Two Families Who Fled War-Torn Syria Face A New Challenge: Resettling In The U.S.

For 33-year-old Soha Hossam, it’s the small things — like watching her son and daughter squabble over an iPad — that reassure her that her family’s grueling, two-year long journey from war-torn Syria to the United States was worthwhile.

Soha lives with her family — Wesam, age 6; Mayesa, 3; and her husband, Hossam Alroustom Maen — in a dilapidated Jersey City walk-up apartment, where no two chairs match. According to data collected by the Church World Service (CWS), a federal government contractor that helps refugees resettle, they are four of just twenty Syrians who have been legally admitted for resettlement in New Jersey since June 2015 — more than a month before the world’s consciousness was suddenly and sharply turned to the heartrending refugee crisis that has seen thousands of Syrians flee their war-torn country for Europe.

“Wesam is autistic,” Soha said as she fiddles with her headscarf and keeps an eye on the children, who are absorbed in an episode of Koky Kids on TV. “The sounds from the incessant bombs and explosions used to make him very anxious.” The very building they lived in, in Homs — one of the focal points of a civil war between the government and armed rebels — was often attacked, she said.

Soha Hassam and her two children in their Jersey City apartment.  Purvi Thacker/BuzzFeed News

Soha Hassam and her two children in their Jersey City apartment. Purvi Thacker/BuzzFeed News

So in the summer of 2013, she and her husband — who worked as a laborer and owned a market in Homs — decided they would be better off, and safer, making a long and dangerous journey out of their home country to seek refuge elsewhere. They packed up their bags with a few basic clothing items and left. The only thing that survived the journey is a long black coat. It’s what Soha wears when she steps outdoors.

Nearly 4 million refugees registered with the United Nations have fled Syria since the outbreak of the war in 2011, according to the UNHCR. Soha’s family members are part of the 1,500 refugees that have been resettled into the U.S. since then — though the number will likely increase after President Obama on Thursday instructed the State Department to take in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees in the upcoming fiscal year. For the families that have managed to flee, the journey is not an easy one. And while Soha and other families who have resettled are grateful, they also have to encounter new struggles: rebuilding their lives in a completely new country while constantly worrying about family and friends they left behind.

Soha and Hossam and their children first boarded a two-hour bus to Ratain village in the north near Aleppo, crossed the desert between the Syrian-Jordan border at night with the help of a bedouin, and finally arrived at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which is currently home to nearly 80,000 people, according to UNHCR.

This black coat is the only article of clothing that survived the trip from Syria to the U.S.   Purvi Thacker/ BuzzFeed News

This black coat is the only article of clothing that survived the trip from Syria to the U.S. Purvi Thacker/ BuzzFeed News

“The camp was very crowded and there was no electricity or bathrooms,” said Soha. “The kids even fell sick because of the unclean water.” The conditions at the camp were detrimental to the children’s health – at one point, Jordanian forces fired tear gas into the camp to reportedly quell a protest over the living situation – triggered anxiety attacks in Wesam. The family cobbled together the funds to pay off a few locals who moved them to a house in Irbid, about an hour’s drive away.

They lived in Irbid for a year, until the Jordanian army caught Hossam working on a non-working visa. They ordered him and his family to either go back to the refugee camp with his family or return to Syria. Hossam and Soha boarded a bus to the UNHCR office, where their application for resettlement was approved due to Wesam’s medical condition. About two years later, they made it to the United States in June 2015 without even a pair of shoes from Syria.

________

Another Syrian family lives about a 10-minute drive from Soha and Hossam’s Jersey City apartment. This family — a father, his wife, and three children — arrived barely three weeks ago from Homs. They requested anonymity because, the father said, “my brothers are in Homs and if anyone sees our pictures, [the Assad regime] will torture them and kill them.” he said.

He calls out to his son to bring in a standing fan and begins describing in vivid detail the atrocities and reality of Homs, which he refers to as “the cradle of the revolution” against President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s security forces.

A mechanic back home, his family home was destroyed by a random missile, and most of his extended family was tortured, injured, or killed by barrel bombs, tanks, and rockets. “The government forces are the real deal and the real threat. Da’esh (ISIS) is simply a sitcom,” he said, adding that he knows of mosques blown up by the government during Ramadan prayers.

