Hands Across the Water
It’s no secret that relations are strained between the United States and Pakistan. The Wilmington Rotary Club and its Pakistani counterpart are working together to change that.
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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