Photo Gallery: Young Leaders of Pakistan
About two years ago, Adnan Rashid came to The Berkshire Eagle newsroom and changed my life and mind forever.
He was awarded the 2012 Daniel Pearl-Syed Saleem Shahzad journalism fellowship, selected through the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships program based in Washington, D.C. Rashid spent nearly six months training and writing op-ed and blog pieces for The Eagle, one of the first newsrooms Pearl worked in.
In an interview about the fellowship, Rashid told my colleague he was interested in not only learning about journalism practices in a U.S. newsroom, but that he was also interested in clearing up misperceptions that Americans have about Pakistanis and vice versa.
"We need to focus on our similarities so we have a better understanding" of each other, Rashid said in the interview. "We're always looking for the differences, and that creates more of a gap between the [two countries]."
Our Pakistani fellow soon impressed me, not only as a journalist, but as a peer. He was 31, and I was 29 at the time. We shared career interests and goals, but our lives, backgrounds and geographies we grew up in were drastically different.
Rashid is from Saidu Sharif, a main city and administrative hub for the Swat District, located in northwest Pakistan in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Like the Berkshires, the valley of Swat is surrounded by mountains and hills, and has been known as "the Switzerland of Pakistan." The region was once a popular international destination for its luxury ski resort, Malam Jabba.
Then, in 2009, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) took over Swat. People, like Rashid's family members were forced to leave their homes due to the violence of the insurgency against the Pakistani government.
Rashid stayed behind, partly to keep an eye on his father's pharmacy, and partly to report for the BBC on the conflict.
Meanwhile, about 7,000 miles away, I was in the Berkshires, pretty much oblivious to anything going on in that part of the world.
After the term of his fellowship, Rashid returned home, but not without leaving me inspired and determined to be more globally aware, and to learn more about how journalists and people like him live in Pakistan.
Last summer, my opportunity to experience it and learn firsthand came knocking.
I found out I was accepted to another fellowship program that Rashid has also been involved with -- the U.S.-Pakistan Professional Partnership Program in Journalism. Developed by the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), the program is funded through a grant from the U.S. State Department and supported by the federal Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
On Feb. 1, myself and a team of nine other journalists based across the U.S. and in Brussels, embarked on a journey that few others will ever get to experience.
The Pakistani government has not taken a formal population census in some 16 years, but according to data from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Central Asian nation has a population of more than 193.2 million people.
One of the most fascinating statistics I've learned while getting to know Pakistan, is that more than 50 percent of people living there are under the age of 24. Comparatively, of the estimated 316.4 million people living in the U.S., 33.7 percent are under age 24.
The way I see it, children, quite literally, are the future of Pakistan.
The first city we visited, the southern port city of Karachi, has an estimated population of between 18 and 25 million people, and growing.
There, I got to reunite with Abdul Aziz Sohail, who worked last summer at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in Pittsfield as an arts program management fellow and curator for an exhibit called "Islam Contemporary." After a successful opening in Pittsfield, the exhibit will travel to and open at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina on March 8, a tribute to Sohail's efforts to educate people and change perceptions.
A Brandeis University graduate, Sohail, 23, now works in Lahore for the studio of renowned Pakistani artist Rashid Rana. Rana's work was on display at Mohatta Palace in Karachi, as part of the inaugural Sindh Festival celebrating the culture and art of the province.
Glitz and glamour aside, the Sindh Festival also made headlines as it was propagated by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. He is the 25-year-old only son of former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in a 2007 bombing.
Today, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who primarily grew up in Dubai and London, has returned to Pakistan and has emerged as chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party. His rising political activism has caught both praise and criticism throughout the country.
Despite their youth, both young men hold great power in their respective arenas and responsibility to their country. They are among numerous examples of young people I met who are dedicated to shaping the nation for the better, though they are not without challenges.
Among children, there is a great range of disparity between the haves and the have nots.
For example, kids, particularly girls and particularly in tribal lands, may not even have access to education, as brought to international attention through the case of Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girl who is also from Swat. Even at age 11, she openly criticized the TTP and its treatment of women and girls. The TTP took offense to Yousafzai's comments, and also took responsibility for shooting her in the head in an attack on Oct. 9, 2012. She survived and was nominated last year for a Nobel Peace Prize for her continued advocacy for all, boys and girls, to be able to go to schools of their choice and not be limited to madrassas, Islamic schools.
Youths who do have access to education have a low rate of completion. Only 30 percent of girls and 39 percent of boys were enrolled in secondary school, according to 2011 statistics published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. According to statistics for that same year, only 54.9 percent of adults and 70.7 percent of youths are considered literate.
For those young people who do get through school and university, the career field and everyday life can also be challenging.
The news staff at The Express Tribune, part of the Express News group, are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Between August and January they and their affiliates faced multiple attacks, something that never crosses my mind as a possibility during my work day. Gunfire hailed onto an Express News van in January proved deadly for three occupants.
When we visited their newsroom in February, the entrance was heavily guarded, secured with barbed wire barricades, and outfitted with metal detectors and thick concrete walls. Still, the majority of journalists show up to work every day. When asked if they feared the threat of another attack, more violence, several staffers replied, "We're used to it."
It was a phrase our visiting group would hear again and again from people we met. Whether it was poverty, blackouts due to the nation's energy crisis, or violence, it doesn't deter those determined to rise above.
In Karachi, we met administrators of the Karachi School for Business & Leadership, which provides professional MBA opportunities for adults. We met with students, staff and leaders of the Aman Foundation, a nonprofit recently backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Aman Foundation provides vocational training programs for young people, public health programs and services and Teach for Pakistan, which runs akin to Teach for America.
In Lahore, we spoke with an entire class of young women studying media at Kinnaird College. They were very outspoken, and, at times, critical of the U.S. and media for not showing other aspects of Pakistani life beyond terrorism, government and law and order. There, young women dream of becoming news anchors, filmmakers, perhaps creators of the next Facebook or Google enterprise.
Our group also learned firsthand how young Pakistani innovators can find support in achieving their dreams thanks to a project called Plan 9, a technology incubator program of a government agency known as the Punjab Information Technology Board, based in Lahore. People can bring their tech startup ideas to Plan 9, and if approved, be furnished with space, tech support, mentors and other forms of assistance to get their plans off the ground.
There, I met Abdul Moeed, 27, and Affan Aziz, 26, a co-founder and graphic designer respectively behind Court Piece, a Facebook app based on a popular card game that currently boasts 10,000 registered players.
"It's been great. Here, they give you the access not only to the local market, but also the outside world," said Moeed.
He said he and his associates are aiming to branch out into more mobile applications and interactive games, but are challenged by the fact that Pakistan has yet to install a 3G or 4G telecommunications network.
"It's a really big necessity," Moeed said.
In another office space, I met Bilal Hanif, 22, who is working for a startup called Appography.
"We are an organization inspired by the smartphone revolution and how it is changing the world," its Facebook profile says.
Hanif said Plan 9 is "the best thing that's happened" for him. "It's really my dream coming true," he said.
He said having more initiatives like Plan 9 can help empower and train young people to fill workforce gaps in the countries industries and help restore the economy's GDP.
Asked why he chooses to stay in Pakistan, knowing that there are other more populated tech hubs he could latch onto in other parts of the world, Hanif said, "It's patriotism."
"I think there are a lot of young people here that actually want to come back and take this country to a level they want to be proud of," he said.
With people like him and his Plan 9 colleagues, the Malala Yousafzais, Aziz Sohails and Adnan Rashids of the country leading the way, I too have hope that these young leaders might achieve the Pakistan they wish to have in their lifetimes.