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US volunteers find Pakistan more friendly than feared

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 23, 2005


Doctor Mary Burry has seen ethnic strife in Kosovo, war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But she still had apprehensions about volunteering in Pakistan, a country she often equated with terrorists and violence.

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"Like most Americans, I had the idea that this is a pretty dangerous place to be," she says, adding that she had never known any Pakistanis. What she discovered, however, is a country whose beauty and hospitality she is now reluctant to leave. "This totally changed my concept of Pakistan."

Her Pakistani colleagues, who have never known any Americans, candidly admit the same. "We had a feeling before that Americans are selfish and too proud," says a smiling Rezwana Ahsan, a doctor working with Mercy Corps, a relief organization. "But they are not so. They came here with an open mind and an open heart."

Their small tent among the rubble in Battal is hope that healing of a different kind is taking place in the earthquake zone. US volunteers throughout Pakistan say that, despite initial concerns, relief work has fostered a welcome forum of exchange with Pakistanis, helping to dispel misconceptions held on both sides.

No one knows exactly how many Americans are volunteering in the earthquake relief, since neither the US Embassy nor Pakistan's Foreign Ministry is keeping track. But their presence is widely felt throughout the affected areas, from tent hospitals like Dr. Burry's, to mountainside villages where volunteers are building shelters before the winter arrives.

These efforts are part of the larger outpouring of American aid that includes 1,200 US military personnel, $510 million in official US relief, as well as $22 million raised by charitable organizations and $35 million in cash and kind committed by the US corporate sector. (The international community increased its total aid pledge to $5.8 billion over the weekend.)

Only 23 percent of Pakistanis have favorable view of US

While Washington has been a longtime ally of Islamabad, Americans often hear more about the trouble spots in the relationship, including nuclear proliferation by Pakistani scientists and the possibility that top Al Qaeda members like Osama bin Laden may be hiding in Pakistan. For their part, many Pakistanis harbor grievances common in the Muslim world about US foreign policy. In spring of 2005, just 23 percent of Pakistanis expressed a favorable opinion of the US, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

Pakistani officials hope the goodwill wrought by the tragedy can bring the two nations closer together.

"This tragedy has helped on both sides because people in Pakistan have had some misconceptions, but they've been greatly touched by Americans," says Tasnim Aslam, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry. "And the Americans who have come here and worked side by side with Pakistanis, their attitude must have undergone a change as well."

For some, volunteering means working for no money; for others, it has meant going beyond the normal call of duty. What they share in common, after working alongside Pakistanis, is a newfound appreciation for a country they never knew and therefore deeply misunderstood. Many say they don't want to leave anytime soon; most hope to come back.

Many Americans here are seasoned volunteers sent by organized missions, as in the case of Burry, a neuroradiologist who came through North West Medical Teams and Mercy Corps, both based in Portland, Oregon. Burry decided long ago, after witnessing the ravages of famine in Somalia, that this would be her calling. A picture she once saw of a medic in Iraq reminds her why it is important.