Street Kids in Pakistan. Photo Credit: Amal Elahi, amale.tumblr
We almost didn’t make it to Pakistan this year. A week before booking tickets for my family, 10 militants attacked the Karachi Airport killing and wounding dozens of people. Such is the allure of my homeland and its infectious just-keep-going attitude that 2 months later we touched down in that same airport, apprehensive, but mostly excited to be back in the dusty, dry heat of Karachi, family reunions and epic feasts awaiting us.
Despite having a lovely time reconnecting with my family, my birth city and my culture, the airport attack did scupper efforts to visit Rahim Yar Khan where we deliver our kits. This was hugely disappointing and hopefully we will be able to go on my next visit in a few months.
The Acceptance of Loss
My first day in Karachi was an immediate lesson in the harsh reality of life for most Pakistanis. As we pulled into my parent’s driveway, I asked Moeen, the man who drove us, about his family – he had been so sweet with my older daughter – charming her instantly - that I thought he might already be a father despite his young age. He told me he was married and answered “no” when I asked him if he had children yet. I started to tease him about becoming a father soon, as is not uncustomary in a family oriented culture like Pakistan, when my mother interjected and said,“He lost his first child this morning – he was still born. His wife needed a c-section and they couldn’t get her to the hospital in time.” I stopped breathing as the weight of her revelation hit me, tears filling my eyes instantly. I apologized profusely to him and he, embarrassed at the exchange, nodded and looked away. I hadn’t been to Pakistan since starting Baby Hero and within minutes of my arrival I was confronted with the dire necessity of our work funding maternal and infant health. Not only had this gentle young man lost his baby in terrible and unfair circumstances, but it was such a common occurrence in his world that he came to work, going about his routine, despite the devastation and heartbreak he must have been feeling. I thought about him, his wife and his baby every day while I was there and often in the days since.
And Progress for…Some
Everywhere I looked in Pakistan, I saw women’s increasing influence. Most billboards advertising schools and universities had photos of women and girls studying on them. Female fashion designers are mega stars. Almost every news anchor in a country with a vibrant 24-hour news cycle was a woman, and in a country where Parliament is mandated to reserve 17.5% of its seats for women, seeing articulate, impassioned women ministers and senators speaking on TV was a regular, inspiring occurrence. Although progress is slow, things are definitely moving in the right direction, at least for middle and upper class women in the cities.
While there is hope that the gradual progress in the cities will eventually trickle down, the truth is that Pakistan is a country of tremendous inequality where the top 20% have significantly better quality of life (and much lower infant mortality) than the bottom 80%. The poorer and more rural parts of Pakistan, where Baby Hero donates the Neonatal Survival Kit, continue to be one of the most dangerous parts of the world in which to give birth or be born. High infant and maternal mortality statistics confirm the dark reality for most of the female population meaning immediate and constant intervention is needed to keep more mothers and babies alive.
A mother and her baby in Lahore. Photo Credit: Amal Elahi
Private Funds Bridge The Gap
While I wasn’t able to go to Rahim Yar Khan, I did visit our fantastic research partners at Aga Khan University Hospital. The doctors and support staff I met were incredible, intelligent professionals dedicated to saving the lives of mothers and babies in Pakistan. They carry on despite numerous obstacles from lack of funding to lack of supplies and yet their research studies have global impact. Aga Khan is an excellent facility, especially for a developing country, and the best hospital in Pakistan. To put how difficult their job is in perspective, their discharge weight for babies is around 3.5 lbs because they just don’t have the ability to house the large number of preemies born in the city for longer. Government health spending is just 1% of GDP, the third lowest in the world (to compare, the US is 8.3%), meaning private funds, such as ours, are crucial to the functioning of healthcare in Pakistan, especially for those of limited means.
Me with the AKU team behind the Neonatal Survival Kit study. (L-R) Dr. Ali Turab, Ishrat Abbas, Dr. Sajid Soofi and Dr. Shabina Ariff
A Prayer for Prosperity
When I am in Pakistan I am at my most grateful, acutely aware of my luck. My work with Baby Hero has only deepened that sense of gratitude - I was born to a mother who received prenatal care, gave birth to me in a hospital and had access to good nutrition and healthcare throughout my crucial early years, laying a positive foundation for my life. Everywhere I turned during my visit I saw reminders of the need for our work from the people I encountered to the funding gaps in healthcare.
Despite its many problems, I spent most of my visit enjoying Pakistan, a country I deeply love, and reveling in its many pleasures and joys as well as the progress it is making. I love that my children are kept constantly entertained by scores of doting uncles and aunts, that people drop by for a catch-up without giving notice, that the Karachi sea breeze magically makes a 90 degree evening pleasant and that every birthday, anniversary, graduation, promotion is treated as a true celebration, with a party, as it should be! As my husband says whenever he visits, Pakistan is almost the perfect place to live – just a few tweaks (mostly on the law and order side) and the vibrant, colorful culture, lively family atmosphere, natural beauty and delicious food would tempt many to move back there, speeding up its ascendancy to prosperity. We can only hope and pray that it may be so, and may be soon.
Colors of Sunday Bazaar in Karachi