Arriving in Dubai Airport in the small hours of the morning I knew that I had entered a different environment, the very different world of the Middle East. This was particularly brought home to me when I boarded the connecting flight to Karachi. I was probably one of the very few Westerners on board. The plane was full of Pakistanis returning to Pakistan. The majority of the women were dressed in their long black cloaks with their faces fully covered. I was glad to have been met at Karachi Airport by Louie Ybanez, a young Columban from the Philippines who was studying the official language Urdu. It took me a few days to adjust to the surroundings. It is difficult to explain how the pace of life is so different to Ireland. Near the Columban Apartment there is a local market which sells all kinds of everything. It is teeming with people particularly in the evenings. Accompanied by Louie I had the opportunity to walk through the bazar and engage with the various vendors, particularly the fruit vendors. The fruit stalls were a blaze of colour with a wide selection of various fruits. There is nothing leisurely about the experience as one needed eyes at the back of one’s head to deftly avoid all sorts of traffic. Motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles, cars, donkey drawn carts come from every direction but there is something very exciting about the whole experience. I have always found it very refreshing engaging with the vendors who were always very eager to make a sale and yet were also interested in having a conversation. The experience had not changed all that much from the time when I was stationed in Lahore many years before. Onlookers would gather around in small groups trying to figure out what was going on and what were we talking about. People were always very gracious and friendly. There is a lovely custom in Pakistan when one greets each other the recipient places the greeting on his heart. At the centre of the bazar a very common sight is the number of sheep and goats foraging for food in rubbish strewn areas, where a lot of plastic is still to be seen.
Life is harsh for so many people
It is estimated that the population of Karachi is over sixteen million people, and some say that it is close to 20 million. It is a city teeming with life and huge traffic congestions. There is very little order. The country still suffers from serious economic, social, political, cultural divisions and inequalities that are still in need of healing. Life is tough and rough for so many, especially the poor. The Christian community who are a very small minority feel discriminated against as do other minorities. Right behind the Columban Apartment is the Lyari highway and river. One could hardly describe it as a river. During my time there it was almost completely dried up and one could describe it as a raw sewer. One evening I took a walk with my fellow Columban Dan O’Connor to the squatter area. It is hard to imagine how people can live there with absolutely no facilities. This is not only true of this particular area but it is multiplied in so many other cities and big towns not only in Pakistan but world-wide. The people who live in this place are mostly from Afghanistan. Amazingly they were very keen to engage in a conversation with us. They eke out a living by collecting paper and cardboard. They, including the very young, carry heavy sacks on their backs and then sort out the stuff and sell it. Their ability to smile, in such adversity is truly amazing. A number said that they would like to return home and fight with the Taliban. I came away from the area saddened but truly humbled. One has to admire their patience and resilience.
During my stay in Pakistan, I had the opportunity to visit a number of Christian villages. One such village, not far from the centre of Mirpurkhas, where I was staying with Columban Tomas King is Waheed Goth. I accompanied Fr Jose, a Spiritan priest from Madagascar and the catechist for the celebration of the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday. The Christian community who live here work in the brick kilns. They are one of the most exploited groups in Pakistan. They work in very unhygienic conditions breathing in the very fine dust from the kilns. Many of the children do not have the opportunity to attend school and this, sadly, is the pattern for all who work in the kilns all over Pakistan. Because of the terrible working conditions, the dust and working for the most part under the heat of the sun, many become ill. Illness places a huge burden on them as they cannot afford to buy medicines. They end up in a vicious cycle of debt to the brick kiln owner. Sadly, they become his property. Ash Wednesday is a very important day for the Christian communities. Many gathered in the little courtyard of the house for the celebration of the Eucharist and to be blessed with ashes. As they squatted on a mat it was very evident to see the impact of their hard work on their weather-beaten faces. Many of them would not be able to read or write and yet they fully participated in the liturgy and in the singing. I am truly amazed at their ability to smile in such difficult conditions. Attending the Mass on Ash Wednesday in such humble but natural surroundings with a carabao in one corner evoked for me many memories of my years in the Punjab. I particularly remembered the late Tommy O’Hanlon from Tarbert and Columban Lay Missionary Gloria Canama from the Philippines who did trojan work with the families of the brick kiln workers in Sheikhupura. Both left no stone unturned in raising awareness of their situation. Gloria worked with the women who very often were forgotten. Both Tommy and Gloria together with some of the leaders worked tirelessly on behalf of the workers and were to a degree successful in helping them to form a union. I well remember the night when bulldozers came to the village of Kuthluthi and bulldozed their homes which left the people homeless on a cold winter’s night. Tommy would have spent many hours accompanying people to the courts to fight for their rights. This at the time was a huge breakthrough as they had to be encouraged and empowered. Both blended their work with reflections on the Gospel and what Jesus stood for. While the situation of the brick kiln workers varies from place to place there have been some small breakthroughs. These are the people who can truly identify with the Calvary story.
