Dawn News

What Pakistani Americans can do to help

Over the past five years, I’ve spoken at many fundraisers for non-profit organisations that address chronic and urgent human needs in Pakistan. These groups are supported by well-meaning and highly competent members of the Pakistani community in the United States, and I think very highly of all of them. That’s why I speak at their fundraisers and recommend them every chance I get, to Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike. I won’t name these groups here, but their names are familiar to many readers of Dawn, and anyone who wants to support them is free to do so, and should.

But I want to challenge the Pakistani-American community to do more. If, by doing so, I provoke some spirited debate and even annoy some people, so much the better. Some might ask how they could possibly do more; I know firsthand that, in the wake of two monsoon seasons’ severe flooding and everything else Pakistan has been through in recent years, there’s great “donor fatigue” around Pakistani America. But what I’m asking my Pakistani-American friends to do is not necessarily (or not only) more of what they already do, but something that’s equally important, albeit outside the comfort zone of a community that is socially and politically ill at ease in America, despite being materially very comfortable indeed. The only way any community commands respect in America is by tooting its own horn – even sometimes, when called for, making a nuisance of itself. This is what black Americans did in the successful and nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and Pakistani-Americans are no less American than black or white or any other Americans.

I think it’s important to speak candidly about the challenges and opportunities that face the Pakistani community in the United States, because its awkward and arm’s-length relationship with mainstream America directly affects what it’s able to accomplish for the people of Pakistan. Pakistani-Americans are in a position to achieve a lot more for both Pakistan and America, if only they would engage more assertively and systematically with mainstream American society. We can choose to feel frustrated about this, or we can see it as an opportunity to expand greatly the base of material and moral support for suffering Pakistanis in Pakistan.

The challenge – the task at hand – is to change the story that the American public hears about Pakistan. Two weeks ago in the US city of Indianapolis, I was on a panel that was asked to address the question “Is Pakistan a problem that needs to be solved?” The question is deliberately provocative, of course. The short version of my answer is: “No, Pakistan is a country of 180 million human beings who have immense and urgent needs.” The other panelist, fellow Dawn contributor Rafia Zakaria, spoke of the need to “change the narrative” about Pakistan: to tell stories to Americans that show Pakistanis – accurately – as victims: victims of terrorism, victims of natural disasters, victims of the normal range of human afflictions. Nobody wants to be seen as a victim, of course, but I think Rafia has a point. What we need to do is to humanise Pakistanis for Americans.

I’m convinced that we cannot and will not achieve that by trying to work through the dysfunctional and compromised mainstream media in the US. But there are other things that we can do. I’m doing some of those things with my two books that show the human side of Pakistan, with my blog, and with my public speaking. Last week I did something that, in partnership with allies in the Pakistani-American community, I’m preparing to start doing on a bigger scale: I gave away 300 sponsored copies of my book Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. I was the keynote speaker at a regional conference in Oklahoma City of NAFSA, the leading professional group for people who work with international students and study-abroad programs at American universities and colleges. In other words, people who are in a position to influence students, other educators, and local communities, in parts of America where fear and ignorance of Pakistan and of Muslims are greatest.

I don’t have space here to tell you much more, but suffice it to say that the educators I met in Oklahoma City were very grateful for the free book and for the gesture, and very receptive to hearing a different story about Pakistan than the one they and their students hear in the media. Several have already invited me to visit their campuses and speak to their students. I’ll be very happy to share more ideas and results in future writings, and in correspondence with anyone who contacts me.

I’m doing what I’m in a position to do, but we need a much more systematic initiative. We need to be talking about Pakistani society to American society – and we need to be doing it outside and beyond the usual official and media channels. We need to get away from the tedious and demoralising debates about what the Pakistani state and the American state should or will do, with or to each other. We need instead to go straight to the American people and enlist their sympathy and support for Pakistani people. We need to make it so that when Americans think about Pakistan, they think not about terrorists, but about children who need education and innocent adult civilians who need health care.

