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Georgia teacher bringing students interfaith skills in Pakistan

POSTED: January 5, 2009 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Cheryl Burke, center, the dean of students at the Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan, is home for the holidays. Standing behind Cheryl Burke are her parents, Charles and Sharon Burke, at their home in Gainesville.

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Cheryl Burke is an engine for the vehicle of education. She’s fueled by love. And she’s on the road to a brighter future for Islamic and Western relations.

Burke is a former metro Atlanta elementary school teacher and is the daughter of Hall County residents Charles and Sharon Burke. Since 2004, she’s been living in Lahore, Pakistan, where she serves as a professor at Forman Christian College University. In August 2005, she became the university’s dean of students.

Burke, who taught elementary school for 17 years before she left for Pakistan, is able to leave the country of curried food and traffic jams to visit her family each year for a few weeks around Christmastime and in the summer.

In her capacity as dean, Burke oversees the school’s 4,200 students. In a region wrought with religious discord, Burke aims to bring Forman’s 700 Christian students and 3,500 Muslim students together in interfaith harmony.

Burke said although Christian missionaries founded Forman Christian College University in 1854, the present mission of the school is not to convert its Muslim students to Christianity. The school’s motto is “By love serve one another,” and aims to expose many of Forman’s privileged Muslim students to the way of life of their Christian peers.

She said in Pakistan, Christians are often considered second-class citizens, and are relegated to the sanitation jobs of the underclass. Yet it has been the Christian institutions of Pakistan that have not faltered throughout the nation’s long history of unstable governments.

“Our larger goal really is education. ... It is not our goal to convert them to Christianity,” Burke said. “It is our goal to have them interact with Christians and see they’re not stupid and dirty, which is what they’ve been taught.”

She said Christians in Pakistan have often been denied access to education. With enough schools to accommodate only 48 percent of school-aged Pakistani children, Christian children were often excluded, she said. One of the Forman school’s goals is to provide Christians with as many educational opportunities as possible.

With the support of Western churches, such as First Presbyterian Church of Gainesville, Burke and other educators from the United Kingdom and Ireland have been recruited to become administrators and professors at Forman.

Their immediate goal is to provide students with a Western-style education, one that is divided into two semesters, complete with mid-term and final exams. A Western education requires students to attend class, write term papers and choose their own classes — all aspects that are largely absent from most Pakistani universities.

The Western educators’ ultimate goal seems insurmountable: they aim to bridge the rift between the Islamic and Western worlds — one student at a time.

But it seems Forman Christian College University is a good place to start.

Burke said many of Pakistan’s most privileged and politically powerful families send their children to Forman. And in the classrooms of Forman, these future leaders of the tumultuous Islamic nation sit alongside underprivileged Christian students sent to the school on scholarships funded by Western churches.

Burke said at one point, one-third of the members of Pakistan’s government were Forman graduates, including former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who was voted out of office in February.

“So these kids grow up and will be running the country,” she said. “It’s very important to us that the influential kid sits in a class with someone who isn’t so influential, but has a lot to offer.”

She said along with challenging academic standards Westerners bring to the school, they also bring Pakistani students a new face of America. They bring a face that has a name, its own ideas and an ability to communicate the sentiment of the American people.

“Many (Pakistanis) believe strongly the U.S. went into Iraq to declare war on Islam — not a war on terror,” Burke said. “One of the things Americans over there want to do is to give them a new view of Americans. They don’t trust us right now. They don’t trust the West. But when I’m on campus, they are very gracious and very grateful.”

Despite the terrorist bombings that frequent northwest Pakistan near Afghanistan, Burke said she feels her city of Lahore, located in the middle of Pakistan near the Indian border, is a very calm and peaceful city. She said there are occasional demonstrations and bombings in Lahore, but local friends often steer her away from those areas.

Burke said she believes it is through education that the Muslim world will change. By providing the children and future leaders of Pakistan with a worldly view, she feels students can leave the university, initiate productive political communication with the Western world and start businesses in Pakistan to alleviate the country’s crippling unemployment rate.

“I believe as goes Pakistan, as goes the Muslim world,” Burke said. “... I really think 30 or 40 years from now we’re really going to reap the benefits of that. And if we don’t do it well now, I think we’re really going to pay the price later.”


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