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From Pagosa to Pakistan — fund-raiser set for July 13

In ways, the Gurais Valley in northeastern Pakistan resembles the Pagosa Springs area, sitting at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, with surrounding mountains at 13,000 and 14,000 feet.

The 40-mile-long Gurais (sometimes spelled Gurez) Valley is situated in the Pakistani state of Jammu and Kashmir, and is home to 30,000 people.

Where the valley differs from Pagosa Country the most, however, is that, while Wolf Creek Pass closes due to avalanches for a day at a time, the Gurais Valley is unreachable in winter due to heavy snows and landslides blocking the road.

The rural valley has no telephone, Internet or central electric system, and lacks medical facilities, physicians, and clinics for the residents.

For years, Pagosa Springs has been unusually connected to this valley, raising money to help the community in Pakistan obtain educational facilities and medical knowledge, in addition to providing relationships and increasing understanding between the cultures.

“According to Sister (Cities) International, we are the only such sister community relationship between Pakistan and the U.S.,” said David Smith, Pagosa’s contact with Pakistani Relief and the valley. “It’s a unique thing.”

Smith and his wife, Jean, began traveling to Pakistan in 1982, and, years later, met Mujtaba Imran, president of the aid organization Pakistan Relief, then began working with the organization to help the Gurais Valley.

In 2008, the Pagosa Springs Town Council proclaimed Pagosa Springs and Gurais Valley to be sister communities.

Children from Pagosa Springs, Arboles and Lumberton schools write letters to their counterparts in the valley, as do children from local church groups. The children also gather story books, crayons and pictures to send to the valley, while children in the valley send letters and drawings to Pagosa.

For Smith, the overall goal is simple. “We want to facilitate cultural understanding between Pakistan and the U.S.,” he said.

Money raised in Pagosa Country, mostly through yearly dinners, is filtered to efforts in the Gurais Valley via Pakistan Relief, a volunteer-based, nonprofit with a home in Islamabad.

Thus far, money raised in Pagosa Springs has helped to create two sewing centers and two computer centers, funded first aid training for over 460 residents (at a cost of about $15,000, money raised in Pagosa), and allowed 10 women to begin midwifery training.

While on a trip to Pakistan, Smith and his wife met with leaders of the Gurais Valley, who said their highest priority for work in the valley was health care, especially for pregnant women, Smith said.

The goals for 2010 are to provide an additional computer and sewing center (already completed), and to send the 10 women to an additional eight weeks of midwifery training, Smith said.

The sewing centers allow women in the community to learn and give them the skills to make clothes, which they can then use as barter goods, or sell. The second sewing center was set up in mid June, Smith said.

The computer centers afford valley residents more educational options, as the computers are loaded with World Interactive Network (WIN) software, which provide a complete high school curriculum, Smith said. Likewise, the second of the computer centers was established in June.

The 10 women who completed four weeks of midwifery training at Fatima Memorial Hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, last summer will complete an additional eight weeks of training in 2010, completing the 12-week midwifery course.

The first summer of training focused on prenatal care, while sessions this summer will focus on natal and postnatal care. It will cost an additional $15,000 for the women to complete their training.

In addition to the current midwifery training, Smith said they hope to increase the education among young women in order to prepare them for premedical and nursing schools to fill the void of female physicians to tend to female residents (a cultural norm).

“That’s our goal,” Smith said, “to improve high school education for kids there and, hopefully, we’ll get some girls to the level where they can then go on to nursing and medical school.”

On the way to providing additional opportunities to the residents of the Gurais Valley, Smith and others involved with the effort will continue raising the needed money to fund the efforts.

This year’s dinner, the third of its kind, will be held Tuesday, July 13, at the Parish Hall at 499 Lewis Street.

The doors open at 5:30 p.m., the traditional Pakistani dinner is served at 6, and the program about Pakistani culture begins at 7. Two hand-knotted Pakistani carpets will be available to bid on.

Pakistan Relief president Imran will be at the dinner to speak about the efforts in the Gurais Valley.

Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for ages 12 and under and are available at the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce, the Pagosa Lakes Recreation Center, Higher Grounds, Moonlight Books, or by calling Smith at 264-6647.