This post is by Sardar Rohail Khan and is cross-posted at CARE’s website here.
An audio version of this blog is available here.
My friends say I can appear expressionless, even cold at times. It’s an occupational hazard of security training, where we learn not to show too much emotion on the job. But one glance from a small village girl, and I was lost. As her eyes pinned me, sparking fiercely with anxiety, I found myself wondering almost aloud: What are we doing here? How can any amount of humanitarian aid make a difference in this poor girl’s life?
As we respond to the Pakistan floods of 2011, it’s impossible not to reflect on the tireless efforts of my colleagues and our partners to aid survivors of the catastrophic flood which struck just last year. Like the mud when the waters receded, memories clog the hearts of those who are rebuilding their lives, and those who went to help. The second flood has now hit harder, like a terrible flashback.
When my boss called to say that I had to travel to south Punjab to support the field work, I had mixed feelings. I didn’t want to be away from my fiancée. I had no idea that nature was about to hit me with a different kind of flood, or that I wouldn’t be able to work or sleep until I responded to the emotions that came rushing in with it.
On the road, we passed lush green fields which every year produce the best mangoes in the world. After two hours of bumpy driving off the main highway, we reached a village that been devastated by the rains. It was scorching hot, 47 degrees. As I sweated outside a small one-room school building, watchful for security problems, I kept soaking myself with cold water from a tube well, to the amusement of kids playing nearby.
Inside, the makeshift classroom was crammed with children of all ages, and some adults curious about our team’s arrival. As I scanned the room, my eyes caught those of a small girl. She was staring at me, reciting her lessons while looking uneasily at the guests, intruders in her world. While she clenched a small book with her mouth, biting it, her brother sitting next to her would poke and tease her, over and over again — and she would not say a word, even though it was clearly testing her patience. With the permission of her parents standing nearby, I snapped a photo. She continued to stare, without speaking. She wore a ragged shalwar kameez, the local dress, and her hair was matted, but she would fix her veil often, with the dignity of a princess.
Her parents were Pakhtuns, but could speak some Urdu. When I commended them for educating their children, they laughed, and replied that they sent their children to “this place” to keep them out of the way When I asked why not let them stay and learn, to benefit the whole family, they said the girl would be married as soon as she turned 14. I persisted in my argument that both children needed education, as it would elevate them. They almost seemed convinced, but explained that they couldn’t go against local traditions. They had already given their word on the marriage to a family in a nearby village.
The gaze of the small girl pierced me, as I struggled with the realization that what little knowledge she might acquire through this program could only raise her hopes — for a life she would not be allowed to live. Education could give her the vision to bring her family out of poverty, but not without a whole new way of thinking in her village.
Sitting on the cement floor, clutching an English book she could not read, she seemed to plead with her eyes: “Help me find the courage and the strength that I need.” And while I ruminated on what we could and could not change in her world, this little girl changed mine. She had the power to change my life, simply by letting me peer for a moment into hers. Without speaking a word, she somehow helped me understand that I needed first to stop thinking I had all the answers. Instead, I would begin to ask myself bigger questions: “With my knowledge, my happiness, what can I share? How can I make a difference?”
Sardar Rohail Khan is a Security Operations Assistant for CARE Pakistan.