Railway and Christian Colonies
Even though I was never stationed in the Sindh province during my years in Pakistan it was good for me, as I tried to grapple with the Archives, to have had the opportunity to visit some of the bastis (villages) in Mirpurkhas for liturgies and to meet people. It gave me a very good insight into the reality of their lives. The Christian communities live, for the most part on the periphery of the city. What struck me very forcibly was their resilience and deep faith. Those who live in Railway Colony are constantly threatened that their little homes will be demolished because they are allegedly too close to the railway tracks. A number of houses in other places have been demolished and this leaves them in a very vulnerable position. It takes great ingenuity to get to these places through never ending traffic which has very little respect for the pedestrian. Those who live in these colonies work for the most part as sweepers. I met one family who were more than gracious in their hospitality. They told me their story of being in debt to a moneylender. They will never be able to pay off the debt and this is the sad reality of their situation. There are many families in such situations. I met a number of the women who came to the grotto each day to pray. They were not only praying for their family members who were sick but also for a way out of their situation of debt. I vividly remember Ezra and her family who prepared tea for Tomas King and myself after the celebration of the Eucharist. Her young family were wonderful singers and greatly enriched the liturgy with their singing. Their grandfather was waiting for an operation in Karachi after having fallen and was in great pain. In their very humble home they took wonderful care of him. Ezra’s daughter Sabah with her little brother gave a wonderful rendition of one of my favourite hymns in Urdu, Tera kalam, ‘Your word O Lord is Life’ It brought back many memories of Sunday liturgies in Township in Lahore when the community would sing this hymn every Sunday with great feeling. Their journey of faith is to keep their hope alive in very difficult circumstances. They were a dignified family who did not ask for money but asked me to pray for them and especially for the family.
It is always a very humbling experience to visit people in their home environment. One other such occasion was my visit to Christian Colony with Tomas King for the Stations of the Cross and the celebration of the Eucharist during Lent. It took a lot of ingenuity on the part of Tomas to weave his way through narrow, dusty streets to get to the Chapel situated in a very narrow laneway. A lovely custom in Pakistan is that one takes off one’s shoes as one enters a sacred place. The people who attended were very well dressed and very friendly. I was a stranger but they made me most welcome. It was indeed lovely mingling and chatting with them after the celebration. They are a very simple people with a deep faith and community spirit. After the Eucharist we were invited to share a meal with a family who had prepared delicious food all beautifully arranged and laid out on a mat on the floor. Young and old sat around in great expectations. For many this would have been a real feast. Many of those present told me that they fasted during Lent and this was the breaking of the fast.
International Women’s Day 2020
I happened to be in Mirpurkhas for International Women’s Day. It takes great courage for the women to organise such events living in an Islamic and patriarchal society where the expected role of the woman is to remain in the house to look after the needs of the family. Even among some of the Christian leaders such events are to some extent frowned upon. It was very fitting that the homily during the Mass was delivered by a woman, one of the Sisters. There was an army presence in the hospital compound where the Mass was being celebrated. Their presence was to protect the community from any attacks by fundamentalist groups. There have been occasions in Pakistan where such attacks have taken place and where people have been killed. After the Mass over one hundred women holding banners marched in procession to the Joti Catechetical Centre for a day of talks on women’s rights, interspersed with drama, poetry, music and dancing. They knew they were in a safe place and such occasions do not often present themselves. It really was lovely to see them participate with such freedom of expression. Along the route of the march a number of onlookers were watching and wondering what was the event? As I walked behind the procession a motorcycle stopped in front of me. The pillion rider jumped off and approached me wondering what was going on. He wanted to know what country I was from. I got a little scared but he turned out to be a friendly Muslim who said that he had the greatest respect for the Prophet Jesus. I admired the courage and bravery of these women in a society that would like them to know that their place is in the family home. In the West, it can be difficult for us to understand the difficulties that they have to surmount. The day was an occasion for the women to give expression to the many issues they encounter on a daily basis. It was a pleasure to see them relax and chatting with each other. A very important part of the day is food and Tomas King and his staff prepared delicious rice for over 350 people. In the great scheme of things such an event might not be seen as particularly newsworthy but it did give an importance and dignity to the women.
