Naila Alam was new to the United States in 1995, having arrived from Pakistan to study hotel management. Within a year, Alam had become severely ill and was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura, potentially fatal.
She was virtually alone, only her sister, who was working at the Pakistan Embassy during the day and attending classes in the evening, was with her. Her husband was still in Pakistan and could only secure a visitor's visa good for three months. Because she was an international student, Alam had to maintain her class schedule of at least 12 credits to remain in the U.S., while receiving medical care that included eventually having her spleen removed and undergoing chemotherapy. In addition, she continued to work during the day at the Sheraton in Alexandria.
Her feelings of loneliness coupled with her frustration with a medical and an educational system that at times seemed unwilling to help, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because of her own experiences, Alam has recently secured nonprofit status for an aid organization, Express Care, where she plans to help immigrants find assistance for basic services including housing, food supply, winter clothing, job networking, doctors appointments and referrals, health-related relocation, and supplying prescription medicines to the uninsured.
"I've been chosen to do this," said Alam, a Herndon resident. "I really feel I have to do this. Helping others is a blessing and when you get the chance to help others it's a blessing."
IDIOPATHIC THROMBOCYTOPENIC PURPURA (ITP) is an autoimmune disease that targets platelets — disc-shaped elements in the blood that assist in blood clotting — thinking the platelets are a foreign body, trying to eliminate them. Alam had no family history of the disease and doctors are still not sure why she contracted the disease.
"I was so lonely. If I wanted to eat, I had to make something whether I felt liked it or not. I had to drive myself to the doctor's and school. My doctors were so afraid I would get hurt, which could kill me, I was admitted to the hospital," Alam said. "I was alone here, in a new country with a new language. In Pakistan, when you're sick everyone comes over to help you and pray for you."
For her sister, Yasmeen Durrani, the ordeal was equally distressing. "It was very painful because I was the only one here with her because I was an international student and working too," Durrani said. "I didn't get to spend much time with her because I was working and studying. I really couldn't do much even though I wanted to."
During this time, Alam decided to dedicate herself to helping others who might be going through the same things she was feeling. Even though she completed her degree, and has another in English literature earned in Pakistan, Alam began serving as an interpreter for people seeking medical or legal services. Durrani said she is not surprised at her sister's dedication because she has always been the one in the family to help others.
Through word of mouth or referrals from the Women's Center in Vienna, or the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Alam offers to help anyone who reaches out.
"Most of them don't speak my language, but there is no border. Help has no borders," Alam said. "I just try to solve their problem as if it's my problem."
ALAM, WHO NOW LIVES with her husband, an employee for an information technology company, is looking for office space for Express Care and this month will begin airing a feature, "Care Connection," on Fairfax Public Access and through Web casting. The show includes a series of interviews and lecture programs. Featured guests will include health professionals, county officials and representatives from organizations.
She also spends time talking about IMP to raise awareness of the disease.
Her experience and her efforts to help others has garnered her letters of support from First Lady Laura Bush, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10), the Department of Health and Human Services and Marymount University. She has also received a number community service awards. In June, she was invited to a reception in California to meet Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan.
"How wonderful that your illness inspired you to devote your time and energy to serving people in need of comfort and counseling," wrote Bush. "I share your prayer that good health will allow you to continue your dedication to community service."
Alam credits God with her recovery. And as long as her health remains good, she plans to help others.
"I learned the meaning of life. We take it for granted. Health is very important and I learned to love life," Alam said. "I have become strong. My heart is soft, but I can't see people in pain without helping them."
Durrani, for one, has no doubt her sister will be successful: "She is already working for people and has been working for people. It has just been given a name now."
For more information about Express Care, contact Alam by e-mail at Naila@expresscare.org.