Cultural exchange: Pakistani journalists visit U.S., spend time in the Berkshires
Imagine being only the second female journalist where you live, or being a young college student and having your good friends kidnapped and killed because they were protesting for basic human rights.
The chance of this happening in the Berkshires is unfathomable, but for 26-year-old Samina Kulsoom and 25-year-old Jahanzaib, these are the realities of their respective lives.
Both are journalists living and working for smaller daily newspapers in separate regions of Pakistan, but through an exchange program led by the International Center for Journalists (http://icfj.org), they've spent the past month exploring the United States for the first time -- 20 days of which have been spent experiencing the Berkshires.
"It's great exposure, to learn about a different culture, and also about aspects of journalism, like ethics and rules and practice," said Kulsoom, a sports reporter for the Daily Ausaf newspaper, of Gilgit. "We also want to know about American life, to see if the stories we've heard are the same or different."
Jahanzaib, who works for The Daily Public in Quetta, agreed.
"There are a lot of misconceptions we have regarding the U.S. and the West. We wanted to see how people are in their daily lives and if it's like what we see in the movies," he said.
"There, we thought people hate Pakistanis and think that we're all Taliban, but it's not like that. Here, we've found people love to talk with us, and we're not that different," said Kulsoom.
Since coming to the Berkshires, the two journalists, who did not know each other prior to the exchange program, said they've learned much about the U.S., the practice of journalism and each other.
Their journey to-date has included a visit to ICFJ's headquarters in Washington, D.C., and stops in Boston and Cape Cod, before coming to the Berkshires. They leave Sept. 2 to return to Washington.
Here, they've seen and participated in a range of activities, from meeting with local and state officials, police departments and civic leaders. They've been to a family barbecue in Hinsdale, a 4-H Fair in Pittsfield, the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams, and several local schools. They've also visited various cultural institutions and area restaurants.
"I went fishing for the first time," said Jahanzaib, who's spent most of his time here talking with any American who will listen. "I love it," he said.
Jahanzaib added that at home in his province of Balochistan, he often finds himself depressed thinking about the state of his neighbors. "The days and nights begin and end with talks about this person who has been kidnapped or that person has been killed."
"The greatest thing that I loved here was seeing the theater of Shakespeare. I've never been to the theater," Kulsoom said of her Berkshire experience, adding that most women living in her province don't go out much beyond attending community lectures and prayers.
To work in journalism in their communities is to risk not only social discrimination, but to risk their very lives.
Kulsoom, for example, said she is only permitted to write about youth sports because covering political and human rights issues is too risky, particularly for a woman.
She said that for any journalist, "When we want to cover the true story of a political party, we don't have the freedom to write freely."
"We can't do balanced journalism there," Jahanzaib said. "There, when you write a story, you have to be on the side of the powerful or you will not survive."
"There are some journalists in Pakistan who are writing against the authorities in order to say what the truth is, but most [reporters] are treated like puppets," Kulsoom said.
In Pakistan, the majority of news is focused on national versus community issues. During their time working together this month, Kulsoom and Jahanzaib said they've been able to better understand the variations of life in their own country.
"I've learned from her that her area is very beautiful and not far from the U.S. in terms of natural beauty and greenery," said Jahanzaib. Kulsoom's colony in Gilgit borders China and has tall mountains and pure, clear water.
"As for me, I did not know the issues of Balochistan, even as a journalist, until I met him," Kulsoom said of Jahanzaib. "His life is very different than ours."
His province, located near the Iranian border, is rich in minerals and natural gas. But they're harvested and shipped to other parts of the country and other nations, leaving the Baloch people without. Balochistan also endures an ongoing conflict between the government of Pakistan and groups of a nationalist and separatist movements, resulting in troubling and brutal abuses of people including, torture and killing.
Despite differing and daunting life experiences, both reporters look to their futures with steadfast hope.
"My goals are to be a journalist, spreading the message of peace, humanity, harmony, brotherhood, and to highlight the truth. I want to work more for all actors who are against the human rights violations," Jahanzaib said.
"For me, I don't have such rights. I can't say I want to do those things because I can't and that's a reality," said Kulsoom. She has been engaged for six months and hopes for more freedoms for her future children. "Whatever I am going to write in life, I will write the truth. And when I have my own daughter, I want her to have all the rights she deserves, and that she will never know what I have known."
Editor's note: Samina Kulsoom, Jahanzaib and Eagle reporter Jenn Smith are all members of the U.S.-Pakistan Professional Partnership program of the International Center for Journalists and the U.S. Educational Foundation in Pakistan, funded through the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
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