What is the one thing common among a Christian Interfaith activist, a girl from Chitral working as part of a social enterprise, a Hazara activist from Quetta, a rock-climber business student from Mirpur AJK, a street theater activist from Lahore, a Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) graduate working for ‘Teach for Pakistan’ in Karachi, a slum child working for human rights, a radio journalist from FATA, a woman rights activist working at a shelter home in Lahore, a youth activist working for Drug-Free world in Northern Areas, a blogger advocating progressive thought in the Urdu reading community, a madrassa drop-out lawyer from Jhang working at LUMS, a micro-finance professional providing micro-loans to women in Azad Kashmir, a youth leadership trainer from Quetta and a doctor debunking conspiracy theories? Apparently, nothing. In reality, this diverse group was selected as the Emerging Leaders of Pakistan (ELP) by the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
From 250 applicants, almost all of them doing great work in their respective areas, 15 people were selected to visit the United States for 3 weeks, between 27th October and 17th November, 2012. The initiative named ELP was a pilot program to give youth ambassadors of Pakistan a chance to interact with community leaders and political leaders in the United States.
Pakistan is a country with a significant youth bulge, more than half of Pakistan’s population is under 35 years of age. There is tremendous potential for youth engagement and development in Pakistan, a fact not lost on development experts and agencies working in the country. The ELP initiative aimed at recognizing and supporting a group of youth involved in varied projects, with the goal of betterment and progress of the society.
It started in the month of April, 2012. Applications were sought for the program from Pakistanis between the ages of 18 and 30, who had never visited the U.S before and were fluent in English. The program was financed by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the U.S Embassy in Islamabad. Last date of Submission was 1st May, 2012. The shortlisted candidates were then interviewed via telephone/Skype and in person, over the course of a month. Final selection was revealed in the second week of July. Fellows were directed to apply for a U.S Visa and interviews for the Visa application were conducted. Out of 15 fellows, 9 got their visas at least one week before the final date for departure to the U.S. Three fellows (including myself) got the visa on the very last day. Detailed Instructions regarding the travel, luggage and weather conditions were passed on by Meridian International, the organization tasked with handling the logistics of our visit. A pre-departure briefing was held in Islamabad by staffers of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. We had a very candid discussion about our visit and what to expect when we reach the U.S. I was personally impressed by the ‘open-ness’ of the diplomats, a trait acutely lacking in Pakistan’s civil servants (who insist on keeping the British tradition of ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ alive and thriving).
We met each other for the first time at Islamabad’s International Airport (as some fellows couldn’t attend the briefing earlier that day due to travel schedule issues). We boarded Etihad Airway’s flight to Abu Dhabi and from there to JFK Airport in New York. The first flight took around 3 hours and the next spanned 14 hours.
It was a tough journey because of its longevity and the fact that we were travelling on the first day of Eid-ul-Azha. The upside of the long voyage was the ample opportunity to bond with other fellows and share life stories. Cabin crew and their service were impeccable, making our lives easier in surviving those 14 hours. It was a relief when we landed at the airport safely. The JFK airport wasn’t as ‘majestic’ as the name suggested (there was a certain bias too, as we were coming from Abu Dhabi Airport, which is a marvel). My heart sank in despair upon witnessing the endless queue at the airport for immigration. After 18 hours of travel, that was exactly the sort of thing I did not want to see, reminding me of the age-old adage, ‘worst possible things at worst possible times’. It took us another hour to get past immigration and to gather on the other side of the airport. A 45-minute bus ride later, we arrived at Park Central Hotel, which was to be our abode for the next week. We were received at the Hotel Lobby by Mr. Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, along with Ms. Huma Haque, assistant director at the same organization.
After introductions and a group photo, we went to the streets of New York and had dinner from a cart titled ‘The Halal Guys‘. Afterwards, some of us went to the super-famous ‘Times Square’ located 3 blocks down our street. Despite all the exhaustion and sleeplessness, it was a worthwhile trip to Times Square.
Our first day started with an introductory session with Mr Sean Callaghan and Ms Shikha Bhatnagar. We received information packages about our stay in New York and checks for per diem expenses.
Afterwards, we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and got a private tour of the Islamic Galleries. It was fascinating to watch Islamic historical treasures being showcased in a country not found in the good books of most Muslims. A lot of historical misconceptions created by indoctrination and revisionism were also cleared upon viewing the rich Islamic history artifacts. We were informed that it was one of the most visited parts of the Museum in the last year. We had plans for dinner at a South Indian Restaurant after the Museum visit but due to the incoming Hurricane ‘Sandy’, it was closed and we ended up having dinner at a driver restaurant.
We were forewarned about an impending Hurricane named Sandy in Islamabad and in New York, upon arrival. In a true Pakistani spirit, we didn’t think much of it, until the wolf actually arrived one day. The proposed dinner was the first casualty-it didn’t stop there. Our plans for the next 3 days were shelved and we were advised to stay in our hotels. We were lucky to be located in the upper part of Manhattan, where minimal damage took place apart from a crane dangling dangerously from a nearby building. We got ample opportunity to see firsthand the disaster management efforts being done on the local government level, state level and federal level. United States has a fairly decentralized federal government system with states having ample rights and federal government having minimum powers. Disaster-preparedness is key to handling any major disaster and that aspect was excellently handled by the government officials. Mayor Bloomberg, himself from an engineering background, rose to the occasion and kept inhabitants of the city well-informed of the dangers and rescue measures. The subway system was shut down, public parks were closed and roads where debris was falling were cordoned off. Even the best-laid plans are not foolproof and nature is a beast that can’t be tamed. Thus, more than 50 lives were lost due to the storm and the economic loss was in amount of billions of dollars. If, God Forbid, similar disaster had taken place in Pakistan, it is unimaginable as to how much its human and economic cost would have been.
To be continued….