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By Anisa Dhanani '00

Karachi -- a city of brightly colored lights, glittering buses, homeless children on every street corner, speedy rickshaws, unbelievable Pakistani cuisine and beaches full of decorative camels and horses. My name is Anisa Dhanani and this is the story of my experience in Pakistan.

I came to Pakistan in February for elective studies at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi. My goal was to gain real-world experience in the areas of international development and healthcare in developing countries. The faculty carefully designed my coursework around community-based medicine, urban and rural development, family planning and common health practices in a Third World country. The most beneficial aspect of the course was visiting the kachiabadis (commonly known as the slums). My first day at the CHC (community health clinic) was unforgettable. The staff had not prepared me for what I was going to see, and in retrospect I do not think they could have.

It was the CHC's National Immunization Day and the clinics were expecting twice as many babies as before. As I climbed out of the van, I was immediately told to cover my head. No matter how hard I tried, I failed to keep the scarf on my head for more than five seconds. I followed the doctors toward the clinic but it was difficult to see. The pathway was clouded by a swarm of flies and there was a wretched smell of waste. Once we reached the clinic, I took in a heap of air and tried to calm myself. At that moment I clearly understood that I was no longer at home and this was going to be my life for the next few months.

The rest of the day I saw children playing with trash, flies and even feces. Mothers would bring in children diagnosed with severe cases of malaria, typhoid and distended stomachs due to third-degree malnutrition. The clinic coordinator said that even five rupees (less than a penny) was too much for some people to spend on an immunization shot. That afternoon I saw a 2-year-old child die of malaria. He had a fever of 103 for four days and his mother was completely unaware of how severe his condition had become.

After my coursework, I was offered an internship in the patient business services department at the hospital. AKUH has an amazing layout, which consists mostly of an open campus, greenery-filled courtyards and glistening fountains. It is deemed one of the most prestigious hospitals in South Asia and considered a sanctuary to many. One night I was coming back late from work and I saw people sprawled out on the floor in the main courtyard. They were sleeping on the grounds and mice were scurrying around them. My friends at the hospital explained that most of these people are either too poor to come back and forth, live too far away or believe they have come to a safe haven.

My journey of new experiences continued when a group of friends and I were invited to someone's house to meet his new cat. I figured it was probably a tiny kitten and it would be nice to go to Defense (a very posh area of Karachi). Wrong! The next thing I knew a "baby" leopard was attacking me. I remember thinking I was a dead woman and my death certificate would read, "killed by a house cat."

These last few months I have been working for FOCUS, an international humanitarian assistance organization in Pakistan. FOCUS has played an integral role in providing aid for Afghan refugees during the past five years. Their efforts include providing food and shelter in transit centers, transitioning refugees into permanent housing and rehabilitating them into the communities. The transit centers are in fairly decent condition and located away from the inner city as a safety precaution. Refugees are housed in covered buildings and are provided with the basic necessities to survive. Health care and basic education are also provided by supporting institutions.

The conditions that the Afghan refugees used to live in and the hardships they have endured are unimaginable. I cannot comprehend what it is like to live in a country that has had political unrest for the last 20 years. After three months of working closely with the refugees, I still wonder how they survived.

One interview with an Afghan family sticks out clearly. This family and many other refugees had been hiding in the mountains for the past few years, hoping to stay safe from the Taliban. Their journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan cost them $13 (U.S). The husband mournfully explained that his family had everything a man could want and then it was all taken away. People's lives were destroyed and many were persecuted for belonging to other religious sects of Islam. Children as young as 5 are sent into land mines to find bombs and women of particular religious sects are slashed with an X on their chests in Afghanistan. After the interview, the couple offered us tea from "home" and insisted we stay and share their lunch ration. Their courage and spirit humbled me.

Then on Sept. 11, America was attacked by terrorists. The incidents at home came as a true shock in Pakistan. I was standing outside the mosque when I first heard about the World Trade Center being hit. The executive assistant from my office told me the news in complete hysteria; at that instant I felt myself become completely numb. I questioned whether the information was actually true. I could not fathom that America had been attacked. I ran for the nearest television and glued myself to the box for the next several hours. Tears ran down my face every time the news showed pictures of the attacked areas. I felt so helpless being so far away. My next instinct was to call home, with hopes that I might get on the next flight. But this became a hopeless effort; all the lines seemed to be blocked to that part of the world.

The next few days were very chaotic, especially at foreign-based organizations and those employing foreigners. The uncertainty of future events hovered like a thick fog. Everyone was so baffled by the series of attacks that it was too early to make a stance on the issue. Many sympathized with the U.S. and extended their condolences verbally.

All foreigners in nearby institutions were slowly asked to evacuate or take refuge in neighboring countries. I was taken out of the transit center and told not to wear American clothing or speak English. Most of my friends were evacuated within nine days of the incidents. The faculty of the American School (one of the best schools in Karachi) was evacuated, which also included the Canadian High Commissioner Warden for Pakistan. Consequently, a medical student friend of mine at the AKUH was asked to become the temporary Warden.

In the days following, things began to calm down and Karachi, for the most part, continued its everyday routine. There were a few displays of retaliation, but only one was of any serious nature.

The general sentiment of people initially was to support the U.S. in its endeavors to destroy terrorism. Pakistan is not a place filled with extremists. However, there is still a small group of people who feel Pakistan should not help the U.S. because it has left Pakistan "high and dry" one too many times. The fear is that history will repeat itself.

I have heard some say that America has finally had a taste of what others have experienced for many years; Americans have tampered in too many international affairs, and it is time they learned their place. There is also a small group who only want what is best for Pakistan, even if that means war. People are anxious to know what the U.S. will do for Pakistan in return for their support. The lifting of sanctions was perceived as very favorable. Yet, there is an unnerving hesitation about the U.S.'s intentions. The repercussions of helping the U.S. is a point of constant discussion.

Many people are very apathetic toward the Afghan refugees. If you ask how people feel toward Afghans, three out of four times you will get a look of disgust. They are considered by many as dirty, unmannered pilferers and highly disrespectful. The idea of more fleeing to Pakistan heightens the people's anger. A common man I spoke to said, "They (Afghan refugees) are depleting our country of its resources. There will be nothing left for us. It is their fault we are having to go to war." The growing abhorrence toward Afghan refugees is clear.

Yesterday, Oct. 8, was the first day of attacks on Afghanistan by the U.S. The next few days will be very critical for the fate of Afghanistan, Pakistan and their people. Streets around the embassies have been barricaded today and riots have slowly begun. The government is considering closing all American schools until further notice. The majority of the people are afraid of possible Taliban retaliation in Pakistan.

I, along with the rest of the world, am unaware of what the future holds. My time here has been wonderful and invaluable because of the people, the traditions, culture, food, nightlife...and everything that makes Pakistan what it is. And though I hope to leave by December, I know I will miss it.

Now each day here is spent wondering whether I am safe or if the ports will close. Always my thoughts are of my family, prayers and trying to keep faith. I feel that the best we can do is have faith.

Anisa Dhanani '00, from Euless, is of Pakistani descent. In a Nov. 5 update, she wrote: "People are more or less tired of the situation and ready for it to be over.I met two people from Kabul the other day, at the FOCUS UK Office, and they said most of the people have fled and the only Taliban left are those from other areas, meaning the locals have already left. Even the families of the Taliban have fled. None of the bombing is making a difference and they are more united than ever. These were their thoughts. They also said they are taking refuge in universities and community areas."