Here I was, in a charter bus with 15 Pakistani young leaders, dancing to Punjabi music, while directing the Chinese bus driver where to go in the bustling streets of San Francisco. To most people, this situation would seem bizarre. However, these types of unique experiences are a typical part of my job at Meridian International Center. Although they are definitely different from the traditional diplomacy, people-to-people exchanges have the power to effect meaningful change. Most notably, these exchanges break down stereotypes to foster intercultural understanding.
For the 2015 Emerging Leaders of Pakistan program, Meridian worked on behalf of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and the U.S. Embassy Islamabad to bring a group of 15 emerging young leaders from Pakistan to the United States for a 3-week program to bolster U.S.-Pakistan relations and prepare the cohort for success in today’s global landscape through workshops and meetings with government officials, entrepreneurs, and activists. The fellows were selected based on their achievements in the fields of technology, human rights, water conservation, government, arts, and business in Pakistan. For all 15 participants, it was their first time in the United States.
I had the privilege of traveling with the group for parts of their program. In DC, they attended meetings at USAID, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council. They learned more about coalition-building through an interactive workshop. In San Francisco, they stepped foot into a synagogue and learned more about Judaism from a rabbi. They also met with Pakistani entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and visited Uber’s Headquarters. By providing the group a variety of trips and meetings, the program gave the fellows tools for expanding networks and building their organizations back home in Pakistan.
While the U.S. exchange itself ended a couple of months ago, I know that the fellows will continue making an impact wherever they go. They certainly have made an impact on me. Keeping with the spirit of the New Year and resolution making, here are some things I’d like to keep in mind for 2016:
- Be grateful for the little things in life; stop and enjoy the present.
In San Francisco, Fatima taught me the phrase, “Maza aa raha hai,” which means “I’m having a good time” in Urdu. Throughout the trip, she would check up on me and ask if I was enjoying myself (especially when I looked stressed trying to get the group from meeting to meeting!) I was fascinated by the group’s deep appreciation for life and passion for their respective causes; I knew it was their positive spirit that cultivated resilience to endure the challenges that came their way.
- Don’t be afraid to take risks for the greater good.
Rizwan and I were talking about his Christian faith and how his family lost everything after his village fell victim to extremist attacks. He told me this was the reason he became an advocate for interfaith dialogue; he wants to promote peace throughout his community in an effort to counter violence. After visiting the San Francisco synagogue, he expressed admiration for the religious freedom U.S. citizens enjoy. He remains confident that things can and will change in Pakistan and is dedicated to being part of that change.
- Remember that it only takes one person (you!) to make a difference.
On the last day of the program, Ali received a package at the front desk of the hotel in San Francisco. It turned out to be a special delivery from Brandon Stanton himself, the Founder of the popular blog Humans of New York. As the Editor-in-Chief of the Humans of Pakistan, a blog presenting a realistic and positive image of Pakistan through individual stories, Ali was thrilled to connect with Brandon. Since launching in 2014, Humans of Pakistan has gained traction both domestically and abroad. Ali started this online platform to showcase stories of Pakistan’s inhabitants, hoping to foster relationships by breaking down barriers and stereotypes.
Just from our short time together, these brilliant participants not only opened my eyes to the crucial role of the Pakistani youth in the global arena, but they also reinforced how both hope and understanding transcend all cultural and geographic barriers to unlock a world of possibilities and solutions to today’s problems. I really look forward to seeing what the fellows are up to in 2016!