When Americans’ human interest in Pakistanis is piqued, they’ll begin telling themselves a different story about Pakistan – and they will, I believe, open not only their hearts but their wallets, to support NGOs that bring better health care and education to poor Pakistanis. That’s the best cure for Pakistani-American donor fatigue. But it’s not going to happen spontaneously, and we can’t make it happen by standing around complaining about each other or about the media. This is why I feel so strongly about the importance of the role Pakistani-Americans are in a position to play.


Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans and www.ethancasey.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (25) Closed

Nov 04, 2011 01:26pm
Nice thoughts. But I can relate my own personal experience of trying to do something good for Pakistan, as a Pakistani-American, who traveled to Pakistan, after many years in the US. I was moved by the suffering of ordinary people in Pakistan, poor schools, pathetic infrastructure, corruption, incompetence and mere indifference of govt' agencies who were directly responsible for these institution. Sad to say, that despite the willingness and ability to setup schools or help the poor and needy with my own money, I neither got any cooperation, or encouragement from any govt. agency, ministry, NGO or nor got any response to my communiques from the so-called 'Ambassador-at-Large' for Overseas Pakistanis, Mr. Nadeem Malik. In the end, I did what my other erstwhile compatriots from America had to do - got frustrated, wasted my time, energy and money, packed up, and moved back to the US, to retain my own sanity and health! With such a corrupt society and govt. little can be done by outsiders, Pakistanis overseas or otherwise. Hence the reluctance of many govt. to even give direct aid to Pakistan, when it is well know that most of it will be siphoned-off my corrupt officials, end up in Swiss accounts, and never reach the needy! Sad, but true. I put where my mouth is. Anyone with a difference experience, pray share your story, and enlighten the rest of us.
Tom Morrisey
Nov 04, 2011 03:12pm
Great article, Ethan. I hope I'm not being too presumptive to want to include myself in your initiative to try and enlighten non-Pakistani Americans about the real country.
Nov 04, 2011 07:20pm
Mahmood, a first hand and eye opening account of your attempts at helping Pakistani's at home. I wonder if Mr Casey has any solutions to what you ran into.
M. Malik
Nov 04, 2011 08:19pm
Sadly, I concur with you brother. I too was in a very benevolent mood after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, and personally mobolized a lot of my friends and family to open their hearts and wallets, and left the relative comfort and security (and a lucrative practice) in the US to help out the needy in Pakistan. To cut the long-story short, I learned a bitter lesson, and unfortunately, not only had to leave the place frustrated and angry and the inept system, but my good intentions, cost me some friends as well. I'm only glad to be alive and heatlhy and back home in the US. The whole experience, reinforced that old saying for me personally: "No good deed goes unpunished'. Enough said!
Nov 04, 2011 08:35pm
@ Mahmood, When the Earthquake struck in 2005, I was able to rally support from Local Canadians (Pakistani and Non) as well as Americans. Together we were able to raise over $900,000 in Cash in just 3 days, as well as over $5 Million Dollars in Brand new Blankets, Winterized Tents, and Medical Equipment. Not only did I get the support from Corporate America/Canada with help to Ship all the supplies, I also was aided by the Armed Forces of Canada and Pakistan. When the shipment I arranged went by Cargo Ship to Karachi it was picked up by every-day Pakistanis in Trucks, Vans, and Buses. Once arriving into Punjab it was all directed into Chaklala Air Base. At this point a Major General of the Pakistan Army was able to coordinate efforts into securing a place for our supplies and access for a team of doctors that flew from the US. They sent us a list of supplies, the N. American community answered and donated, we shipped, the Pakistanis Received. From the Air Base the supplies, on Schedule flew daily from Chaklala into the Northern Areas where it was handed off to waiting Doctors, Medi-Centres run by the Canadian Forces, and Volunteers. I was flown in after arriving into Pakistan and was able to see the well run, well managed relief efforts. As devastating as it was to see the suffering, it was great to see the sense of urgency in the effort and everyone working together. Furthermore my community members in Canada and the US, the "Leaders" of the Communities here in Chicago, Vancouver, LA, Toronto, Etc. were also raising funds for their Pakistan, to my surprise, none, and i mean