By: Tara Jenkins: photography by Helen Jenkins
Thirteen-week pregnant Samar Shaheryar was sitting in a Tokyo restaurant when the earthquake that would devastate Japan in 2011 roared into being. “There were big chandeliers in the restaurant and they were swinging so violently, they were almost touching the ceiling,” Samar remembers. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the Japanese get up and leave a venue. Luckily I was on the ground floor and also luckily, I got a taxi right away – most people were walking”.
Luck is a word that peppers the conversation of this articulate ex-banker, now safely settled into an apartment in Shouson Hill with her two-year-old toddler and 16-week-old baby. In fact, her own good fortune has been the driving force behind everything she’s done in the past few years. “I was born in Pakistan, although I was raised abroad. For almost everyone who comes from a developing country, it stays with you that you’re very, very lucky to be in the position you’re in,” Samar explains. “You could so easily be one of the people who isn’t able to leave, who cannot access education, healthcare, jobs or opportunities. I love my country but it has a lot of problems, and I think it’s incumbent on people like me to help.”
So what could a high-yield bond trader, then working in New York, possibly do to help her countrymen half way across the world? Simple: Samar set about founding and running a charity focusing on improving girls’ education in Pakistan, and when she subsequently moved to Tokyo with her husband, she gave up her career in finance and devoted herself entirely to charity work around disaster relief. Fast-forward to a move to Hong Kong, and a chance play-date with Allie Wieser, an old friend and fellow fundraiser from Tokyo, resulted in the birth of an idea that has mushroomed into the girls’ primary focus today.
“We’d both just had our first child, and were talking about what we wanted to do next,” says Allie. “Samar has a strong pull towards maternal infant health and coming from Pakistan was very aware of how much is needed in that region. I wanted to create a baby product that incorporated giving back, and we melded those two ideas together”.
Enter Baby Hero, designed to support maternal and infant health in developing regions. Launched just over a year ago, Samar and Allie have designed a range of baby basics – infant onesies and toddler tees – which are 100-percent organic cotton certified and fair trade. For every item purchased, Baby Hero funds 50 percent of a clean birth kit for a mother in rural Pakistan (including a sterile mat, a cord clamp, a sterile blade to cut the cord and a bar of soap). “Basically, these women are giving birth at home on dirt floors,” explains Samar. “We’re also funding medical supplies such as chlorhexidine – which prevents infection of the baby’s umbilical stump – and sunflower emollient, which traps heat in the baby’s skin and also creates a barrier so infection can’t get in.”
Distribution of the kits is being administered by a pioneering Canadian paediatrician, Dr Sean Morris, who is intent on advancing development in maternal infant health in the area. Completely by chance, Samar and Allie stumbled across a video on Facebook posted by a Southside mom on behalf of Morris – her husband’s best friend – while he was looking for funding. “It was the hugest coincidence and we were so excited that within a few weeks of starting the business we found him,” smiles Samar. “It was total providence!”
Morris has mobilised a network of 100,000 local community health workers in Pakistan to distribute and explain use of the kits to expectant mothers; through this project, Samar and Allie hope to help Morris realise his aim of reducing infant mortality in rural Pakistan by 30 to 40 percent.
“Ninety-nine percent of mothers who die in the first month after birth,” says Samar, “and 98% of infants who die, are in the developing world. Mortality is completely an issue of where you are born, and it isn’t so difficult to level the playing field. You need access to clean, sanitary conditions, medication and a skilled person helping you deliver the baby, and in rural areas most of these are not available. This is where the kits come in. They’re portable and cheap, and because we’re using community health workers, the idea is that it eventually becomes sustainable.”
