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Changing perspectives: A trip to Pakistan

Local couple’s trip gives a new view of Pakistan, where daughter works to educate young Pakistanis

POSTED: April 11, 2010 12:30 a.m.
/For The Times

People walk by the Armicost Building, a new science building at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. It was built using United States Agency for International Development funds, named after Peter H. Armicost, current rector of the school.

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Cheryl Burke has been working in Pakistan for about six years, now serving as a professor and dean of students at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. For parents Charles and Sharon Burke of Gainesville, the benefits far outweigh the concerns of having their daughter serve in a volatile and far away country.

She's making a difference there, fostering tolerance between students of different backgrounds and helping to provide an education to Pakistani young people.

And what most Americans view as a dangerous country isn't quite so menacing as many think, the Burkes said.

After a six-week trip to Pakistan in January and February, the Burkes say they have a new perspective of what the Middle East country is like.

The Times sat down with the Burkes to hear their story.

Safety concerns

Sharon: I think the only time we felt a little unsafe was when we were on the roads. Their traffic is so unbelievable it's funny.

Cheryl's been over there almost six years, and we really feel that this is something that she was called to do by God and that she's going to be protected by God. She also takes precaution.

The campus is a very secure campus, and it's very peaceful.

I think we've accepted the fact that she's probably as safe there as she would be here, in downtown Atlanta, for example. I think that what she's doing and what she's accomplishing probably outweighs fears we may have for her.

Perceptions of violence

Charles: When Cheryl's here, there are people in Pakistan praying for her while she's here in the states because they watch Fox news or CNN and they see the things that happen at a mall in Minnesota and they see how many people were killed in Atlanta or New York or wherever, and they're very concerned.

It's kind of the same way here. What you hear about are the incidents - and they happen - but it's a city of 12 million people with a high population density. If something happens somewhere in the city, it's not necessarily impacting every one. It's obviously very much an impact for those who were injured and their families, and it does to some extent affect their attitudes. But it has happened so much that they, for the most part, just accept it. It's terrible, but they pretty much go on with their lives.

Sharon: It seems they're thinking is, if we live constantly in fear and don't do what we would normally do, then they bad guys have won. And I think we've seen a lot more bad guys among the Pakistani people from what we hear and the fact that we've got men over there fighting, but that's in a completely different area.

The suicide bombers, the local people do fear them, and they think they're crazy. Except, as they point out, if you live in the villages and don't have anything to eat, if the Taliban come in and open a school and provide food for your son, then you're going to send your son there.

It's still a third-world country, and the money is controlled by a few. There's also a lot of what we would call middle class and lower levels, but the problem is when they lose their job or if something happens to the provider, there's nothing to fall back on - they're in the streets begging.

So the important thing to them, for example, is educating their children. Once they're educated, and especially if they go to college, they can get jobs. Education is very important in that country.

Building tolerance

Charles: Out of about 4,000 students at Forman, only about 700 are Christians. Muslims send their students to the Christian school because they know it's a better education than some of the government schools. So many of these Muslims have only encountered Christians who worked for them, and so they considered them uneducated, and now they're in class with them and they found out they're not stupid. The Christians are seeing the Muslim students in a different way, too.

Sharon: What's happening at the college is that they're friends. It doesn't make a difference what religion they are. So you're seeing a whole different kind of relationship there, and this is happening through education. Their motto is ‘with love we serve,' and it doesn't make any difference who you are, that's the college's motto. They have very strong religious studies. All of the students are expected to go to Muslim and Christian classes. So they're getting a little broader opinion of what their fellow countrymen are like.

Charles: There's obviously violence against Christians in some cases. A lot of the violence, though, is between Sunni and Shiites. They each think the other is not true Islam.

A lot of the problems they have on campus is not so much between Muslim and Christian as it is between those from cities and those from villages because they come from such different cultural backgrounds.

Life in the villages

Charles: There are really very few ways to earn income in the villages. A few can teach, and that's a good income. And a few are involved in health-related fields because there may not be a doctor. In fact, a number of the young women at the college are trying to become doctors so they can then go back to the villages. Women cannot be treated by a man. So a woman who's having problems with pregnancy, she may not be able to get any assistance.

Sharon: One village had a tannery. Another had a brick-making factory. And that was the income for the villages. One person would own the land. The fabric sold in the cities comes in from the plants around Pakistan. Fabric production is one of the highest polluting industries; in one village, the people couldn't drink the water because of the pollution.

Warm hospitality

Sharon: The people just have a real sense of hospitality. And because of Cheryl it was almost unbelievable how they opened up their lives and their homes to us.

Everywhere we went it was considered an honor that we would come into their home, and we'd go for tea, we'd go for dinner, we went for breakfast a couple of times. I think the whole six weeks we probably had a half a dozen meals at Cheryl's house, and three or four of those were with students who brought in pizza or something to share with us. It just was like a whirlwind of hospitality.

They all expressed how important it was that an American would come to Pakistan.




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