NONE of the hundreds of thousands of Dollars they were "Raising" had been sent to Pakistan as of yet (6 Months into the disaster) when I pressed them to release the funds to the people who need it to run their operations to save lives, they refused. When pressed harder as to why, they simply said things like well we have so far raised $100,000 we want to wait until we raise $150,000 and then we will. Their goal, wasn't to HELP Pakistan. It was for Tax Receipts as well as Photo Opps. No one wanted to go online and submit a payment for quick transfer, they wanted recognition for "their" donations. That was not a Corrupt Pakistan, that was people here in N. America dropping the ball, the Pakistanis over "there" in Pakistan were doing a heck of a fine job helping themselves and their people. The problem has continued since 2005 - 2011 now almost 2012. You cannot just go to Pakistan and Decided to do something. You should communicate, plan, organize BEFORE heading over, much like I was able to accomplish by simple phone calls and constant communications. I didn't see anyone siphoning anything in Pakistan, There are problems, but not as widespread as you make it seem. Instead of packing my bags and giving up, i dug deeper, as did many fellow Pakistanis and Canadians, and Americans who never had stepped foot in Pakistan before. They didn't give up, and it wasn't even their country. Disasters are just that, unexpected and very devastating. One can never grasp the true realty of it unless you yourself lived through it. Be it New Orleans or Kashmir, when the HUMAN MIND sets forth to accomplish something, Nothing can stop it. Unity, Faith, Discipline. They aren't just and old Motto, they mean something.
Yawar Shah
Nov 04, 2011 09:08pm
Mahmood's story is shared by all of us, the real problem is the corrupt government and shameless politicians of Pakistan, some have even submitted fake degrees, just to perpetuate their rule and plunder the resources of the country. We must demand transparency and accountability to make sure it reaches the people of Pakistan, and not the Swiss banks accounts of corrupt politicians. The 180 million people of Pakistan deserve better, they want friendship with all for peace and prosperity.
Nov 04, 2011 09:14pm
Good article and apt for the challenges and times that Pakistan is facing. I am not a Pakistani. I have come across many non-resident Pakistanis who have a lot of zeal and enthusiasm to do something to alleviate the conditions back in Pakistan. The dampener on their spirit is the corruption and minimal support to their cause in Pakistan. Non-resident Pakistanis are learned and have the skills at effective project management, just donating money for causes will not suffice, you need to be consistently involved and get things done. You can make it succeed......but needs your time.
Imtiaz Faruqui
Nov 04, 2011 09:29pm
Most of the Pakistanis in USA send money to their needy relatives, friends ect , Edie Foundation is very active in New York, and other Zakat foundations. In my personal capacity do spread the word around to a lot of people , I am in show business and perform music for Doctors, Pharmacy and other Associations here throughout USA and during the process we get a chance to meet American Senaters ,congressman and other Govt. officals . Most people feel safer to send money to friends or relatives to further give to the needy I pesonally send to a Trust in Hyderabad named after a friend of mine Hussain Shah Trust and I also visit the place when I go there , they are doing a lot for the poor and needy.
Nov 04, 2011 09:34pm
Pakistan being undeveloped does not have machinery, departments, individuals , processes methods in place to accept outside help from individuals. There needs to be a department. Contacting the embassy is one option. May goodness have mercy on our country.
IAK, Pakistan
Nov 04, 2011 09:58pm
I think it is the lack of will, and in some cases lack of ownership, of the overseas Pakistanis because of which they are not contributing to the betterment of Pakistan. I believe it is the responsibility of the rich and secure Pakistanis to contribute heavily towards the progress of Pakistan. It is them who have secured guarantees of provision of food, shelter and future for themselves and their families to come out and facilitate a much-needed change in Pakistan. But alas, this elite group shunning its responsibility much to detriment to the future of Pakistan.
Rizwan Afridi
Nov 04, 2011 10:28pm
We can try to portray our country in a good light (as Indian Americans do), but all of our hard work evaporates in an instant, when the government is at fault. Not to mention the crazy fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists.
Nov 04, 2011 10:50pm
