentation about Paani and how their original mission of building wells in Pakistan developed into a wider effort to make use of all University resources to tackle the issue. One of these efforts was establishing a public health curriculum in Pakistan to teach children about sanitation. It also touched on the intersectionality of the sanitation issues and how it impacts countries and individuals all around the world — specifically Yemen, which has a total population of 28 million people, with 19 million of those people without access to water.

LSA freshman Shanmin Sultana, director of internal affairs for Paani, elaborated on the intersectionality of the sanitation issue and discussed how Paani’s mission expanded.

“Initially, we were very focused on Pakistan, but we noticed a lot of other countries, especially in the Middle East and in South Asia, were also suffering from water crises like us,” Sultana said. “We wanted to come together and highlight that this water crisis is not just central to Pakistan, it’s a universal crisis in many countries. We wanted to show that while we stand primarily in Pakistan, we stand in solidarity with all these countries that are suffering with sanitation related crises.”

After the presentation, the event began to showcase traditional dances performed by the Yemeni Students’ Association and the Iraqi Student Association. The event also included a “best dressed” competition, which allowed attendees to show off cultural clothing.

LSA sophomore Alana Phillips heard about the event through a friend. She said she appreciated the chance to learn more about different student groups and cultures.

“I think it’s a good way for people to learn about different cultures, different experiences that link together different parts of the world that can get overlooked sometimes,” Phillips said. “It brings out the good things.”

Khan also emphasized another important aspect of the event was showcasing the positive aspects of each country because many have been demonized by popular media. He hoped the event would offer others the chance to learn more about different cultures.

“By bringing all these different people together who kind have been pushed to the side culture wise and human wise, it just gives us a good opportunity to come together,” Khan said.

LSA junior Mehrin Ahmed, Bangladeshi Students Association marketing chair, echoed Khan’s sentiment and discussed how even though it is important to acknowledge the challenges their countries face, it is also important to celebrate their beauty.

“We don’t want to dismiss the issues,” Ahmed said. “We know they exist and we’re here to shed light and bring awareness, but also have the positive on the sidelines and show that despite these challenges, despite the struggles we face, we’re still here. Our vibrance — it’s outshining everything."

Moving forward, Phillips hopes the University will support more events hosted by communities of color and encourage more students to attend them.

“They can bring the events to light,” Phillips said. “Also encouraging them (the events) to be in spaces where more kids are going to see them, where students are going to see them, because we get overlooked when they’re not in spaces you’re going to see other students here at the University.”

Ahmed also touched on the importance of representing different communities on campus and encouraged ongoing team work.

“We exist,” Ahmed said. “Not just our struggles and not just the things we celebrate, but solely our existence does not get the traction we’d hope for on this campus. We’d hope that a community like this would bring people together in a comfortable manner.”

Correction: This article has been updated to additional information.