After the attack & devastation, Pakistani collegians impart hope

Baptist Press
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Posted: May 20, 2013 5:52 PM
LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) -- The Pakistani college students stepped gingerly through the pile of bricks, barely recognizing the church building. Its once-white walls were ashen from hours of burning and heat still radiated from glowing embers.

Sarah and Vijay Cheema* stood frozen, taking in the scene up and down the street, unsure what to do. All around them, people were hurting as they sat in front of their damaged homes, 180 in all in the mostly Christian-minority community.

Sarah's attention turned to a crying 4-year-old girl who said she hadn't eaten in two days. Her family's food and money burned with their home. Sarah immediately opened her backpack and shared her own snacks.

"My heart broke," Sarah said. "It's very painful to see so many hurting at once, especially the young ones who did not understand what had happened."

An angry mob descended on Joseph Colony in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 9, wreaking havoc after accusations that a Christian made a derogatory comment about Muhammad, an illegal act under to Pakistan's blasphemy law. While Muslims are frequently accused of blasphemy, members of Pakistan's small Christian community are especially vulnerable.

Sarah and Vijay Cheema, who are brother and sister, had watched news reports of angry crowds destroying sections of the small colony and, the next day, decided to take friends across town to offer help.

"I remember that like it was yesterday," Vijay recounted almost two months later. "Our lives changed that day. We knew that we had to help but we were just poor students. We wondered how God could use us if we had no money."

What the Forman Christian College students lacked in funds, however, they made up in energy and drive. They rallied a larger team of friends from the student body, around 18 in all, and put out collection boxes for clothes, money and food. The international relief organization Baptist Global Response, meanwhile, helped the students buy blankets, pillows, utensils and other supplies through resources provided by BGR's General Support Fund.

"We see this as an opportunity for BGR to enable local students to do what they had a heart to do. But it is more than providing aid to a hurting community," said Francis Horton, who with his wife Angie directs BGR work in Central and South Asia. "It's an investment in the future leaders of this country. It's an opportunity for these students to learn practical lessons about servanthood and look at the world beyond their own little circle."

The students' mentor at Forman Christian College was the one who matched BGR with the relief effort for Joseph Colony residents. She used the project as a way to challenge her students to think "long-term" by really finding out what people in the community needed. She encouraged them to focus on forming relationships and listening as the victims told their stories. Helping involved more than just meeting physical needs, she told them, but addressing emotional and spiritual needs as well.

The female students on the relief team quickly saw the emotional aspect of the horror. Noor Swati* said there was a great need for women to just sit and listen to other women. In Pakistan, customs hold that women not talk to men, Noor explained. Since most of the relief workers from agencies and government forces were men, the women were not receiving the emotional support they needed or items specific to women such as baby clothes, diapers and under garments.

Swati and Sarah sat for hours at a time, holding women and crying with them. Mother after mother recounted the trauma of losing everything in their homes, especially their daughters' dowries. Families spend years collecting the clothes, linens and money that make up the wedding tradition. They had no hope of ever replacing the dowry and were worried that their daughters now might never marry.

"I really wanted to help them. They were living on the street. Some of the women were eight months pregnant living like that," Swati said. "Our Bible says that we are to love each other and show compassion. We tried to do everything we could to help."

The student relief team has made 18 visits to the Joseph Colony community, four of which involved distributing aid. The other visits have been for follow-up and investing in lives. The students even celebrated Easter with the community in the newly refurbished church.

"When we started, we had no idea it would be this much work or so hard," Vijay said. But, he said, "We have learned a lot about being servants and to be tolerant. It is important to help everyone and not just a select few."

The college senior said tolerance was the hardest lesson of all. When the team distributed blankets, pillows and household items, crowds grew demanding. People pushed and shoved to get to the front for fear the supplies would run out. One Muslim man kept trying to "face off" with Vijay but the college student ignored him for fear of trouble or a fight. Finally, the man managed to cut Vijay off and looked him in the eye. Then, to the students' surprise, the man thanked them for being kind to everyone -- Christians and Muslims.

"Now that man and I are friends. I visit his family every time I go back," Vijay said with a smile. "Our project might be done but our relationships continue."

*Names changed. Susie Rain is an international correspondent for Baptist Global Response, on the Internet at www.gobgr.org.

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