The burgeoning Baby Hero business isn’t leaving much time for anything else at the moment, but somehow Samar is managing to devote time to mothering her two little girls, and creating a strong family unit with Irish husband Shane. “Family is very important in both the Irish and Pakistani. I’m the only child and he’s the eldest, so we both feel a heightened sense of responsibility!” she says. Family is much in evidence around the apartment, from the framed portraits in the hall to the painting of a Japanese kanji meaning “embrace of family” in the master bedroom, to the quirky Tequila Kola coffee table in the living room, where Samar has displayed a number of vintage photographs under a glass top. The old photos of her grandparents’ traditional Indian wedding, her parents’ honeymoon, her mother as a baby and her father at college, sit happily alongside Samar’s own framed wedding photos on the bookshelves and chests – a traditional Indian affair held in upstate New York.
Samar has a particular knack for mixing old and new, curating from several different cultures – so traditional Chinese cabinets rub shoulders with Moroccan objects d’art, and elaborate Pakistani silver sits alongside paintings from Prague, creating an ethnic mix that gives the apartment a special originality. And while traditional, richly patterned Pakistani carpets line the floor, the dining table is from Tree and the chairs from Danish retailer BoConcept. The couple loves art, and the walls are adorned with an eclectic variety of paintings and prints, many with interesting stories attached. A standout piece is by Pakistani artist Muhammad Atif Khan – a silhouetted portrait of a famous Mughal emperor which on closer inspection, turns out to be rendered by closely packed ants, painted onto several layers of glass.
On the opposite wall, there is an arresting painting by artist Ali Azmet, of a hijra: “It’s a very progressive thing that exists in Pakistan and Bangladesh; a designated third sex,” explains Samar. “It’s a way of a conservative community dealing with people who are different. Hijras are basically transvestites but could also be gay; they dress as women and you see them everywhere in Pakistan, usually begging for money. There’s a lot of superstition around them. The painting is a little jarring as it’s clearly an effeminate man, but I just love it, it’s my favourite”.
Most of Samar’s art comes from one art gallery in Pakistan; a regular stop when she is home. “Since the kids have come we go home less, but we try and go at least once a year.”
Family visits aside, will she and Allie visit rural Pakistan in the near future, to see for themselves the impact Baby Hero is having on the community? “Once things are underway and the security situation is better, I hope next year we can go,” says Samar. But before that there’s another collection of clothes to design, plans afoot to design a range of essential baby products, developing the nascent Baby Hero Foundation, and a suggestion they might expand their clean birth kits project into another needy country. It’s all going exactly to plan – with a healthy dose of luck, of course. “We’ve been very lucky; a lot of wonderful things have fallen into our laps,” smiles Samar. Long may it continue.
Samar and Allie’s Recommendations
Sushi Shin Japanese Restaurant
G/F, Shop 1-2, Wing Hing Court,
110 Tung Lo Wan Road, Causeway Bay
2398 8000 | sushishin.com
Sushi Sase Japanese Restaurant
UG/F, Hilltop Plaza,
49 Hollywood Road, Central
2815 0455, 2815 0477
G/F, 28 Elgin Street, Central
2577 7160 | postopubblico.com
Spices @ The Repulse Bay
109 Repulse Bay Road, Repulse Bay
2292 2821 | therepulsebay.com
Coco Thai (Beachfront Restaurant)
Upper G/F, Beach Building, Island Road, Deep Water Bay
52 Graham Street, Central
2801 5611 | justgreen.com.hk
Ali Baba Provision Store
14 Wood Road, Wanchai
South Stream Seafoods
2/F, Units 202-204, Lai Sun Yuen Long Centre,
27 Wang Yi Street East, Yuen Long, New Terrorities
2555 6200 | south-stream-seafoods.com
73 Wyndham Street, Central
2668 0027 | boconcept.com
20/F Horizon Plaza, Ap Lei Chau
10/F, 1 Duddell Street, Central
2522 2466 | tinyfootprints.com
1/F, Horizon Plaza, Ap Lei Chau
2877 3295 | tequilakola.com
28/F, Horizon Plaza, Ap Lei Chau
2870 1582/83 | tree.com.hk
To buy a Baby Hero product, or simply to donate to the Baby Hero Foundation, go to www.babyhe.ro.