It was late September and I was having Sunday dinner with relatives at my parents’ house, when conversation turned to some of my recent writing assignments. I told them I had a good one coming up: a bus trip to Washington, D.C., with a delegation of seven Pakistani businessmen.
I explained that the men were all members of the Lahore Mozang Rotary Club, and that they would be visiting the United States during the first week of October on a seven-day mission to build “person-to-person relationships” with members of the Rotary Club of Wilmington and, ostensibly, the rest of the state. We would be visiting the State Department and the Embassy of Pakistan. The conversations, no doubt, would be charged with the sort of high-minded, world-changing theory I love so much. Seemed to me like a great way to spend a Friday.
But before anyone could share in my excitement, one of my cheekier relatives chimed in with, “Pakistanis? On a bus? To D.C.? Hope you’ve got life insurance.”
This relative of mine is no bigot. He was making a bad joke. But his quip illustrated the kind of thinking the Pakistani delegation hoped to change during its visit to the states.
Most of the news coming out of Pakistan over the last several decades has been, in a word, bad. The basic narrative goes something like this: Ever since the United States withdrew its troops and aid from the country following the Soviet-Afghanistan War in 1989, relations between America and Pakistan have been strained; its relationship teetering on the verge of collapse. And with the current U.S. war in Afghanistan waging seemingly without end, all of these vagaries have only escalated.
The trickle-down effect of this sticky bilateral relationship has resulted in what State Department officials like to call a “significant trust deficit,” not only between our respective leaders, but also between our citizens. The stereotypes go something like this: Americans view Pakistanis as impoverished, antagonistic, Islamic terrorists in the making. Pakistanis view Americans as brash, unyielding, uninformed champions of global domination with a Judeo-Christian worldview.
But if the Rotary clubs of Wilmington and Lahore, Pakistan, have anything to say about it, that’s going to change.
Page 2: The Solution
Kathleen Meyer had been a member of Wilmington Rotary for less than a year when she joined the club’s International Service Committee in October 2009. Between 1966 and 1971, Meyer spent five years in South Vietnam training civilians for the U.S. Defense Department. She then founded the Delaware chapter of People to People International in the fall of 1984, introducing Delaware to the international stage through more than 130 projects and programs, as well as 18 delegations abroad, including Delaware’s first “Official State Mission” to the People’s Republic of China in 1985.
Toward the end of October 2009, club president Mike Friedberg began discussing ideas for the club’s 2010-11 service project, which would attempt to answer the call of the club’s official motto, “Building Communities, Bridging Continents.” Friedberg focused on Rotary International’s Polio Plus program, a global initiative aimed at eradicating polio. Since Pakistan was considered one of four “high transmission” countries in the world, Pakistan was the sensible place to start.
At the time, Friedberg was leaning toward polio as the cause to tackle, but Meyer was not. According to her understanding, the Pakistanis had the disease relatively under control, with 38 million children recently vaccinated in three days. She had another idea.
“Give me 10 days,” she said, “and I’ll come back with a proposal.”
When she did, it was broader in scope than anything Wilmington Rotary had ever before devised. Meyer’s “Pakistan Project,” as it came to be called, was divided into two main categories: International Outreach and Delaware Outreach.
Internationally, Meyer suggested establishing a partnership with one of the 200-plus Rotary Clubs in Pakistan, preferably one from Lahore, which is widely considered the cultural capital of the Islamic Republic as well as the center of the Pakistan intelligentsia. That partnership would include supporting a humanitarian project the Pakistani Rotary partner already had in place, while also establishing reciprocal delegations from Lahore and Wilmington.
Meanwhile, the Delaware Outreach component of her proposal centered around reaching out to the community and providing a service, specifically a four-part educational series on Pakistan for local high school students. The series would begin with an October assembly and end in February. Eight schools would participate, with 850 students attending each. The series would reach about 3,400 students. The message? Our understanding of Pakistan—and their understanding of us—is greatly misrepresented.
She also wanted to establish “Circles of International Understanding on Pakistan and Islam” for members of the Wilmington Rotary. This would include hosting Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, as a speaker at a special Rotary luncheon, while also reaching out to the Pakistani-American community in Wilmington.