Another recently resettled family lives hear Soha’s, but they do not want to be identified because they still have loved ones in Homs.   Purvi Thacker/ BuzzFeed News

Another recently resettled family lives hear Soha’s, but they do not want to be identified because they still have loved ones in Homs. Purvi Thacker/ BuzzFeed News

The father remembers dates, names, and specific episodes that finally led him to pack two bags in June 2013 and bring his family through Alexandria in Egypt, then Italy, then to the U.S. At one point, he said, he saw neighbors and children from his street losing limbs and being buried alive in the rubble of their homes after 2012. “That’s when we realized we had to flee for the future of our children,” he said.

He recounts his journey to Egypt via Al-Waar in June 2013. Five of them were often given refuge in tiny rooms by locals until constantly moving from one neighborhood to another became a struggle. They made their way to Egypt and spent two years and three months there. He was finally told by UNHCR and the International Center of Migration that the family was being resettled to America. They were given passports and flight tickets to Italy. The father said his family was told, “If you like it, you like it, otherwise too bad, we are moving to the next family.” (Other families were being resettled in New Zealand and Sweden.) They arrived in Jersey City on Aug. 18, 2015.

______

Now safely in the U.S., both families have had to overhaul their lives. Language continues to be the biggest barrier — as all of them speak little or no English. CWS, which helps resettle refugees in the United States, helped them settle into their new homes by getting basic furniture and clothing, procuring an I-94 work permit, and getting food stamps and some money. The organization has also helped men from both families find work according to their skill set: Hossam works as a mover at a nearby warehouse and the other father has found work as a mechanic.

Their wives raise the children and work keeping the home together. “I wasn’t very happy the first week when we got here,” said Soha. “But things are getting better now.” She even enjoys going out and taking the children to a park on their block.

The children from the second family have enrolled in an English language learning school. Wesam still doesn’t have a school to go to — CWS is helping the family find a special needs school in the area. Both families’ social interaction is limited to the handful of other Syrians who have been resettled in New Jersey — just last week, they all toured New York city together — but once a week they make it a point to talk to their relatives in Homs.

Soha shows a photo of her nephew, who is still in Homs, Syria.  Purvi Thacker/ BuzzFeed News

Soha shows a photo of her nephew, who is still in Homs, Syria. Purvi Thacker/ BuzzFeed News

Whatsapp calls and messages are the easiest mode of communication, but conversations always end on a depressing note. Soha’s messages with her sister — who is still trapped with her children in the heavily barricaded Al- Waar neighborhood in Homs — are a reminder that home as they remember it does not exist anymore. “The government’s security forces are making them live like chickens in their own city,” said the second family’s father, emphasizing that those who haven’t been able to escape Homs by air or sea are like prisoners trapped in their own country.

The images earlier this month of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned on a Turkish beach while fleeing the war in Syria, shocked the world into awareness and, in some ways, action. But these families said they are well aware that there are many more children suffering the same fate. “We have lived through the war, so we understand the suffering,” said Soha.

The father of the second family said that up until the picture surfaced, the world had chosen to close its eyes. “We asked the international community for help six months after the conflict started. It’s been five years and they still haven’t done anything to help,” he said. He’s also cognizant of the ongoing refugee crisis and feels that the EU is definitely more accepting than the United States. But he is at a loss for words when asked about the Syrian people as a whole. “I don’t know what will change,” he said, shaking his head in despair.

Soha’s daughter Myesa, age 3, playing with a tablet.   Purvi Thacker/ BuzzFeed News

Soha’s daughter Myesa, age 3, playing with a tablet. Purvi Thacker/ BuzzFeed News

Despite being grateful for the safety of their families and for not having to ford the Mediterranean with smugglers — a route that claims lives every week — there is a looming sense of yearning from both families when asked if they would like to return to Syria.

“There is no human being who would not love to return to his homeland,” said the second father, remembering his group of friends and community who have been split up due to the war.

It’s not just the adults who seem to have left a piece of their heart back home. As soon as they hear the word Homs or Syria, the children scuffle to show off as many pictures of their ravaged hometown on their Samsung tablets. When asked about the one item they wished they had brought with them to America, the second family’s 11-year-old daughter answers without a second thought. “A Syrian flag. The free one.”


