SalemNews.com, Salem, MAJune 25, 2012
Ipswich Rotarian helps Pakistan, one school at a timeBY ALAN BURKE, STAFF WRITER
The Salem News
---- — IPSWICH — Pakistan is one of the hottest of world hot spots, often seen as a swirl of violence and hatred so forbidding that individuals, and even governments, are apt to throw up their hands and walk away.
So it’s surprising that one force willing to persist in the face of the conventional wisdom, to reach out, give aid and educate is Rotary.
Locally, it’s the Ipswich Rotary and Rachel Williams, 58, a one-woman ambassador of Pakistani relief. And she won’t hear all that talk about how dreadful the country is.
“They’re fabulous people,” she said. “It’s just a misunderstood place. They don’t hate us, they love us. I always tell them I’m an American, and they love that.”
Williams, a resident of Groveland, has been traveling to Pakistan since the early 1990s. At first, she had selfish reasons. She lived in Singapore. Her marriage had fallen apart, and she was making a living as a personal trainer. She had also developed a very expensive hobby — polo.
It’s a sport that had its beginnings in the regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, she said, and Pakistan remains the cheapest spot for indulging in an activity dependent on lots of well-nourished horses.
Pakistan grew to mean more than just polo for Williams after the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The largely Muslim nation was swiftly designated a vital American ally in the war to defeat al-Qaida.
By then, Williams had left Singapore, remarried again and settled on the North Shore, an area that the Seattle native judges “the most civilized in the world.” Still working as a personal trainer, she joined the Ipswich Rotary.
As the conflict in South Asia grew, Williams found she could put names and faces to the people being affected. Wanting somehow to help, she began raising money for Afghan refugees and Pakistani schools.
“I work on schools that are already there,” she said. “If you give them a boost, it will increase their capacity.”
Soon, she linked her efforts to Rotary’s international arm, which offered matching grants.
“Rotarians are people who work to make their communities better,” Williams said, “and their countries better and the world better. ... I come back from Pakistan and tell the story, and people donate.”
Moreover, her efforts get a further boost from the fact that Rotary and Rotarians are plentiful in Pakistan, as well. And they’re willing to help point the aid in the right direction.
Williams goes to Pakistan at least once a year. Most recently, she helped provide solar panels, computers, desks, fans, a drinking fountain and books to Dosti Badezai School #2, a formerly overcrowded school, with three rooms serving 300 girls.
In previous years, thanks to donations, a school was able to expand, creating a college. Elsewhere, a bus was purchased for girls traveling many miles to the schools.
Williams acknowledges the concerns in this country regarding Pakistan. Some there have made common cause with terrorists. It’s the country where American journalist Danny Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded, where the Mumbai massacre was launched, and where Osama bin Laden found years of sanctuary.
Williams notes that violent hate groups exist in many countries. Bin Laden may have found sanctuary, but that doesn’t prove official collusion. Fugitives have been known to go undiscovered for years even in America, she points out.
“To the poorest of the poor,” she said, “none of that matters.” The number of Pakistanis killed in the conflict with terrorists dwarfs the casualties in the West, she said. And the problems in Pakistan, she said, are enormously complex. Thus, her efforts to educate extend to America. “I want to do more to help people understand.”
The region Williams serves is in the north, among Pashtun people. On the fringe of the worrisome, mountainous tribal areas, her friends live on flat plains, good farmland where English is the second language.
“Where we are is not that dangerous,” she said. As a concession to local customs, she dresses as a traditional Pakistani woman when she travels.
The hospitality of the people delights her. “They fight over who I’m going to stay with. ... They would never put you in danger.” The most serious concern, she said, is outright lawlessness having nothing to do with religion or politics. Kidnapping for ransom is a minor industry in the country.
The bad news from Pakistan is belied by the hopes and aspirations of average Pakistanis, Williams said. Their dreams are not so very different from those of people everywhere. They want their children to prosper, thus they want them educated. Girls, too.
“People have always been saying that it’s getting worse,” she said. “You have to do what you can do. I learn so much from the resilience of the Pakistani people.”
Williams recalls being in Pakistan and hearing the terrifying roar of bombers overhead en route to battle the Taliban on the Afghan/Pakistan border. She watched the eyes of the people around her as the noise grew.
“They really should be afraid,” she said, “but they carry on.”
Staff reporter Alan Burke can be reached at 978-338-2524 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.