Syria’s first lady meets the Indian poor

  New Delhi, June 18 (IANS) Syria’s first lady Asma al-Assad, the wife one of the world’s most powerful leaders, Wednesday drove to a slum in the Indian capital and interacted with its women to learn about micro-financing. A graduate in computer science from King’s College in London, the 33-year-old spent about an hour in Harsh Vihar, close to the Uttar Pradesh border where the slum is home to about 50,000 poorest of the poor.

 True to her image as one who likes to interact with people, Asma spoke to a tailor woman and a vegetable grocer among others, with the help of Preeti Sahai, a senior manager of Basix, which promotes micro-financing.

 "We demonstrated how to open a no-frills savings account, using just a laptop, a digital camera and a fingerprint scanner," Sahai told IANS. Such accounts are opened in the slum area for its many residents who find it difficult to access banks.

 An investment banker earlier, Asma posed several questions to the slum people.

 Sahai said: "She interacted directly with three or four women. She had many questions. What will they do with the loans? Do they have insurance? Why did they open this account? What businesses are they engaged in?"

 The Syrian president’s wife appeared fascinated by the responses of the slum women, who expressed their desire to go up the socio-economic ladder with the small loans provided to them.

 Asma took everyone by surprise by expressing a desire to open an account.

 Said Sahai: "We promptly took her picture and scanned her fingerprint. But we could not open an account as she did not have the basic documents."

 And Sahai added, jokingly: "She is not really our target!"

 Before leaving, Asma greeted some of the slum children and spoke to them.

Earlier, Asma, who founded Syria’s first NGO, the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria (Firdos), interacted with about 30-40 activists working in rural development and women’s empowerment at the Institute of Social Studies in south Delhi.

 She spent more than two hours at the institute, double the time she was to spend there, witnessing presentations on capacity-building of elected representations and an artisan project artisans. She also saw a documentary on a south Indian village.

 She heard the experiences of a district panchayat president from Haryana, on the challenges and success in combating gender bias.

 "She spoke about her experience in the rural sector in Syria and her NGO Firdos," the institute’s A.N. Roy told IANS.

 She received a gift of a brass peacock. "The first lady mentioned that she was fascinated by India and wished she had stayed longer," Roy said.

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