Fishermen of Pakistan and India: In enemy waters| The Express Tribune

When it comes to disputed territory between Pakistan and India, the buck does not stop at Kashmir and Siachen. Sir Creek, a 100 nautical mile strip of water between the state of Gujrat in India and the province of Sindh in Pakistan, has also kept the two countries at loggerheads for decades. In this tug-of-war for territorial control, which has failed to tilt favourably towards either side, it is a third party — the fishing community — that has ended up paying a huge price over the years. 

Hundreds of Pakistani and Indian fishermen who take to the sea in pursuit of a living, often find themselves in the midst of this ‘unchartered territory’, consciously or unconsciously. The result in both cases is the same — years of languishing in their neighbouring country’s jails with minimal respite from their own governments.

 

A fisherman weaves his fishing net at Ibrahim Hyderi, Karachi. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

The issue picked up momentum once again earlier this month, as on-ground tension between Pakistan and India escalated over the Kashmir issue. According to Manish Lodhari, secretary for the National Fish Workers Forum & Marine Fisheries Cooperative Society in Gujrat, India, 112 Indian fishermen and 18 boats were captured by Pakistan in the last 10-15 days while 21 Pakistani fishermen and two boats were seized by the Indian side. To understand this spillover effect, however, it is imperative to understand where the dispute originates from.

No man’s land

The dispute over Sir Creek can be traced back to 1908, when an argument broke out between the rulers of Kutch and Sindh over a pile of firewood lying on the banks of the creek that divided the two areas. The issue was settled at the time on the basis of a resolution that allowed Sindh ownership of the entire Sir Creek in exchange for foregoing its claim on Kori Creek.

At the time of Partition, Sindh became a part of Pakistan while Kutch remained with India, in compliance with the International Law of uti possidetis juris. The law states that decolonised sovereign states should have the same borders that their preceding dependent area had before independence. By virtue of this principle, Sir Creek automatically fell into the Pakistani domain, explains analyst Sultan M Hali in one of his writings on the subject.

It was not until the 1960s that the dispute came alive once again. India rejected the demarcation according to the map drawn out in line with the 1914 Resolution. Till date, it argues that the thalweg of Sir Creek is the actual boundary of the river in accordance with the Thalweg Doctrine international law, which states that river boundaries between two states may be divided by the mid-channel if the two states agree. Hali elaborates that if the principle is to be applied, Pakistan will end up losing a considerable area that has historically been a part of Sindh. Hence, Pakistan rejects the doctrine on the basis that it can only be applied to bodies of water that cannot be navigated. India, however, maintains that the creek is navigable during high tide and is used by fishing trawlers.

The area, due to its immense economic potential and oil and gas reserves, is important to both states, which have had several rounds of talks on the subject since then but failed to reach a consensus. In the meanwhile, fishermen from both countries continue to pay the price if they end up in this disputed area at the wrong time

Invisible boundaries

Sixteen-year-old Gul Hassan is one of the lucky ones. After spending 14 months in a prison in Bujh, India, he finally returned home along with his brother Sikander two years ago. Their fishing vessel, which had a nine-person crew, was fired at by the Indian security forces when it crossed into the Sir Creek area, 24 hours after setting off from Keti Bunder, a little outside of Karachi.

“We had one knife on the boat and we instantly threw it in the water. We knew it could get us in trouble,” shares Hassan while fidgeting nervously. His fear was valid since a majority of those who get caught in this area are often slapped with charges of terrorism or spying depending on the political atmosphere between the two countries at the time, explains Mustafa Gurgaze of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), who is leading the campaign to resolve the issue of detained fishermen.

“The state mechanism takes its cue from politicians and [the] media, and in times of tension, it becomes rigid and inflexible,” says author Aakar Patel. “It victimises the fishermen who are, on both sides, operating in waters that they have been fishing in untroubled for centuries.” As a result, an average sentence for cross-boundary issues that lasts between one to three years can turn into one that lasts as long as 15 to 18 years in some cases. Consequently, the right to bail for these prisoners is also non-existent since there is no one to vouch for them. “They covered our eyes and tied our hands. I had heard so many horror stories about this. I instantly knew what was going on,” Hassan elaborates.