Finally, the proposal called for a bus trip to Washington, D.C., featuring a briefing at the U.S. State Department followed by a briefing at the Embassy of Pakistan and a meet-and-greet with Ambassador Haqqani on Oct. 8, 2010.
And that is where I caught up with the story, just before six o’clock in the morning outside the DuPont Country Club on a chilly October dawn.
Page 3: The Journey
It’s just after 6 a.m. and the charter bus cruises down I-95 toward the nation’s capitol. Hints of the autumn sun glow against the trees of changing color and reflecting off the early commuter cars, painting the faces of so many drowsy drivers a serene orange. The mood inside the bus is sleepy but excited, with members of the Wilmington Rotary conversing brightly with the seven men from Pakistan. It’s the last day of their weeklong diplomatic union, and, as each visitor from Lahore has been staying in a respective home of a Wilmington Rotarian, they know each other quite well by now. They laugh and talk freely, like old friends or family, the manifestation of their ambitious mission.
The group of seven Lahore Rotarians is quite the cross section of talents and backgrounds. The delegation is comprised of the chief pathologist of a city hospital in Lahore, the chairman of the Pakistan Poultry Association, the chief executives of several agricultural firms that manufacture polypropylene bags and high-quality kitchenware, and an attorney with marketing expertise named Almas Ali Jovindah. Jovindah is the Lahore chapter’s chairman, a good-looking, charismatic man who carries himself with the humble confidence of a diplomat or uncorrupted senator. Sitting near the back of the bus in a sharp, black suit, Jovindah smiles broadly at almost every turn of conversation.
Over the past week, the Lahore Rotarians have taken myriad tours of Delaware and its industries. They have met with state officials, including a half-hour audience with Gov. Jack Markell. And they’ve spoken to many community organizations, always with the intent of bridging gaps in trust, understanding, and industry.
Just two days prior, they were the guests of honor at an assembly at Cab Calloway School of the Arts, where Jovindah spoke to a gathering of 850 students from eight Wilmington high schools. It was the first part of the Pakistan Project’s Educational Series, and it, like their budding relationships with one another, was a success that exceeded every Rotarian’s expectation.
During an early leg of the bus trip, Meyer tells me a story about the assembly, one she will repeat several times over the course of the day, as it sums up quite nicely the objective of this whole endeavor.
“At the start of that assembly, [U.S. State Department official] Vikram Singh looked out at the audience and asked the students how many of them would be interested in visiting Pakistan. No more than maybe 35 hands went up.” And here Meyer pauses for effect, a slight smile escaping, leaning in close for the telling detail. “When Almas finished his remarks, he asked the same question. ‘How many of you would be interested in visiting Pakistan?’ And I would say 65 percent of the hands went up in the air. Their minds had been changed.”
Moving to the middle of the bus, I take a seat beside Wilmington Rotary president Lise Monty, who is beaming with excitement and energy.
“This is pretty big stuff. It’s amazing,” she says. “Today is our chance, as regular folks, to see what goes on at the government level and to learn more about how this whole thing works. But the underlying point is to create understanding between our two countries. Most Americans, when you say Pakistan, they think terrorist. And [Pakistanis] have similar feelings toward us. They’re not crazy about Americans either. But that’s not the man on the street.” She pauses and looks out the window and the rushing traffic and the rising sun. “We’re doing big stuff here. But we’re just regular folks.”
Monty eventually moves to another seat, eager to chat with some of her newfound friends from Pakistan. Taking her place is Rod Teeple, a soft-spoken, gray-haired Wilmington Rotarian who has played a critical role in the Pakistan Project.
Wilmington Rotary committed to supporting an initiative the Lahore club already had in place. That initiative turned out to be the Ghazali School of Lahore, which was founded by the Lahore Mozang Rotary Club in 2001 and is run by the Ghazali Education School System. There are currently 215 students enrolled there, and through fundraising efforts chaired by Teeple, Wilmington Rotary is setting out to provide funding for five years of schooling for girls from low-income or impoverished families in Pakistan. The cost of a five-year scholarship there is just $750 and includes, on an annual basis, funding for tuition, textbooks, school supplies, uniforms, shoes, and fees for special activities.
