‘It’s much different than the media portrays’

Husband and wife team Dirk Boswell and Michelle Lee’s trip to Pakistan almost didn’t happen. Between the aggravating visa process and attacks by the Taliban in the southern part of the country, the 12-day visit seemed like a plan that might never materialize. However, at the last minute, after Boswell and Lee had been told at the Los Angeles consulate that it would take two to three months to get their visas, Michelle received an email from a contact in Pakistan that said their applications had been approved. “L.A. is where visas for Pakistan have to go through on the United States’ side, as we were almost getting ready to get on a plane and come home that morning when I got the email,” explained Michelle. “It was incredibly frustrating, but it all came together at the last minute.” Michelle and Dirk, both Rotarians, were part of a Friendship Exchange to Lahore, Pakistan to promote cultural understanding, cooperation and amicability between residents of different nations. A handful of other Rotarians from Canada and the U.S. also participated. Rotary International (also known as the Rotary Club) is an international service club whose stated purpose is to bring together business and professional leaders in order to provide humaniarian services, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world. Tasking care of their own Lahore is the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab and the second largest city in the country. It is the largest native Punjabi-populated city in the world and an important historical centre for the Punjabi people. With a rich history dating back over a millennium, Lahore is a main cultural centre of Punjab and Pakistan. One of the most densely populated cities in the world, Lahore remains an economic, political, transportation, entertainment, and educational hub. “It’s very similar to India,” Dirk said of their impressions of Pakistan. “Except there was hardly any trash in the streets! It was very clean. Like any developing country, they have a lot of charitable pro¬jects that benefit the poor. They do an admirable job of taking care of their own.” Pakistan is a sovereign country with a population exceeding 180 million people; it is the sixth most populous country in the world and located at the crossroads of the strategically important regions of South Asia, Central Asia and Western Asia. Pakistan is the second most populous Muslim-majority country and has the second largest Shi'a population in the world. After Islam, Hinduism and Christianity are the largest religions in Pakistan. Boswell, Lee, and their companions stayed with Pakistani families and toured various Rotary-funded projects, like schools, an orphanage, and various medical clinics. The group was also privy to local Rotarians efforts to aid Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign (for more information, go to www.endpolio.org). Working to eradicate polio “The Pakistani people, whether they are Rotarians or not, are working really hard to eradicate polio,” said Michelle, who is also the District Governor for Rotary District 5080, which includes Colville and Kettle Falls, among others. Worldwide, fewer than 240 polio cases were confirmed for all of 2012, an all-time low, down from 650 cases in 2011. Also in 2012, India – long considered an epicenter of the disease – was removed from the polio-endemic list after posting a full year with no new cases, leaving only Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan as countries where the wild poliovirus has never been stopped. Violence against polio vaccine volunteers has been a concern in Pakistan. In December, eight volunteers involved in a polio vaccination campaign were gunned down in a string of attacks in the southern port city of Karachi and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. In January, two members of a polio vaccination team were killed when their motorcycle hit a bomb in the restive Kurram tribal region of Pakistan. Despite these incidents, Boswell and Lee say they felt very safe and secure during their visit. “It’s much different (in Pakistan) than the media portrays,” Dirk said. “They definitely know what our perception of them in the United States is,” added Michelle. “They think we think they are fanatical, violence mongers, and that’s not who they are. It’s this group of fundamentalists who are hurting people and making the news for it. If you watched nothing but American news, you would think that right now our schools are the most unsafe place to be. At no time during our trip did we feel at risk. The people were very warm and receptive to us being there.”