Americans and other westerners think of Pakistan as a problem. They forget to pay attention to what hardships ordinary Pakistanis are facing as a result of extremism and terrorism. They hate the condition their country is in and need help to get out of the condition instead of being punished.
Murtaza Jamal
Nov 04, 2011 10:52pm
The glass is half full Mr. Mahmood.
Murtaza Jamal
Nov 04, 2011 10:54pm
Mr. Tom Morrisey's note is positive, Mr. Mahmood's negative. There in lies the problem.
Murtaza Jamal
Nov 04, 2011 10:57pm
Thank you Mr. Morrisey for a positive sounding note.
Farrukh Hashmi
Nov 04, 2011 11:01pm
I know many who are doing whatever they can for poor and needy in Pakistan, they are providing financial, medical and emotional support to the flood victims and have been operating schools, dispensaries. I agree with the author that we have to use un-conventional methods and by pass the corrupt system in Pakistan to help the poor and needy populace. We have to work as one person at a time ... and I do believe in YES WE CAN. Good article Mr. Casey. Thank you.
Pervaiz Lodhie
Nov 04, 2011 11:38pm
Ethan, great article and thank you for all your efforts to help Pakistan. Pakistan is a very resource rich country and it does NOT need America or anyone else's sympathy. It has the potential to almost overnight get out of most of its problems if. This is a big IF. If America leaves Pakistan alone and stops using it like it has for the last several decades. Helping America as a sincere friend has cost Pakistan and its entire infrastructure billions of dollars. By my estimate over $100 billions and more. Then Pakistan is its own worst enemy by allowing continuously corrupt system to prevail year after year. Now we are seeing signs true Democracy taking root. We see Justice system strengthening from my own personal experience. I see very large young population taking charge of the economy. I am personally involved in many very large revolutionary programs on the ground in Pakistan. Just came from Badin flood areas distributing Solar LED Lanterns that will overnight bring socio-economic change in the lives of approximately 10,000 poor villagers. Then there is a serious problem with NGOs working in Pakistan and people like Mahmood, I agree with most of his comment. From most estimates there are almost 30 to 40,000 NGOs in Pakistan out of which less than 1 per cent or 300 or so are doing good work. This is a big problem that needs to be addressed before people invest in Pakistan.
Anwar Mahmood
Nov 04, 2011 11:47pm
Increase your remittance by 15 or 20 per cent every month and try to visit Pakistan and stay in cheap yet quality hotels. Spread good words about the country and I promise you that Pakistan have a very grand land and people. I just return to Canada after 11 weeks stay in Skardu, Islamabad, Murree, Lahore and northern parts. Hotel rooms in main stream Pakistani hotels of reasonable quality are still only 15 dollars a night (Mashraboom in Skardu, The Taj in Murree, Lahore Hotel and National hotel in Lahore e.g). Pakistan has an incomparable and the world's grandest display of nature. The Skardu area has 55 of the world's tallest peaks and the same area has the world's six largest glaciers. Pakistani people are extremely pretty with variegated skin of very fair to tan and gold and others with deer like lovely eyes.
Nov 05, 2011 01:55am
@Author: " The only way any community commands respect in America is by tooting its own horn – even sometimes, when called for, making a nuisance of itself. This is what black Americans did in the successful and nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and Pakistani-Americans are no less American than black or white or any other Americans". I have a couple of problems with the above statement: 1. You are somehow implying that advocacy by the Black Americans was somehow a " nuisance". That is a little presumptuous. 2. Any group of Americans that feels that their group is treated unfairly can advocate for their own rights. So Black AMericans advocating for Black Americans can only be compared with Pakistani Americans advocating for Pakistani Americans. Pakistani Americans advocating for Pakistan cannot be compared. 3. There is a known history of unfair treatment historically for Black Americans from slavery to not being allowed to vote to notbeing allowed to use common bathrooms. There is no evidence of any discrimination against Pakistani Americans in USA - or if there is please describe what that is. Even from that point of view the comparison is not meaningful.
Nasir Hafeez
Nov 05, 2011 02:02am
