You Can Empower My Child…

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Open Letter to the Well Wishers of Aliya

Dear Friends of Aliya,

On Monday, June 6, I wrote an open letter to Mr. Tony Fernandes, CEO of the airline AirAsia titled ‘I Could Not Protect My Child’, informing him and you all about the horrific treatment by his cabin and ground crew towards my 10-year-old daughter Aliya who is affected by Ichthyosis.

While the incident took place a few weeks ago, the episode has been haunting me since. It has been hard to accept, especially since I have tried to do everything in my power to teach Aliya and her sister that the world should not judge them by their looks, their ethnicity or the appearance of their skin. When it does, they should stand up for themselves. However, while they are with me, I feel what any parent feels: It is my responsibility to protect them. It is my fight.

I believed that I could defend my children. Sadly, that fateful day I could not. I failed my child as a Mother in the most basic way: I could not protect her. I could not shield Aliya from the malicious behavior of a group of employees who have learned that it is okay to behave the way they did. I wrote the letter as a cry of defeat. I cried when I wrote it. I published the letter on Medium, sent it to a few friends and family members, and put it out in my meager social media network. Then I went to bed.

When I woke up, as expected, I received sympathy notes from friends and family. But then I heard from all of you. Over the next two days the article went viral. Tens of thousands of people have read Aliya’s story. The reaction was overwhelming love, support and sympathy for Aliya and my family. It was amazing and wonderful.

Thank you for spreading the word to every corner of the world. Thank you for reaching out to us. Thank you for your words, sentiments and love. You have given me the strength that I lacked.

Along with the thousands of notes I received of sympathy and love, I also sensed an incredible outcry of rage and anger towards injustice and towards AirAsia. Many of you started hashtags to boycott AirAsia, while others sent me notes and advice on how to bring legal action against the airline. This anger is justifiable. However, one malicious act should not catalyze more acts of anger. Is there a way for us to turn this rage into reconciliation? Is there a way to imbibe the message of inclusion in our societal and corporate culture? Is there a way to bring a smile to the face of a child who may not fit the definition of a ‘regular’ child?

Aliya did not know that I was planning to write to you. She has enough that she copes with, yet she always says that she feels lucky to have the life she has and wants to make sure she can share her ‘luck’ with others.

Last night as I was putting Aliya to bed, I told her about the letter and how thousands of people have read the letter and were writing to her to show their support, and how people are angry at AirAsia.

Aliya sighed. Her shoulders slumped, and she said very quietly, ‘does this mean the people are going to make AirAsia go out of business? Ma, I really don’t want people to lose their jobs because of me.’ My heart sank. I promised Aliya that AirAsia will not go out of business.

But I also told her that we have the power to make AirAsia and other big organizations do good and treat people better. We need to use that power. I asked Aliya how she would like AirAsia to do good, and here is what my daughter said, ‘I want the AirAsia people to learn to treat people nicely. I want them to help the children with Ichthyosis. Maybe if they help these children they will treat them nicely. I want the AirAsia people to love everyone equally and show it through their good behavior to everyone….’

Based on these words, I would suggest the following actions that AirAsia put in motion —

1. Create a mandatory sensitivity training for AirAsia staff

2. Create a marketing campaign across AirAsia to embrace and celebrate differences in people

3. Show support for children affected by Ichthyosis by helping FIRST, the Foundation for Ichthyosis and Related Skin Types, an organization dedicated to assisting individuals with Ichthyosis and related skin disorders. Aliya and her sister have been raising money for FIRST for several years through a fund administered by FIRST called Diya and Aliya’s Friends (DAF) Fund.

Two days ago, I received a tweet that was supposedly from AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes, saying that he was personally looking into this matter. I got excited but then heard nothing more. Yesterday I received a note on Whatsap from an AirAsia Customer Service representative saying she wanted to speak to me about the letter.

I wrote back to her saying that I would like to hear from Mr. Fernandes. At this vantage point, it looks like Mr. Fernandes did not really look into the matter. Now I am wondering who really does his tweets.

This is not a casual customer care issue. AirAsia seems to hope this can be brushed away as another pesky little misunderstanding. I don’t think you or I should settle for that.

As supporters, well-wishers and friends of Aliya and children like Aliya, I need to you to join me in making sure that AirAsia comes forward with a plan to put in motion Aliya’s wishes. I would be grateful if you can spread the word on #Aliyawish and reach out to @tonyfernandes directly to make sure this does not become another example of “arm chair activism” with little or nothing to show as the end result.

Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty….’ I taught Aliya and her sister to embrace this philosophy. With your collective love and support, you all made me truly embrace Gandhi’s sentiment. With you next to me, I know together we can not only protect my child but all of our children. You and I can not only protect our children but together we can also empower them to know and to do what is right.

Please share this article and make #Aliyawish become a reality.

A hopeful mother,

Durreen Shahnaz

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