All of them were captured and tossed into jail. It wasn’t until six months after their arrest, that they were identified by the Pakistani embassy. Hassan’s mother, Basra says she had no idea where her sons were during this time. “I just prayed to Allah to keep them safe, if they were alive,” she says. The lack of a mechanism for informing the prisoner’s respective country and family members is a major problem. Families are often left in a state of limbo unless someone who was serving time in the same prison comes back and informs them of their father, brother or son’s condition. If the jailers are kind, sometimes the families receive handwritten letters in Hindi or Gujrati. Things have improved slightly in the past few years due to the efforts of the media and human rights and advocacy organisations like PFF in Pakistan and National Fishworkers Forum for Indian Fishermen, International and Collective Support of Fishermen (ICSF) and Human rights law network in India. The judiciary in both the countries have also played a positive role and taken up the cases for these fishermen.

 

In some cases, handwritten letters in Urdu and Gujrati are sent back home by the imprisoned fishermen. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

Apart from the anxiety, families back home often go through very rough times once their breadwinners are put behind bars. “I try to remind myself that things were once comfortable when my husband was around,” says 35-year-old Laila, a mother of eight, whose husband Muhammad Mian has been in prison for the past two-and-a-half years. “It gives me energy to carry on until he returns and we are happy again.” The turn of events left Laila with little choice but to start working herself to provide for her children. Stories like these are echoed in every second household in Ibrahim Hyderi, home to a large community of fishermen in Karachi.

No turning back

Why is it then that fishermen venture into an area where the risks are high and return is not guaranteed? Gurgaze explains that since the area is a contested territory and movement is limited, the number and quality of fish found there is far superior to that found elsewhere. For example, if a fisherman spots a shoal of the soha fish — which sells at excellent rates in the market — he won’t miss that opportunity and follow it wherever it takes him. “These fishermen put their life’s savings into buying diesel (which can cost up to Rs50,000 to Rs80,000) and other supplies for their boats,” he says. “For them, landing a good catch and putting food on the table for their families is worth risking their life and safety for.”

The lack of clear boundaries or demarcation for the disputed territory adds to the difficulty of steering clear of the troubled area. “Fishermen know no boundaries. Their argument is that they are not violating any borders since they are not going into a country,” explains Gurgaze. Moreover, a lack of navigation mechanisms or GPS makes it even more difficult for these men to stay clear of troubled waters. However, the senior fishermen or navigators, also known as ‘nakhuda’, which literally translates to one who knows everything, have their own unique way of working the sea — they can look at the colour or temperature of the water and tell you what’s about to happen. Therefore, while in some instances fishermen are genuinely unaware of where they are treading, in others they knowingly take the risk, hoping they will get away with it.

Pawns in a bigger game?

According to the PFF, there are currently 241 Pakistani fishermen in Indian custody. The number also includes those who have been missing over the years. Conversely, there are more than 400 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails. The discrepancy in numbers is due to the bigger size of Indian boats and the crew they carry.

 

Gul Hassan, who was captured by Indian security forces two-and-a-half years ago has now given up fishing completely. He now works at a factory. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

Once fishermen are caught, their boats are also seized. In most cases, they are not returned, even after the fishermen are released, leaving them completely broke and helpless. “In the last 10 years, Pakistan has seized 818 Indian boats,” says Lodhari. More than 100 Pakistani boats are also in Indian custody at the moment. He adds that a single nao(boat) costs approximately INR5,000,000 (Rs9,000,000) and is a source of livelihood for more than 100 people.

Another complication arises at the time of prisoner release. When the foreign ministry of the country where they are jailed confirms it with their counterpart, there is often reluctance by their home countries to own up to them, out of fear of terrorist or negative links. Hence, a lot of them continue languishing in jails even long after their term is over. Those who die while serving their time are withheld from burial for long periods of time for the sake of identification and then eventually buried thousands of miles from home without it. Hassan, whose captain of the vessel died in custody from a heart attack, confirms that. “His body was not buried for 16 days. It had become bluish-black and smelled awful. It was so sad but we were helpless,” he says. There have also been incidents when fishermen who were released and left on the borders to find their way back home died on the way due to hunger or extreme weather.

