American volunteers touched by Pakistan's hospitality

Daily Times, Thursday, November 24, 2005
American volunteers touched by Pakistan’s beauty and hospitality
By Khalid Hasan

WASHINGTON: An American woman doctor who thought of Pakistan as a dangerous place is now reluctant to leave because of the “beauty and hospitality” she has experienced.

Dr Mary Burry, an American, now in Pakistan for earthquake relief, told Christian Science Monitor, “Like most Americans, I had the idea that this is a pretty dangerous place to be,” she says, adding that she had never known any Pakistanis. What she discovered, however, is a country whose beauty and hospitality she is now reluctant to leave. “This totally changed my concept of Pakistan.” One of her Pakistani colleagues, Dr Rezwana Ahsan, working with Mercy Corps, a relief organisation, who has never known any Americans, feels the same way, “We had a feeling before that Americans are selfish and too proud. But they are not so. They came here with an open mind and an open heart.” The two doctors and their teams are working in Battal, Azad Kashmir. US volunteers throughout Pakistan say that, despite initial concerns, relief work has fostered a welcome forum of exchange with Pakistanis, helping to dispel misconceptions held on both sides.

According to the report published on Wednesday, “No one knows exactly how many Americans are volunteering in the earthquake relief, since neither the US Embassy nor Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry is keeping track. But their presence is widely felt throughout the affected areas, from tent hospitals like Dr Burry’s, to mountainside villages where volunteers are building shelters before the winter arrives.”

The report admits that while Pakistan has been an old ally of the United States, Americans often hear more about the trouble spots in the relationship, including nuclear proliferation by Pakistani scientists and the possibility that top Al Qaeda members like Osama Bin Laden may be hiding in Pakistan. For their part, many Pakistanis harbour grievances common in the Muslim world about US foreign policy. Pakistani officials hope the goodwill wrought by the tragedy can bring the two nations closer together, the report adds.

Tasnim Aslam, spokeswoman for the Foreign Office, told the newspaper, “This tragedy has helped on both sides because people in Pakistan have had some misconceptions, but they’ve been greatly touched by Americans. And the Americans who have come here and worked side by side with Pakistanis, their attitude must have undergone a change as well.”

Some volunteers are working free, while others have gone “beyond the normal call of duty”. What they share in common, after working alongside Pakistanis, is a “newfound appreciation for a country they never knew and therefore deeply misunderstood. Many say they don’t want to leave anytime soon; most hope to come back.” Many Americans now working in the quake-hit areas are seasoned volunteers sent by organised missions. Dr Burry, for instance, is a neuroradiologist who came through North West Medical Teams and Mercy Corps, both based in Portland, Oregon. She decided long ago, after witnessing the ravages of famine in Somalia, that this would be her calling. Other Americans have come on their own, with no volunteer experience, only a wish to apply whatever skills they can in these hours of need.

Another American volunteer, Wesley Olson from Los Angeles, was travelling around the world and had applied for a visa to Pakistan the day before the quake struck. “I decided if they gave me a visa, I’d go and volunteer,” he told the newspaper, adding that he’d never volunteered before. The visa eventually came through, and Olson has spent the last three weeks building shelters up in the mountain town of Surul, with a team including Pakistani doctors and volunteers from New Zealand, Australia, and India. He says he lives off his savings, paying when necessary for food and transportation. But it’s all money well spent. “We’re going around taking from these countries as tourists. And now it’s time to give back in their hour of need.”

Olson said that misconceptions were a common topic of conversation among his team. But like him, they’ve all come to think of Pakistan as a place they love. “All we hear about in the Western media is that Afghanistan is nearby, Al Qaeda is here. I don’t want to say I had a negative concept, but I didn’t know what to think.” Now he lauds Pakistan as one of the highlights of his travels. “I’ve been to eight or nine countries by now - and by far the nicest people I’ve met have been here,” he says.

Ahmed Nawaz, a villager in Balakot, said, “There were some people, for political reasons, who had the wrong impression about Americans. But the people have seen you working with them in their hour of need and there is a great change in perception.”

Some Americans, however, are more cautious, says the report. “I suspect this is a honeymoon period that may pass,” according to Dr Luke Cutherell, the chief executive officer of Bach Christian Hospital in Qalandarabad, founded 50 years ago by a US missionary group. Dr Cutherell, although American, was born in Pakistan, and has dedicated most of his life to working here. When the quake struck, he and other doctors, including eight Americans, went to 12-hour shifts, providing free treatment, medicine, and food for the patients. Cutherell, who lost close friends in the earthquake, knows well that violent animosity toward Americans is limited to fringe groups in Pakistan. But those fringe elements also attacked a nearby Christian school for foreigners in 2002, killing six Pakistani employees. “It will take more than one period of goodwill to erase the deep animosity that some people have.”

However, Dr Burry hopes that efforts like hers can help erase that animosity one interaction at a time. “We always evaluate every programme: Do we really want to send the next team?” She says the possibility to change perceptions on both sides alone would be worth it. “The more people who meet, the better it is,” she says. “I want to come back in the winter.”


Jon Schull said…
Jon Schull writes:

More valuable than money right now, winter tents, sleeping bags and blankets can save earthquake lives this week.

Please help us organize and collect. Your gear could save a life next week.

Please visit to learn more about this national grassroots Thanksgiving week initative and help us seize the moment.

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