According to the Pakistan Education Ministry, only 26 percent of girls in Pakistan are literate. Independent sources and educational experts, however, contend the rate is much lower at just 12 percent.
“You don’t solve global problems with the signing of documents,” says Teeple. “You do it one day at a time, one person at a time, helping to improve the lives of individuals. This project for the school in Lahore is doing that, because the education of girls in that part of the world is a critical issue. The boys get educated. The girls don’t.”
Page 4: The Future
Our briefing at the State Department is a mixture of highlighting both large- and small-scale attempts at smoothing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Two officials from the department’s Pakistan desk preside over the 90-minute briefing, and they are as optimistic as they are cautious, making sure that everyone in attendance—Wilmington and Lahore Rotarians—know that the Pakistan-U.S. relationship thing is, well, complex.
Over the course of the briefing, the officials outline steps the U.S. has taken in getting billions of dollars in flood relief aide to Pakistan since July. They touch on President Barack Obama’s renewed sense of diplomatic possibility when it comes to our mutually beneficial relationship. They address how deeply sincere the United States is in its desire to maintain a positive relationship with Pakistan, assuring the men from Lahore that there will be no abandonment like the one they saw in 1989. The officials reiterate time and again how crucial efforts like the Wilmington Rotary’s Pakistan Project are in the ultimate goal of peace and understanding.
Walking back to the State Department lobby, I catch up with Ed Dunn, one of the two officials who briefed us. He says he’s very encouraged by everything the Pakistan Project is attempting to do. He talks about how important communication is in any bilateral relationship. He admits there are challenges, but he applauds the effort. It is but one piece of the puzzle.
I start to ask a question, but have trouble articulating exactly what I want to say. “Do you think projects like this—I mean, it’s all good for now, while we’re in it, but does it have—I guess what I’m saying is—is this quantifiable in any way?”
Dunn stops and smiles as we wait for the elevator to the lobby.
“No, I get it. Sure. You want to know if it’s not just all handholding and ‘Kumbaya.’ I understand,” he says. And that’s just one more of the challenges. How do you quantify the results of this? The challenge is figuring out the results, and I would argue that this is more than just a drop in the bucket. If you want to overcome a trust deficit, if you want to change attitudes and move forward with a relationship, this has to be a part of it. It’s not just so-called ‘heart policy.’ It’s all encompassing.”
On the bus I sit behind Mian Bilal Hanif, the CEO of Mian Agriculture and Poultry Farming in Lahore. This is his first trip to the United States, and he’s eager to express how deeply the experience has changed his perception of this country.
He says the media in Pakistan consistently paints a negative portrait of the United States. They don’t emphasize the billions of dollars in aide Americans have supplied since July floods ravaged the country and displaced its people. They don’t emphasize delegations like this one from the Lahore Mozang Rotary. And they certainly don’t emphasize the ways in which we can all better understand one another.
But then again, neither does the media on this side of the world.
“There are steps being taken now that should have been taken 10 years ago, but I suggest that the United States makes sure those steps are being projected in the Pakistan media, so the common people really know what the Americans are doing for them,” Hanif says. “They don’t even know. The media plays a very vital role, even if it can change the mind of just one person. But they always want to show the darker side of the mirror.”
After sharing lunch at a downtown Indian restaurant—with the Wilmington Rotarians delightedly anxious about a cuisine many of them have never before tried—we stop at the Embassy of Pakistan, where we get a view of the international relationship similar to the one we got at the State Department. And while this time it’s from Pakistan’s perspective, the overall tenor is positive.
“I think the type of outreach you’re seeing with the Pakistan Project is far more effective than anything going on between our leaders,” says Don Hackett, governor for the Rotary District that comprises Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “It’s not political or partisan. It’s humanitarian, average people doing extraordinary things. We don’t have any hidden agendas or political motives; it’s simply out of service to the community and trying to focus on how we can fulfill that objective of the Rotary. We don’t have a gun in one hand and a political agenda in another. We are simply reaching out to other human beings.”