Moving forward

According to Patel, a joint statement released by Pakistan and India in 2012 — which agreed on several issues such as immediate notification of arrests by either side, consular access to all persons within three months of arrests, release of prisoners within one month of completion of sentence and confirmation of their national status — was “an unexceptionable and progressive document.” “For its part, India should proceed on it and not impose conditionalities as it has recently, using the Pakistani High Commissioner’s [recent] meeting with Hurriyat leaders as an excuse,” he says.

 

Pictures of fishermen who have been in Indian custody over time. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

To resolve the Sir Creek dispute, the navies of both countries have also come up with innovative ideas such as declaring the area a free zone or leaving the Creek aside and demarcating the sea boundary. “But it is unlikely that the government of India can exercise the will to implement any of those ideas, given that any dispute with Pakistan is more about divisive domestic politics than the benefits of a longer-term bilateral settlement,” writes journalist Ejaz Haider in one of his columns on the issue.

The Pakistani government has also done little on home turf to safeguard the rights of its fishermen. Gurgaze proposes a registration system for fishermen whereby they are provided with identity cards by the government. These records will also create a database for security agencies to verify the identity of those they arrest, thereby reducing the probability of fishermen being tried against false charges. “The fishing community is not more than four million people. Devising a mechanism like this is not impossible but it requires political will,” he says. But like all other issues between Pakistan and India, such as trade, visa restrictions etcetera that are hanging by a thread, the issue of Sir Creek continues to be held hostage by politics as well.

Inside Pakistan's only fistula hospital| Al Jazeera English

As the world celebrates International Women's Day on March 8, thousands of women around the world continue to suffer from a medical condition that, left untreated, can cause social stigmatisation and life-threatening complications.

Between 4,000-5,000 women in Pakistan continue to fall victim to obstetric fistulas every year. They occur as a result of complications during labour, when the child's head gets stuck in the birth canal. This can lead to a tear in the delicate wall between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum. As a result, affected womenuncontrollably leak urine, blood or faeces. The condition often causes the woman to lose her child - and her dignity. Unskilled surgeons operating on women can also cause fistulas to form.

Obstetric fistulas were largely eradicated in the West decades ago - but continue to plague women in many impoverished parts of South Asia and Africa.

"Knowing that something you did has changed someone's life forever - nothing beats that feeling" - Dr Saboohi Mehdi, surgeon, fistula specialist

Despite the dire state of maternal health in Pakistan - where nearly 30,000 women lose their lives in pregnancy-related complications every year - expenditure on public health constitutes a mere 0.7 percent of gross domestic product, according to statistics from the World Bank. Accordingly, awareness of the disease is relatively low, and only about 30 surgeons in the entire country are equipped to treat such cases.

'Worse than death'

Fistulas are most common among women living in rural Pakistan, where childbirth is often assisted by unskilled midwives because health facilities are few and far between. The highest incidence of fistula cases occur in Pakistan's sparsely populated Balochistan province, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the country's northwest. 

"Living with this disease is worse than death," said Abida, a mother from the northwestern city of Peshawar who developed a fistula after the birth of her fifth child. Women living with fistula not only have to live with the unease of being perpetually wet - which can lead to infection and nerve damage - but are, in many cases, also ostracised from society.

"For the longest time, my mother-in-law did not allow me to touch my children. I did not pray for almost a year," she said. "There was this constant feeling of being dirty, being inferior." In some extreme cases, fistula patients are locked away in separate lodgings, not allowed to socialise or eat with others or believed to be possessed by the supernatural. Some husbands abandon their wives because of their condition.

Dr Saboohi Mehdi is one of Pakistan's few surgeons specialising in fistulas [Sarah Munir/Al Jazeera]

"There is such limited awareness about this disease. Usually, by the time patients come to us, they are so physically and mentally tormented that it breaks my heart," said Dr Saboohi Mehdi, a fistula surgeon who has treated countless women over the past four years. 

"The saddest part is that this condition is completely treatable. Most patients are denied treatment because those around them are clueless about the problem," she added. A simple surgical treatment, costing anywhere between $150 to $400, can usually repair a fistula.

Free treatment

Mehdi works at Koohi Goth hospital in Karachi, Pakistan's only primary healthcare facility that offers treatment for fistula. Set up by Dr Sher Shah Syed in 2005, the hospital spans 16 acres of his private land on the outskirts of Karachi, and has so far treated more than 10,000 women free of charge - thanks to private donations and funding from international aid organisations.

