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The Pagosa-Gurais Connection
People-to-people cultural exchange continues
Friday, November 12, 2010

In July of 2008, Mayor Ross Aragon and the Pagosa Springs Town Council issued a proclamation that designated a remote valley in northern Pakistan as a “Pagosa Springs Sister Community.” The valley of Gurais, pronounced “grrr-AZE,” was chosen as a sister community in part for the resemblance of their environment and climate to that of our own. The valley is cradled in the Himalaya mountains at an elevation of 7,500 feet and is home to several villages and 35,000 people. Like our own San Juan, the river Neelum flows through the Gurais valley a beautiful blue-green color, living up to its name that means “sapphire.”

Although the valley’s stunning beauty and high-altitude climate carry similarities to Pagosa Springs, the culture couldn’t be more different. The valley has no central power, which means no telephone, television, computers, or reliable ways of communication. To get messages out of the valley often means using handwritten letters given to couriers in four-wheel drive vehicles who deliver the messages to the nearest town over 15 hours away. Because of the steep terrain that has been carved out by the river Neelum which flows hundreds of feet deep in the bottom of ravines that line the narrow road, the valley is snowed in for six months out of the year. For those long, cold winter months, the valley is isolated from the rest of the world, and the culture of the people who inhabit Gurais has remained almost frozen in time.

When Pagosa Springs resident David Smith met Mujtaba Haider Imran in the Swat Valley of Pakistan in 2004, he began a relationship that would link two valleys, two countries, and two cultures in a bond that he hopes will magnify a vision of “peace, prosperity and pleasure.” Mujtaba, pronounced ‘MOOSH-tu-buh,’ has been a member of Pakistan Relief since the organization was founded in 2003 and he is now their president. The group is working on developing people to people interactions, rather than just monetary aid. “This is not just humanitarian aid to some deserving community,” Smith says of the association, “This is one community learning about another community.”

For their first collaboration, Smith and Mujtaba worked to raise money for a sewing center in the valley. Their idea was to offer not only a project for valley residents to use to pass the time during their long winters, but to provide a skill that the Gurais women could use to produce clothing for themselves and to use for bartering. With help from the non-profit Habitat for Humanity, Smith arranged for Mujtaba to visit Pagosa Springs to learn more about American culture. During the visit, the idea for a ‘Sister Community’ became a reality when Mayor Aragon issued an official proclamation. After raising $2,300 in donations, the team was able to purchase a dozen sewing machines and established a sewing center in Gurais by September of that same year. With no power in the valley, the machines are all hand-cranked, and with textiles that have been both purchased and donated, the women of the valley are now working together and teaching each other this new skill.

Because Smith, a chemistry professor, has visited Pakistan many times since 1982, he has picked up enough of the language to communicate with the locals, although he says many areas have their own dialects that he cannot understand. During his visit to Pakistan this past spring, Smith and his wife, Jean, had the opportunity to meet with 12 of the Gurais village elders to ask them first hand about the sewing project and find out what the people in the remote valley need for the future. The highest priority decided among the group of men was better healthcare for their women, followed by better education for the children. After deciding that the construction of a health clinic would be cost-prohibitive and too hard to maintain in the long-term, the panel determined that they would serve the community better by providing first aid and midwifery training to valley residents so they could help themselves in times of small emergencies or large disasters, such as the devastating earthquake that shook the region in October of 2005. Because of the lack of access to the remote Pakistani region, no aid was available to assist valley residents and the first aid skills that we take for granted here were, and still are, non-existent in Gurais.

Smith, Mujtaba and the village elders developed a two-phase plan for 2009. Phase 1 is to provide first aid training to 400 residents of the valley and find 10 women from the small community who are willing to travel away from their homes for professional midwifery training. Phase 2 is to provide the midwifery training to 10 women at a teaching hospital. The first group of Pakistan Relief volunteers has already arrived in Gurais and as of early July, they have trained over 170 people. In addition, what organizers thought would be a difficult task to recruit 10 women to leave their conservative Muslim villages to travel for several days to a large city for training has already been completed. 15 to 18 women are interested in the chance for training and have the blessing of their families to travel to Ismalabad for the opportunity.

With the current first aid training already in progress and the arrival of winter less than four months away, Smith is now working on gathering the funds to pay for the first aid equipment and midwifery training. The budget for the entire project is $15,000, and $2,000 has been raised thus far. To help with the rest of the financing, Smith is hosting a fund-raising dinner and presentation later this month. A flavorful and traditional Pakistani dinner will be prepared by Smith’s wife, Jean, and will include beef curry, chicken in yogurt sauce, Pakistani-style Basmati rice, Raita, which is cucumbers in sour cream and yogurt, and Kheer, rice pudding with cardamom, pistachios and raisins for dessert. This menu will have both spicy and non-spicy offerings for those with weak stomachs. Following the dinner, Smith will give a presentation and slide show on the Pakistan Relief effort in Gurais. Two hand-knotted Pakistani rugs were donated for the event and will be up for bid in a live auction facilitated by Bill Nobles, a local auctioneer who always brings fun and excitement to the crowd.

Smith emphasizes that in addition to providing humanitarian aid to people living half a world away in an area with striking geographical similarities to Pagosa Springs, the project includes many activities that help the residents of both communities understand one another better. Thus far, the United Methodist Sunday school class has sent pictures and notes to the children of Gurais, the non-denominational Unitarian Universalist Fellowship youth group donated proceeds from a raffle, and Pagosa Springs churches and individuals have donated two suitcases of children’s books, hand crafted dolls and sewing supplies. Financial support for this project will also give a tremendous boost to the volunteers in the Pakistan Relief organization who are young, enthusiastic and a part of the Pakistani culture. According to Smith, the people-to-people grass-roots approach of our Sister Community relationship is a way to reduce extremism and promote world peace.

“They think we’re bad, we think they’re bad,” Smith elaborates. He is often asked by skeptical Americans how he knows that the money sent to the organization is not helping to fund terrorists, and many Pakistani people are leery of accepting help from Americans. By establishing the sister community and interacting on such a one-on-one level, Smith and Mujtaba hope to spread the message that although we are half a world apart geographically, we can learn about each other as individual people and share cultures and ideas.

The fund-raiser and dinner that will feature 10 different Pakistani dishes will be held at Parish Hall on Lewis Street on Tuesday, July 21, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Dinner will be served at 6 p.m. and a presentation on Gurais as the sister to Pagosa Springs will commence at 7. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under and are available through the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center and Higher Grounds Coffee. Due to limited seating, and last year’s dinner being sold out, advance ticket purchase is encouraged. All are invited to attend this cultural event that will shed light on our sister community and offer a glimpse into the beauty of the Gurais valley that is so similar to our own.