An Unlikely Ally: Exclusive with Todd Shea of CDRS and Sonic Peace Makers

An Unlikely Ally: Exclusive with Todd Shea of CDRS and Sonic Peace Makers

Los Angeles : CA : USA | May 28, 2012 at 6:31 PM PDT
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Todd Shea performs with Atif Aslam

The first time I ever talked to Todd Shea, half way through the conversation I told him; ‘I feel like you are half Pakistani’’

‘’More than half’’ he responded emphatically.

I was intrigued to know more about this man. I already knew about his organization and their mission. I had just started working with SHINE Humanity. SHINE’s Executive Director had filled me in on the extensive relief work SHINE and its affiliate, Comprehensive Disaster Response Servcies [CDRS], had done in the past few years in Pakistan, striving to provide sustainable healthcare in disaster-affected communities.

What I found interesting was that in 2006 Shea moved to Pakistan, for good.What possessed this man to give up his life in America and move to Pakistan? He could simply provide the much needed relief work and then come back to the safety of his own country.

For him, the answer is simple,'I have a dual responsibility. Not just to help poor children but to tell the truth about Pakistan.I am an ambassador of peace.' 'I want to highlight everything that is amazing about Pakistan and all the extraordinary work Pakistanis are doing around the world but which never gets talked about in the media.From Pakistani doctors' relief work in Haiti to contributing to the advancement of Technology in Silicon Valley and beyond,the truth about Pakistanis need to be told.'

It all started for him on the day of 9/11. He was an aspiring guitar player getting ready for a gig in New York on that fateful day; he looked out his hotel room window and saw the towers burning to the ground. He emptied his van of his musical instruments and helped the fire fighters; providing supplies, food, and water in his van. The journey had begun.

From Sri Lanka after the Tsunami to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Shea found a new sense of purpose in life.

The very day he got home from New Orleans, on October 8th 2005, Pakistan was hit by one of the most devastating earth quakes in recent history. He called the Pakistani embassy to find out how he could help and within a week he was in Azad Kashmir. What he saw there was beyond devastating. He says he had never seen so many children suffering due to a natural disaster. Entire towns had perished,mountains had cracked. Everything was destroyed. He had gone to stay for two weeks; he ended up staying for good. He decided to remain in Pakistan because he saw a long-term need even as other relief workers were packing up as the emergency phase wound down and because he fell in love with the children there.

Living in a tent for the first six months, Shea built a hospital in a house that had somehow survived the destruction. CDRS was formed in 2006, with its sister organization in the U.S with the name of SHINE Humanity in 2009.Their biggest mission is to bring comprehensive medical care to poor people because they believe 'health' is a basic right for every citizen. Healthy children, families and individuals are better prepared to take advantage of education and development opportunities.

In the years since then, Pakistan has been hit again and again by natural disasters and Shea and his expanding network of doctors and volunteers have been on the ground from Swat valley to Chikar to Charsada, providing relief and health care to the poorest of the poor. He travels the world, speaking at universities and fund raisers, keeping his promise to himself, raising awareness and telling the truth about Pakistanis and raising funds to help the children of Pakistan. CDRS has raised almost $1.75 million since 2006. He likes to say that the American public hears “two percent of the story ninety-eight percent of the time” when it comes to Pakistan. “I want the American people to know the truth, and not the misperceptions,” he says. “I believe that if they had all the information, they would know what to do with it. But I don't think they have complete information. I think that will create opportunities for a better world.”

This 'gora' from Maryland, an unlikely messiah, who once had no hope for his own future, struggling with his mother’s death as a young kid and battling cocaine addiction in his teens, overcame the odds and today wants to help build a better future for the children of Pakistan.

His latest initiative is called Sonic Peacemakers. Spreading Peace through music. It is an extension of what he believes is his mission in life, to be an ambassador for both Pakistan and America,to build bridges between the children of the east and west. He wants to bring Pakistan’s culture through music to America by having Pakistani artists collaborate with American artists, to come together as one, in the form of music. In the years that he has lived in Pakistan, he says he fell in love with the country and its people. ‘The culture of Pakistan is so rich, amazing and beautiful’; he wants the rest of the world to see it.

I asked him if people ever doubt him, both Pakistanis and Americans because he is somewhat of a rarity and there must surely be naysayers on both sides of the spectrum who doubt his intentions. He says his family and friends in America have always been supportive.In Pakistan, he says he has always received complete love and trust from the people he has met and helped.But he welcomes critics to come and prove if he is not what he portrays to be.

Talking about Sonic Peacemakers, he says it started 'humbly'.Travelling via jeeps to the remotest of Pakistani villages, to pass the long journeys he would listen to Pakistani music and 'fell in love with it', even though he did not understand the words. He learnt some Urdu songs and would sing to the children waiting in camps and outside clinics. He realized this was a way to connect with the people, despite the language barrier.

With the help of producer and musician Lanny Cordola, Sonic Peace Makers was formed in 2010. Their first set of CDs will be released in US and Pakistan in June. All the money from the sale of those CDs will go towards helping the children of Pakistan. The CDs contain songs from almost all famous and upcoming artists of Pakistan. From Rahat Fateh Ali to Atif Aslam, Ibrar-ul-haq and Strings, Pakistani artists donated their songs for the CD. Now the process of marketing it and selling it has begun. He has been travelling tirelessly through the United States, raising money and promoting his cause.

As our meeting was ending I asked Todd Shea, if he has hope for Pakistan’s future.

'Yes!’ he said, 'Education is key and the expanding access to information technology through cell phone, internet and social media will eventually bring a revolution.’ He said everywhere he has gone in Pakistan, the youth of Pakistan has a sense of purpose and he believes they will succeed in their purpose. He believes and hopes there will be a silent revolution that will change Pakistan's future.

It is about time.

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Humanitarian Todd Shea of Sonic Peacemakers performs live with Pakistani artist Atif Aslam
Tayyaba Hassaan is based in Los Angeles, California, United States of America, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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