"It is a shame that we boast of our nuclear strength, but our women are still dying in labour," said Syed. "Fistula is a poor person's disease, and who cares about the poor in this country?" Since the disease primarily affects low-income families, many doctors are reluctant to enter this field.

"I went into labour in the middle of the night. But no ambulance would come to our area at that time due to fear of getting killed. By the time I made it to the hospital in the morning, my child had died and I had developed a fistula" - Aasia, fistula patient

The doctors working at the Koohi Goth hospital earn a monthly wage of just $300-$400, despite knowing that performing a single surgery could earn them more than twice that amount at a private hospital. But, Mehdi explained with a smile: "Knowing that something you did has changed someone's life forever - nothing beats that feeling."

Women from all over Pakistan flock to the Koohi Goth hospital in search of a miracle. Aasia, a resident of Balochistan's strife-ridden Washuk district, is one of them. "I went into labour in the middle of the night. But no ambulance would come to our area at that time due to fear of getting killed," she said. "By the time I made it to the hospital in the morning, my child had died and I had developed a fistula."

When Aasia and her husband heard of Syed and the hospital, they immediately set off for Karachi. Because her fistula was not detected early, she has had to undergo five surgeries, and hopes to return to her family after a successful sixth operation. 

Restoring self-esteem

Nearly every patient occupying the hospital's 200 beds have similarly heartbreaking tales. Along with medical treatment, the hospital also provides the women with rehabilitation services to help them become healthy, participating members of society. The patients are taught how to stitch, sew and embroider and are even given a sewing machine upon discharge. "These things help women value themselves and restores their sense of self-esteem," explained Mehdi. 

Along with curing fistula, Syed also emphasises prevention. For this, the hospital also runs a midwifery and state-of-the-art nursing school where young women are trained to provide quality healthcare and contribute to the family income. Syed has also trained teams from hospitals in other cities to treat fistula, though Koohi Goth remains the country's only specialist facility.

Despite Pakistan's deep maternal health problems, Mehdi is optimistic. "The rate of reporting of fistula cases has improved significantly in the past couple of years," she said. "Now, patients are seeking help a lot sooner. There has been a downward shift in the number of those patients who had been suffering for years."

Things are on the right track, Syed believes, but there's still a long way to go. "The dream is very simple. The only thing that is needed is political will," he said. But in a country like Pakistan, that may be a lot to ask for.

 

Pakistan through a foreign lens| The Express Tribune

Pakistan country went through a complete image makeover following the 9/11 attacks. It transformed from a relatively unknown country, with its biggest claim to fame being India’s neighbour, to an important player in the global community. The post 9/11 Pakistan is of immense consequence – it is a country that possesses nukes and is an ally in a war, fighting against extremist elements that are gaining momentum in its own backyard.

The shifting landscape has made the country a hot favourite for the international media, with the number of foreign correspondents coming to the country more than doubling in the past decade. According to the Press Information Department, the number of residing-journalists has risen from approximately 130 in 2001 to 250 in 2012 while the number of visiting journalists has risen from 30-40 to nearly 400 as of today. Along with sending reporters to the country, a number of foreign publications also hire local reporters to report news from Pakistan.

Stories from Pakistan also began to occupy a significant space in most international publications. For example, a search on The Guardian’swebsite for stories from/about Pakistan shows an increase from 1,191 stories in 2000 to 2,369 stories in 2012.

A closer look at the nature of the stories reveals that the largest number of stories about Pakistan appeared in the ‘World News’ section, featuring hard news events like terrorist attacks, political developments and international relations while the smallest number of stories appeared in the ‘Law’ section of various international newspapers. The ‘Travel’, ‘Lifestyle’, and other sections featuring soft-stories also contained disproportionately fewer stories.

While the coverage of sensitive issues by the foreign media has been applauded for being thorough, credible, and accurate, the range of stories has often been criticised for being too narrow and showing a skewed picture.

“The foreign media writes about issues that people want to read. Some of us might not like what they write, but what they write about the country is fairly realistic and accurate,” says journalist Najam Sethi.

