BATTAL, PAKISTAN — 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.
"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.)
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.
"The look on the medic's face, holding this child. It reminds people....," she says, fighting off an unexpected burst of tears. "Once you start to do this, you can't ignore the whole thing. You just want to be a part of it, even a small part."
Other Americans have come on their own, with no volunteer experience, only a wish to apply whatever skills they can in these hours of need. Wesley Olson, originally from Los Angeles, is something of an accidental volunteer. He was traveling around the world, and had applied for a visa to Pakistan the day before the quake struck.
"I decided if they gave me a visa, I'd go and volunteer," Mr. Olson says, adding that he'd never volunteered before. The visa eventually came through, and Olson has spent the last three weeks building shelters up in the mountain town of Surul, with a team including Pakistani doctors and volunteers from New Zealand, Australia, and India. He says he lives off his savings, paying when necessary for food and transportation. But it's all money well spent. "We're going around taking from these countries as tourists. And now it's time to give back in their hour of need."
Olson says that misconceptions were a common topic of conversation among his team. But like him, they've all come to think of Pakistan as a place they love. "All we hear about in the Western media is that Afghanistan is nearby, Al Qaeda is here. I don't want to say I had a negative concept, but I didn't know what to think." Now he lauds Pakistan as one of the highlights of his travels. "I've been to eight or nine countries by now - and by far the nicest people I've met have been here," he says.
It is an equation that seems to be working both ways, with Pakistani villagers saying their attitudes have also changed.
"There were some people, for political reasons, who had the wrong impression about Americans," says Ahmed Nawaz, a villager in Balakot. "But the people have seen you working with them in their hour of need and there is a great change in perception."
Some Americans, however, offer a more cautious view.
"I suspect this is a honeymoon period that may pass," says Dr. Luke Cutherell, the chief executive officer of Bach Christian Hospital in Qalandarabad, founded 50 years ago by a US missionary group. Dr. Cutherell, although American, was born in Pakistan, and has dedicated most of his life to working here. When the quake struck, he and other doctors, including eight Americans, went to 12-hour shifts, providing free treatment, medicine, and food for the patients.
Cutherell, who lost close friends in the earthquake, knows well that violent animosity toward Americans is limited to fringe groups in Pakistan. But those fringe elements also attacked a nearby Christian school for foreigners in 2002, killing six Pakistani employees. "It will take more than one period of goodwill to erase the deep animosity that some people have."
Burry hopes that efforts like hers can help erase that animosity one interaction at a time. "We always evaluate every program: Do we really want to send the next team?" She says the possibility to change perceptions on both sides alone would be worth it. "The more people who meet, the better it is," she says. "I want to come back in the winter."