@Mahmood - Although I cannot deny the accuracy of a number of things stated in your response, the overall negativeness conveys that you had not managed your expectations when you travelled to Pakistan - not clear how long you were there. I had moved back to Pakistan in 1988 after 13 years in the US. However, I had mentally prepared myself to face the positive & negative situations as they arose. I ended up staying in Pakistan for almost eight years and enjoyed my stay there (that is not to say that I did not face challenges in adjusting to certain situations). The only other thing I would like to communicate are some positive contributions which people are making, and which will never be reported. An architect has set up a school of about 300 students in a remote village about 10 years ago. She runs it with complete transparency & is totally free. Another yound lady spends time in helping female inmates in jails around the country & does make a huge contribution. These are two personal acquaintance examples, but there are thousands of individuals who are contributing & making a difference because they did showed perseverance and did not allow themselves to be discouraged easily.
Nov 05, 2011 03:01am
As a Pakistani American who came here at the age of 5yrs; I have been in USA for most of my life and I think the author needs to do bit more research in terms of how the Pakistani-American reacts and helps fellows Pakistanis back home. There is a large very involved community of American Pakistanis who volunteer money, time and resources for numerous causes (literacy, children, flood victims, earthquakes) in Pakistan. I personally contribute quite a bit of money back home for children's schools and education efforts. None of my donations go to mosques. Every year, Mr. Imran Khan comes and tours USA for US Citizen donations for his hospital in Lahore. Most of these dinners raises around $10,000 in each city. Secondly, as a Pakistani American the way for me to help my fellow countrymen is through charitable giving. Politically I can't make a difference b/c I can't be involved by sitting here 9000 miles away. What most Pakistanis in USA do is donate money and alot of it to viable charities like Edhi Foundation, Red Cross which hopefully are making a social impact in the country. Political change is a grassroots efforts and Young Pakistanis in Pakistan should take charge of that movement with financial support from pakistanis all over the world.
Nov 05, 2011 03:25am
When I open the Washington Post or "Foreign Policy", or any number of respectable US publications, my attention is immediately drawn to Pakistani citizens of the United States reviling the country they have VOLUNTARILY adopted in the vilest terms. This cannot sit well with other Americans. I live in a university community where Egyptians, Pakistanis, and other Muslims have done well in every field, be it academia, medicine, or business, but NEVER fail to disparage and humiliate the society that bears them much goodwill and is responsible for their success. You may be sure that that society is not failing to take notice. Any mild suggestion by fellow South Asians/Asians, to engage in some soul-searching, is met by disproportionate bluster and angst. Over time, there will be the inevitable fall-out and loss of sympathy by the majority community that no amount of paid touts can overcome. Try to understand how you might react to foreign settlers who extract every type of benefit, including social welfare, from Pakistan, yet never cease to abuse it at every opportunity. Not just that, but publicly declare their desire to harm the country or wish to see ultimate harm befall it? Would you not call them namak harams and ask them to leave at some point? Or, declare them wajib-ul-qatl?
Nov 05, 2011 06:10am
Nice article, but the flip side is that, what has the Pakistani ruling elite has done for pakistan?. Looting, scaming, depriving, help themselves and their buddies/families, dividing public with communalistic politics and more looting.
Nov 05, 2011 06:56am
Actually I blame the society and basically people of Pakistan (living inside Pakistan) rather than govt. People living in Pakistan are extremely greedy,selfish and they just want free money to afford top luxuries of life.People earning Rs. 20,000 per month can have 2-4 under paid maids and I have seen such people beating maids to death. There is no law and order. Those who have money don't care about any law or taxes.T here is no value or care of human life in Pakistan. There is no tax system. The people dont want to change and just want over night miracles to happen. The Youth and the people are just wasting their time.
Sam Baidya
Nov 09, 2011 04:28am
Every naturalized Pakistani in a western nation needs absolute loyalty to their country of adoption and their faith must be in personal domain. They have their first obligation of the country adopted and loyalty to that state has to absolute. There is no obligation to do anything to Pakistan except personal obligations to family and legal charitable donations during flood or earthquake. If overseas Pakistanis cannot adopt this attitude,they donot deserve to be a citizen of the new country.