Lessons from Pakistan

May, 2008

by Kim Rawson `08

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Kim Rawson with her friend Sania's niece Aiza.

My fascination with Pakistan started back in college when I met Sania, a strong and intelligent Pakistani woman. During my junior year, we became close friends, spending hours in deep philosophical discussions, broaching topics from feminism to politics. Often Sania would speak of her country with great love and respect. From the way she described her homeland, it was easy for me to understand why she missed it so much.

After graduation, Sania and I went our separate ways: she went on to law school in Colorado, and I went home to New Hampshire, where I began graduate school at PSU to pursue a master of arts in teaching. While at PSU, I met Associate Professor of Science Education Mary Ann McGarry, my instructor for a course called The Hazardous Earth. The course focused on the foundations of Earth systems science and Earth processes by studying natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods. Part of the course was devoted to researching the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, a devastating earthquake that struck the border of Pakistan and India, claiming more than 82,000 lives and leaving more than 3.3 million people injured or homeless.

Recognizing my interest in Pakistan, Professor McGarry connected me with her colleague Blake Allen, director of PSU’s Pakistani Educational Leadership Institute (PELI). Each year, PELI hosts Pakistani educators who learn about American innovations in education for adaptation in Pakistan. Intrigued by the notion of meeting fellow educators from a country I so admired, I applied for and was granted a graduate assistantship with Blake. During the summer of 2007 I worked closely with Blake and Mary Ann for PELI and became even more fascinated with Pakistan after meeting the participants.

A dream realized

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The Badshahi Mosque, built in 1673 in Lahore, is one of the city’s best known landmarks.

Last summer, Sania invited me to Pakistan to attend her wedding. At the time, I was entering into my first year as a middle school teacher at Hillsboro-Deering Middle School, but I was determined not to miss one of the most important events in my friend’s life. As I planned my trip to Pakistan, I started to think about how it was more than an opportunity to see Sania and Pakistan. It was an opportunity for me to learn about another country and its culture, and to pass what I learn on to my students.

In the weeks prior to my departure, I talked with my students about Pakistan as they read articles about the country and wrote letters to Pakistani students—students of a principal I had met through PELI the previous summer. Many of my students had negative impressions of Pakistan and its people, fueled mostly by the media, and were shocked to find out what a progressive country Pakistan is. My students’ burgeoning interest in Pakistan only strengthened my resolve to share as much of my experience as possible with them, and encouraged them to chat with me over the school blog while I was away.

Joy and tragedy

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from left: Sania’s niece Aiza, Kim Rawson, Nabil and Sania, and Nabil’s grandmother.Photo courtesy of Kim Rawson.

When I arrived in Gujranwala, Sania and her family welcomed me with a warmth and hospitality I had never experienced before. Shortly after my arrival, I became immersed in Sania’s wedding preparations and her family’s Eid al-Adha celebrations. Eid al-Adha is a Muslim holiday that honors Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as commanded by Allah.

Weddings in Pakistan are four-day events filled with family, friends, beautiful fresh flowers, stunning attire, gleaming gems, bright gold bangles, and savory foods. I had never experienced such luxury. In stark contrast to the opulence were a few young girls dressed in very plain attire.

Sania’s young niece Ushra explained to me that these girls were servants. It was hard for me to comprehend that the girls—who were about the same age as my middle school students—were spending their childhood working in homes, missing the joy and freedom of youth, and being denied an education and an opportunity to better themselves. I learned from Sania’s family that, in many cases, servant children come from large families and that their parents—who are oftentimes drug addicts—have them purely to make money.

Ushra and I befriended the girls and would look for them each night of the wedding to talk with them and take their pictures, which they loved. We also gave them a few simple gifts—a few chocolate bars and glitter glue—which they gratefully and excitedly accepted.

On December 27, 2007, just hours before festivities for the third day of the wedding were to begin, we received word that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated while leaving a campaign rally for the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan’s largest political party. The rioting and protesting that ensued following the assassination forced Sania’s family to stay in Gujranwala and miss the wedding celebrations.

That evening, only 80 of the 400 expected guests were in attendance. While some of the people I spoke to noted that these things happen in politics, I couldn’t help but notice their sense of despair about the possible implications of Bhutto’s assassination.

The days following the assassination were dark ones, as the city of Lahore, and indeed most of Pakistan, shut down for a three-day mourning period. This derailed my plan to participate in two full days of programs with the Pakistani organization Idara-e-Taleem Aagahi (ITA). ITA, a nonprofit organization that promotes educational and social reform, organizes the Pakistani Educational Leadership Institute with Plymouth State University. Meetings were to occur with teachers from districts all over Pakistan to develop ideas for cross-cultural exchanges with American students.

The evening after the assassination, I managed to meet with Dr. Baela Raza Jamil, ITA’s chairperson, and her colleague Beena Raza. I gave them my students’ poetry and letters and shared my vision for bringing our students together, a vision that they whole-heartedly endorsed.

Two mornings after the assassination, we received word from a contact on the police force that protesting was not to start until later in the morning. I covered my head with a shawl and Sania and I made our way to an awaiting car for the two-hour drive to Sania’s family’s home in Gujranwala. Smoldering piles of tires and smashed glass windows littered the streets, and I could sense Sania’s tension whenever we slowed near crowds of people.

Finally, after days of separation, we arrived home safely to one of the warmest and happiest receptions I have ever experienced. We feasted and celebrated for the next few days, until it was time for me to say my tearful goodbyes and fly home.

Cultural exchange

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In many areas of Pakistan, child labor is still common. “It was hard for me to comprehend that the girls … were spending their childhood working … ,” Rawson noted. Photo courtesy of Kim Rawson.

Since my return, my students have been developing essays on the similarities between Pakistan and the U.S. They have also been blogging with students from the Sanjan Nagar School in Pakistan, and I hope to set up video conferencing with them by the end of the year.

As an educator, I feel that my work in educating my students about the value of another culture is just beginning. When I read the blog between my students and their Pakistani peers, I’m reminded that kids don’t look at skin color or care about what religion one practices. They care about their commonalities: best friends, video games, sports, and their favorite subjects in school. Since I began planning my trip last November, I have watched my students grow through their interaction with the students in Pakistan.

I plan on returning to Pakistan, this time to recruit more schools for cross-cultural dialogue with schools here in the U.S. I believe that such interaction is an important step to bringing our world closer together.

Kim Rawson is currently enrolled in the MAT program at PSU and will graduate in December 2008. She teaches math and science at Hillsboro-Deering Middle School in Hillsboro, NH.


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