According to Taha Siddiqui, an Islamabad-based journalist reporting for foreign news outlets, such stories are preferred by international editors and tend to get more coverage because they are relevant to the global audience. Given that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed ally in the war on terror, located next to Afghanistan, the country’s stability is a key concern for everyone.

“It’s not actually a bias towards certain stories, but the baggage that comes with the country’s reality,” elaborated Sethi.

Cyril Almeida, assistant editor at Dawn.com, feels that there is not much difference between stories from Pakistan that make headlines in the local media, versus those in the international media. However, he points out that in the case of international publications, not only are stories met with constraints of space and time, but are also competing with stories from across the world. Therefore, a story has to be truly “violent, newsworthy or uplifting” to actually make it to the news pages.

“We should be more concerned about the product [Pakistan], rather than its image. We should fix the product rather than obsess about its image,” he said.

In comparison, Almeida stated that a country like India gets much more coverage by virtue of its size, economic strength and tourist attractions, whereas in comparison there aren’t many feel-good stories to write about in Pakistan these days.

On the other hand, Press Trust of India correspondent Rezaul Hassan, feels that it is not a lack of reporting but certain trends that the international media tends to highlight. He cites the portrayal of fashion shows as a combat mechanism against terrorism in Pakistan as one of the examples of a story that most foreign organisations focused on a couple of years ago.

“But Pakistan is so much more. It is also a country transitioning towards a democratic rule. It is a country where the president has completed his tenure despite all odds. So many young people are determined to make something out of this country despite the problems with the economy and extremism and more needs to be written about all this,” he said.

National Public Radio host and author of “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi”, Steve Inskeep agrees that the international coverage of the country, while often very good, is too narrow. He states that nearly all of the stories revolve around bombers and the Taliban and the ISI. While those stories are vital, Pakistan has a lot more to offer.

“I do not think that a broader picture of Pakistan would always be more ‘positive’. There are many problems, and many kinds of violence, tremendous poverty, inequality and problems of sustainability and democratic survival. But the picture can be fuller, more interesting and truer,” he said.

However, for foreign reporters, looking for a ‘bigger and broader picture of the country’, and the tedious process of reporting required by such a ‘big picture’, can be particularly challenging due to language barriers, security concerns and complex political and social realities of the country.

While being on the ground is important for journalists, most of them rely on stringers, fixers and interpreters for access to stories in areas like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Additionally, stringers can also play an important role in gaining access to sources and help acquire a more accurate understanding of the country’s customs, language and history.

According to Richard Leiby, bureau chief for The Washington Post, the qualities intrinsic to a good stringer are being good-natured, flexible and well-connected.

“Sometimes even a driver can open a window into the local culture and influence a story,” says Inskeep. He narrates his experience of watching cricket over dinner with his driver’s family, which helped him understand the rules and the local fascination with the sport – which gave him a fresh angle from which to view the story.

Language barriers

Lack of knowledge of Urdu and other local languages can often create difficulties in communicating with sources. Stringers and translators can be particularly helpful in such situations.

According to Inskeep, the only solution was to ask questions, and keep asking them till you were clear about an issue.

“While some people seemed suspicious and did not say all they knew, others were delighted to share their stories. No matter where you are in the world, if you are willing to listen, you hear the most amazing things,” he said.

Hassan recalls how people initially assumed his Urdu/Hindi skills to be perfect, since he belonged to India. This was far from the truth back then. But now, he claims that he can speak these languages as well as the locals.

He describes his term in Pakistan as one of the most “fertile periods” of his professional life but the journey has not been equally satisfying in personal terms. Restrictions on travel frustrate him the most.

Being one of the only two Indian journalists working in Pakistan currently, he has often encountered great trouble while getting visa extensions.

“There are times when I have been without a visa for up to six months,” he said, adding that it was unfortunate that such hindrances existed on both sides of the border.

“We try and look for stories that are different from ‘the story’ that everyone else is writing about,” says Michele Leiby, also a correspondent for The Washington Post.

But that is not always easy given the restrictions on foreign correspondents when it comes to travelling freely outside Islamabad and Punjab. Huge amounts of paperwork is required for such travels, which consumes a lot of time, often at the cost of dropping a story.

While talking to the average Pakistani, or getting really close to a story might be challenging for foreign reporters due to security reasons and language barriers, access to important government, military and bureaucratic officials is often easier.

