Saira, Pakistan and Washington

Saira is a senior President’s Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in biology and anthropology in Dedman College. She received a Richter Fellowship to travel to Peshawar, Pakistan, during winter break 2012 to research the health of Afghani refugee children. Then, during spring 2012, she will intern with the U.S. Department of State.

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The visit

Giggles filled the air in the bright, naturally lighted room. I put myself in their shoes and realized I’d be laughing, too, at what seemed to be ridiculous questions. I was visiting my first patient’s home, Tahira, to interview her and her family in a more familiar setting and observe their living conditions. Of course, most of my questions regarded diarrhea.

I had wanted to visit their home so that Nasreen, Tahira’s mother, would be more comfortable. I was hoping she would be able to go about her work, as I merely observed and asked questions about how and why she did things. I soon found out this would be impossible.

As I stepped into Nasreen’s home, I was surrounded by the 15 curious faces of sisters-in-law and daughters. Nasreen briefly showed me around her house before her eldest sister-in-law, Tehmina, took over. There was a clear hierarchy in the house, which consisted of the eldest female serving as the speaker of the household (among females, of course). All of questions I initially had prepared for Nasreen were now being directed to her sister-in-law.

As Nasreen moved in and out of the room, checking on her children and situating herself after a one-week stay at the hospital, Tehmina insisted we have chai. She proudly told us about the two fridges they had, one on rent and the other they owned. She explained the living situation and how each nuclear family had their own room. From the corner of my eye, I could see female neighbors peeping over their low-rise walls to see who had come to visit.

I walked around the house and started taking pictures, I soon learned that women and girls over the age of 11 didn’t want their pictures taken. Though I respected their wishes, it became a game to flash my camera out and watch everyone laugh and disperse out of the camera’s view. I would be surrounded on all sides by women and children one minute and confused wide-eyed children the next.

I watched as children took care of younger children, and a girl not older than 10 picked Tahira right out of Nasreen’s hands not two minutes after we walked in the door. I noticed that families raised each other here; an aunt was as likely to act as a child’s mother.

Nasreen’s husband had died not long ago, and she had no source of income. The extended family household made sure, however, that she and her family were taken care of. Though none of them lived in luxury, a contentment pervaded the atmosphere. Children laughed easily and mothers happily washed clothes and cooked in the background.

As we were leaving, Nasreen’s brother attempted to pay for our rickshaw back to the hospital. I was awed. People who barely had enough to feed themselves wanted to make their guests as welcome and comfortable as they could. The Patan hospitality was such that they would feed you before they fed their own. I was humbled. I had fallen in love with the Patan people.

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