Wednesday, April 22, 2009

pakistan concerns

Fiza Shah, center, in Orange County

By Guy McCarthy

GARDEN GROVE - When Fizah Shah helped found an international program to educate disadvantaged children - especially girls - in her native Pakistan, she knew she was starting into something that could take a lifetime.

But she is deeply troubled by recent news from her homeland, where the Taliban have reportedly gained more influence in the Swat Valley area of northwest Pakistan.

Educators and human rights advocates in Pakistan and Afghanistan have reported for years that the Taliban's hard-core, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam leaves little to no room for the rights of girls and women.

"The political situation in Pakistan is only deteriorating, especially in the north," Shah, 49, said in a recent interview in Orange County. She is concerned, she said, "Particularly because we promote education for girls. God knows what the future is. But it's bleak right now.

"That is why we must continue educating the children," Shah said. "It has to be done with pens and books, not guns."

In Washington today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pakistan's government has "abdicated" to the Taliban by allowing the group's leaders to impose strict Islamic law in the Swat Valley region.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan on May 6 and 7 in Washington.

In spite of recent reports from her homeland, Shah said she is encouraged by continuing support for her program, Developments in Literacy - in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

Developments in Literacy (DIL) was founded in 1997 by Pakistani ex-patriates here in Southern California and has since helped establish more than 200 schools in rural and urban areas of Pakistan, according to the group's Web site. In the United States, DIL has eleven chapters in cities including Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

Shah and her peers at Developments in Literacy are looking forward to a visit to the Southland next week by author, mountaineer and philanthropist Greg Mortenson - who climbed K2 in northeast Pakistan's Karakoram Range in 1993, and has since helped start more than 70 schools for girls and boys in rural regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 2007, Mortenson published a book about his experiences, "Three Cups of Tea." Mortenson is scheduled to appear Friday May 1 at two schools and two bookstores in Malibu. On Saturday May 2 he and his family are hosting a fundraiser at the Hilton Pasadena on South Los Robles Avenue.

Shah said she is encouraged that in spite of heightened security concerns, some climbers and travelers still venture far into remote areas of Pakistan to visit one of the world's most dramatic mountain ranges.

Each year, trekking operators work with government officials to try to ensure air and land tourism continue in the Karakoram when weather permits.

"This is one of the positive things," Shah said. "It is good to know that some people still want to visit."

Click here for more information about Developments in Literacy.

For more information about Mortenson and his schedule next week, click here.


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