When I finally get a chance to catch up with Jovindah on our long, traffic-jammed ride back to Delaware, it is this point he focuses on over and over again—the simplicity and power of human beings reaching out to one another. His voice is as measured as it is lilting, as he speaks with unhinged
excitement about what this project will ultimately achieve. For a man who lives in such a cynical world during such cynical times, and comes from a country so mired in the tragedy of global misperception, Jovindah is nothing short of remarkable.
“They all say that the journey starts with the first step, and I will tell you one thing: This is going to go a long way,” he says, smiling at the glare of a sun now setting on I-95. “This has a multiplying effect, because these seven men will go home to Pakistan to their seven families, and it’s going to spread like wildfire. This passion, this great momentum, is the real issue. When this delegation goes back home, it will have a huge impact in Lahore.”
Jovindah then talks about how excited he is to host members of the Wilmington Rotary, a handful of which will be travelling to Lahore in February, doing the same thing there that their international brothers did here. He is excited for them to see his family, and the families of his friends. He is excited to share his country’s culture and history and hospitality, knowing that the experience will spread through Delaware—and, hopefully, America—like wildfire, eventually burning down those seemingly endless forests of misconception that divide us.
“I’ve been coming to America for many years, and not a single time, not on the Internet or in a newspaper, have I seen a positive story about Pakistan. I have gardens that are more than 600 years old. I have civilizations that have a 6,000-year history. I have cities with architectural planning that goes back 5,000 years. This is my history. But nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about how out of the 20 tallest mountain ranges in the world, eight are in Pakistan. It’s amazing! Nobody tells the world that among the top 10 most beautiful valleys, at least four are in Pakistan. We don’t pick the positive side of Pakistan. You don’t hear those stories. And it’s not until you’ve got a true picture of a place and its people that a partnership can develop. That is what we are doing here.”
Page 5: The Epilogue
Five months after Pakistan came to Delaware, Delaware went to Pakistan. On Feb. 12, a dozen members of the Rotary Club of Wilmington became the first civil society, people-to-people delegation to visit Pakistan since Sept. 11, 2001. And the experience was life changing.
“Almost everyone we met—people on the streets, delegates, our host families—were all very positive and hopeful about the United States,” says Mike Friedberg, vice president of Wilmington Rotary. “I would say nine out of 10 Pakistanis believe in the sincerity of the United States, and they think there is a good possibility of a resolution between our countries. That level of optimism was surprising.”
Friedberg says the weeklong trip had several objectives with longterm implications. The Wilmington delegates attended several dinners and conferences, including one hosted by Sardar Latif Khosa, governor of Punjab, at the 200-year-old Governor House on Feb. 14. They visited various industries, cultural landmarks, and participated in a day of polio immunization at the Unity School of Lahore. They even established a partnership between Padua Academy in Wilmington and the High School of the Covenant of Jesus and Mary in Lahore, which was founded in 1876.
“That partnership is particularly near and dear to my heart,” says Meyer. “With more than 2,000 girls, the [High School of the Covenant] is known throughout Pakistan for its character building, academics and motivation of girls for the betterment of society and the world.”
By staying with host families in Lahore, Wilmington Rotarians also had a rare opportunity to see the more nuanced aspects of Pakistani culture.
“The culture over there was somewhat of a surprise,” recalls Friedberg. “They have extended families living together in most houses. Not because they are poor, but because they like large families staying together. We stayed in a house that had three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a family room upstairs for our host, his wife, and their four children. And downstairs lived his brother, his wife, and their four children. It’s a different world.”
And, Friedberg says, a generous world.
“Everywhere we turned someone else was giving us gifts,” he says. “They really wanted to impress the Americans.”
And the Americans were indeed impressed. Harkening back to the original intent of this delegation—to change minds and perceptions—Friedberg says the calm, steady pace of life in Lahore would shock most Americans, who probably think every day in Pakistan is spent worrying about violence and bloodshed.
“You walk the streets and everyone is going about their lives in a normal capacity,” says Friedberg. “No one believes that back home. The schools we visited were so clean, and the students were so intent on getting a good education. They were very appreciative of everything we did. This is the start of a long, drawn-out effort, but it’s worth it.”
Says Meyer, “It was an unforgettable journey. The Pakistan Project is indeed ‘building communities and bridging continents.’ I hope this partnership with the Lahore Mozang Rotary Club continues to grow and prosper.