Visits to Khipro
I had the opportunity to visit the Parish of Khipro on two occasions. It was in this parish where Elbert Balbastro, a Columban seminarian from the Philippines, did his pastoral experience a year ago under the direction of Franciscan Fr Pervaiz. On the way to Khipro with Tomas King one passed through some barren landscape interspersed with fields of wheat almost ripe for harvest. On the first visit I had the privilege of attending a Kolhi wedding solemnised by Tomas King. It was a very colourful occasion. I was also able to visit both the bridegroom’s and bride’s house which was a privilege. Both groom and bride looked very sad. Culturally this is people’s expectation. What really struck me were the number of rituals and symbols associated with a Kolhi wedding. Many people had gathered for the occasion all dressed in the beautiful and colourful dresses of the Kolhi people. On the second occasion we were accompanied by Vida Amor Hequilan, from the Philippines and currently the Columban Lay Missionary Coordinator. Fr Pervaiz accompanied us to visit the picturesque but remote village of Rar where I had visited the previous year. We had a quick tour of the village and experienced the very simple lifestyle of the people. Most families have their own little houses with little courtyards where one normally finds a buffalo in one corner and plenty of goats. The village is on a little hill with a wonderful panoramic view of rich agricultural land. Sadly, the people do not benefit as there was no irrigation. Life for the people is very tough and raw and yet they were so gracious in their welcome. We concluded our short visit by enjoying a cup of tea, Pakistan style. What greatly impressed me was that Fr Pervaiz was so very much at home with the people and knew every person by name. Our visit concluded with a visit to Nazareth Nagar where people gathered for a late-night liturgy. This was the village of Fr Matthew Girdhari, a Kolhi priest now assigned to the parish of Kunri.
Visiting Columbans and others
While the main purpose of my visit was to do research on the History Project of the Columban presence in Pakistan I did get the opportunity to visit the places where Columbans work as well as some family homes. I visited Tony Cavanagh and Dan O’Connor in the parish of Badin where a very successful TB Programme is in place. Dan is very close to the poor and nothing gives him more enjoyment than working with them, whether it is in building a school or a chapel or working with them in the fields. I also dropped in on Liam O’Callaghan at his simple residence in Hyderabad, the third largest city in Pakistan. Liam, together with his Co-worker, Danish, is very involved in the ministry of Justice and Peace and the integrity of Creation in addition to Interfaith dialogue. In Joti, I attended the tenth anniversary workshop celebrating Interfaith Harmony week. Both Liam and Danish gave a Powerpoint presentation of their work and the challenge of Interfaith harmony and the need to work together for peace. Around 40 people attended representing Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Visiting Joe Joyce, Louie Ybanez, Pat Visanti and Mona and Hazel, two Columban Lay Missionaries in Karachi was also an occasion to get a deeper sense of Columban Mission. I admire their dedication and enthusiasm in a very tense and vulnerable situation. Visiting the four Columban Sisters in Hyderabad was always a joyful occasion where I was always warmly welcomed and well nourished. The group of Columbans while numerically small are involved in a variety of ministries including Formation, Spiritual Direction, Retreat work, being Director of the Joti Catechetical Centre, outreach to the poor through a variety of ministries, outreach to the Parkari Kolhi people, health, education, interfaith dialogue and raising awareness on faith and justice issues, especially in the area of the environment. They plant seeds that one day will grow and bear fruit. It is a multi-cultural group from Fiji, Ireland, Korea, New Zealand and the Philippines.
Visit to Baji Miriam
My stay in Pakistan would not have been complete had I not visited Baji Miriam’s project in Malir on the outskirts of Karachi. Baji Miriam from Malta has spent over forty years in Pakistan in reaching out to the most vulnerable. I had become friends with her when I was stationed in Lahore many years ago. She certainly depends on the good will and generosity of people. She is lucky in that in Malir she has a spacious property which allows the very vulnerable male adults a certain freedom to move around. She would have brought many of these vulnerable men in from the villages and bastis. She is often referred to as the Mother Teresa of Karachi. Her commitment has taken its toll on her health. She shared her experience of having had a stroke and she thought that she was close to death. She has established a wonderful rapport with the 52 men in her care who depend on her. The people she cares for rarely have any family visits which is so sad. Pakistan will continue to need such dedicated and prophetic people like Miriam for many years to come. She certainly puts her trust in God’s providence.
I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit so many places over a period of six weeks before the onslaught of Coronavirus and the implementation of lockdown. I was treated with friendliness and kindness everywhere. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many of the members of the staff at Joti Catechetical Centre who invited me to their homes for a meal. I certainly came away very humbled by the experience. I am truly amazed at the resilience of the people, the vast majority of whom struggle to make ends meet. The number of Columbans is numerically small but they are making a difference in a very demanding and sometimes hostile situation. Do please continue to pray for them. They are very grateful for the generous support and encouragement they receive from their friends, Columban donors and readers of the Far East and Columban Mission. My visit was also an opportunity to give thanks to God for His abundant blessings to me over many years as a Columban Missionary.