“Pakistani political leaders and officials are sensitive, I think, about the image their country presents to the world, so they tend not to totally ignore calls,” says Leiby.

Hassan, who has faced unusual difficulties in getting information from the government, shares a completely different opinion. “There are people who flatly refuse to talk to you, or even share the more harmless kind of information, simply because you are Indian,” he said.

Reporting for a foreign publication also allows for a certain level of freedom and fearlessness in stories – a rare luxury for local reporters. While local journalists might have better access, the deteriorating security situation for journalists in the country prevents them from actually covering those stories, elaborates Rob Crilly, the Pakistan correspondent for The Telegraph. He cites stories on Balochistan, blasphemy, religion and the workings of ISI as some of the dark corners upon which foreign reporters can tread relatively freely.

“We work here as if we were working in the United States. We are not under risk of being abducted, jailed or censored. The worst that can happen to us for doing these stories is that we will get kicked out,” says Leiby in agreement.

The threat to journalists in Pakistan applies more to local reporters rather than to us and I have immense respect for men and women here who continue to do their job despite such difficulties, added Mrs Leiby.

Covering Pakistan: the experience
“Spend two weeks in Pakistan: you are confused. Spend one year in Pakistan: you are more confused,” says Leiby, who has been in the country for the past one year along with his wife.

He added that the cultural adjustments would “blow your mind away”, if one did not have any previous experience of working in the Muslim world. For Leiby however, the adjustment was not so drastic due to his previous assignments in Gaza, Iraq and Egypt.

“My major perception adjustment was to the idea that everyone would hate me as an American. That is indeed far from the truth,” he explains how some of his pre-conceived myths were dispelled upon arrival.

There were exceptions like the time he stepped out to the nearby petrol station to get a few quotes for a story where someone inquired what branch of the Central Intelligence Agency he belonged to. When he responded, “No sir, I work for the Washington Post,” the man retorted: “Isn’t that the same thing?” Leiby recalls with a laugh. Such incidents however, are an exception rather than the norm, he added.

But the suspicion towards British reporters is lesser, which makes the job relatively easier for them, as compared to an American reporter or one from any other European country, says Crilly. Having worked here for the past two and a half years now, he recalls the transition as a “relatively easy one”.

“You can say a lot of bad things about the British Empire but one of the things it has done is give us a common language, a mutual love for cricket and a cup of tea. That has opened doors for me in many ways,” he said.

For an Indian journalist, covering Pakistan is “a dream job”, says Hassan who has been doing so for the past five years. For him the choice of working here was extremely straightforward as the country figures prominently in Indian politics and diplomacy and people back home love reading about it. However, there was much warning from fellow countrymen for these journalists before they came to Pakistan about the unstable security conditions and people from agencies following him around.

On their first night in Pakistan, Hassan and his wife returned to their hotel safely late at night. Despite all they had heard, the couple decided to go out and discover for themselves. “Such small things highlight the difference between perceptions and reality,” he said.

For Michele Leiby, the surprise came at the sight of armed men and the abundance of weapons everywhere.

“Initially, I was surprised to see even the guard outside a Nando’s (a foreign food chain) outlet holding a gun. But with time, you get used to these things,” she added with a smile.

Her husband recalls the first sound of gunshots he heard in the country, which were later discovered, to his amusement, to be part of a wedding celebration around the street corner.

A hospitable people

The warmth and generosity of the Pakistani people struck a chord with all foreign correspondents. “Wherever you go, there is a cup of tea, often accompanied by an invitation to lunch. The hospitality still overwhelms me,” says Crilly.

Michele Leiby also feels that she has learnt the true meaning of warmth and hospitality through the people in Pakistan. She fondly recalls a family in the refugee camps in Jalozai, who opened their hearts and homes to them despite having nothing aside from their tent, a cot, and a few pigeons.

Despite the warnings and potential bumps and dead ends, the ride for a foreign journalist reporting in Pakistan is an exhilarating one. “You come to Pakistan, it feels like you are driving at 80 miles/hr every day. When you go back home, you go back to driving at 20 miles/hr. It is such an incredible rush being here”, says Hassan.

 (WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM VAQAS ASGHAR, WAQAS NAEEM AND FARMAN ALI)