Sept. 11, 2002--Quiet and soft-spoken Ismat Shah, a University of Delaware
associate professor with joint appointments in materials science engineering
and physics and astronomy, had no idea his life was about to change last
|Ismat Shah, a University of Delaware associate professor with joint
appointments in materials science engineering and physics and astronomy,
makes frequent trips to Pakistan, where he works to improve conditions
for Afghan people in a refugee camp near Peshawar.
As faculty adviser for the Muslim Students’ Association, he was suddenly
thrust into the limelight on campus and beyond as people questioned the
Muslim religion in light of the terrorist attacks that day. Almost overnight
there were opportunities to discuss his faith at every turn.
While unplanned and a little unnerving at first, Shah embraced the opportunities
and has organized the community’s interest and support of the Afghan people
into a local relief organization that is building an elementary
school for Muslim girls in a refugee camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan
“My life did change after 9/11,” he says. “I now consider myself a representative
of the Muslim faith. In public, I am very conscious of the fact that I
am a Muslim and I need to be a certain way. I feel more responsibility
now than before.
“My wife and I joke that after 9/11 I have given more talks about what
it is like to be a Muslim than academic talks,” he says. “But, I enjoy
it very much and welcome every opportunity to educate people.”
Most of his talks have been delivered in Christian churches, and his
basic message is “before you criticize a person of another faith, you need
to know what that faith stands for… . Don’t start throwing stones until
you know what you are throwing stones at,” he says.
Independently, Shah has always done what he could to alleviate the immense
poverty of his native Pakistan when he returns each summer to teach at
a special summer college on “Physics for Contemporary Needs.”
“In Pakistan, as in Afghanistan,” he says, “the poverty is so great
there is a need for everything. Anything we can do is just a drop in the
bucket, but we try to do what we can. These are people who live off of
the random acts of mercy others can provide.”
In the past he has assisted numerous families in raising doweries for
young women, and he has contributed money to educational efforts. Additionally,
he has helped approximately 14 young Pakistanees enroll at UD to study
in various departments in engineering, physics and math. Most of those
students found their first U.S. home with Shah and his family in Pike Creek.
Two young women lived with the family as exchange students for a year and
still correspond with Shah, whom they call “Babba,” the Urdu word for father.
Shah’s efforts to start a school in the refugee camp began post 9/11
after he gave a talk in Wilmington. Members of Creative Grandparenting
Inc. approached him to discuss ways to help the Afghan people.
“While they were hoping to go into Kabul to help, we also discussed
the idea of doing something for people in the refugee camps in Pakistan,”
Shah says. “From a practical standpoint, it was nearly impossible to get
While that group eventually did end up financially supporting an existing
school in Kabul, others wanted to do more, and soon the organization, Afghanistan/Delaware
Communities Together (AFDECT), was formed.
Working with friends who were educated in the U.S. and who have returned
to live in Pakistan, Shah toured the Jalozaii Camp near Peshawar and observed
its terrible poverty firsthand. The camp is home to some 150,000 people,
many of whom have lived there for the past 16 years since an earlier war
forced them to flee Afghanistan. The children who have been born there
have never known any other home. Ironically, neither the government of
Afghanistan nor Pakistan officially recognizes the camp and it does not
get any government aid. It is as if the four-square-mile camp of mud houses--traversed
by an open drainage ditch that is the only source of water, sewer and recreation
for the children--does not exist, Shah explained.
“As we were looking at the camp and all the misery that goes with it,
we were able to determine that one of the biggest needs is education for
young girls,” Shah says.
|As faculty adviser for UD’s Muslim Students’ Association, Ismat
Shah is leading a local relief effort that is building an elementary school
for girls in the Jalozaii refugee camp in Pakistan.
The school will cater to girls in grades one through five. Approximately
300 girls will be able to attend when the school opens later this month,
a fraction of those who need schooling.
The building itself will have brick floors, mud walls and a thatched
roof, Shah said. The structure will have five rooms, and fans will help
to cool the temperatures that can reach 117 degrees.
The girls who attend also will be provided with clothing and one meal
a day. Other refugees will be hired to teach, prepare the meals and make
Shah said he hopes to visit the camp in December and will definitely
return next summer.
“There is so much to do,” he says. “It is hard to even celebrate these
small successes. And, actually, living conditions in Pakistan are not that
much better. It is a very touching reality. We all need to do what we can.”
Shah earned his bachelor of engineering degree in metallurgical engineering
from the University of Karachi in Pakistan. He earned his doctorate in
material science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
where he also worked as a postdoctoral fellow.
In 1987, he went to work as a senior research scientist for the DuPont
Co. During that time he also served as an adjunct professor at UD in physics
and astronomy. In 1999, he became an associate professor and a member of
the Center for Analytical Science and Technology. During summers, he works
as the manager of nanostructured materials for Fraunhofer Inc. in the Delaware
His research specialities include nanostructured material synthesis,
characterization and applications, energetic condensation for the deposition
of polycrystalline silicon films on low-temperature substrates and the
development of sputtering sources for unique applications. He also works
in electron field emission, hard and protective coatings, organic-inorganic
interfaces and dielectric materials. He has published numerous scholarly
articles and advised several graduate students.
For more information on AFDECT, contact Shah at [email@example.com].
Article by Beth Thomas