When Danyal Rehman and Waqar Shams visited the United States for the first time with Global Ties Alabama, they expected to see women carrying $50,000 Hermes Birkin bags like Kim Kardashian. They thought they would eat Honey Boo Boo’s ketchup and spaghetti concoction known as “sketti.” The two Pakistani men only knew what they had learned on TV, and accurate reality TV—if there even is such a thing—wasn’t being broadcast in their country.
It wasn’t until Rehman and Shams joined the Global Ties Alabama program and met with mentors like Libby Parker, the principal at Holy Family Catholic School, that they realized how [thankfully] different the majority of citizens are from what they saw represented on TV.
“We were shocked at how family-oriented and kind everyone was,” Rehman said.
The two men were in the United States studying dropout intervention and economic development. Libby Parker has had a few years working in that field. The veteran educator with more than 25 years of experience had started the Hope Leadership Academy, a three-year program that works with at-risk students to keep them in school. When Global Ties Alabama needs someone to talk about keeping kids in school, Parker is their go-to speaker.
Rehman and Shams visited several locations, including Huntsville and Washington, D.C., to get ideas they could take back to Pakistan—a country still in the infancy of democracy and education reform. They were only supposed to meet with Parker for a few sessions, but the questions kept rolling in, and Parker kept setting up meetings. So, the men continued learning.
One of the things they loved about the United States was our patriotism. In Pakistan, tribal heritage comes first and state comes second.
“We’re all diverse, but we still have our cultural thing,” Libby Parker explained. “They ate with people who were of Indian descent. Waqar [Shams] visited with a Jewish rabbi. He wouldn’t have been able to do that in Pakistan.”
The two men also noted how Americans volunteer for different projects—something unheard of where they come from. Throughout their stay, they were able to work with several charities and nonprofits.
Parker showed the men around, mentored them on education best practices and even had her mother drive in from out of town to cook for them. That is when the men began to open up—over some good, home cooked food.
“It’s quite frightening that the only thing they see of our country is what is on the news and what they see on TV,” Parker said. “The Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo were representing our country…That shows a great need for this kind of exchange.”
Danyal Rehman and Waqar Shams returned to Pakistan with a much different image of Americans and a devotion to take back with them lessons of national pride and volunteerism.
While the men were in Huntsville, they nominated Parker to be part of a group that would participate in a reciprocal exchange program between the United States and Pakistan. She was vetted by the Department of State and headed to Pakistan this past summer to reunite with Rehman and Shams and study international relations.
Parker, along with four other delegates, went to Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore to visit with government officials, citizens and business owners. At one point, Parker was the keynote speaker at an international education conference alongside a scientist from South Asia and an education leader in Pakistan.
These experiences shaped the way Parker sees others now as she continues to work with students and delegates from other countries. She says it’s “putting a face with a race” in order to combat hatred and violence.
Throughout it all—working with the two men in the United States and then visiting Pakistan—it was in a poem by a Pakistani educator that best summed up her experiences:
I looked off at the distance, and I saw an animal, and I was frightened by this animal.
As the animal came closer, I saw that it was not an animal but a man.
As he came still closer, I realized it was not just a man, it was my brother.
Parker isn’t stopping anytime soon. Right now, she is getting ready to work with an educator from Venezuela who is coming to the United States. Venezuela is a socialist country.
Teaching people to recognize the similarities while respecting the differences is no easy task. The Community Journal would like to thank Global Ties Alabama for all the work they do to break down barriers we may have in our community.