Mariya Ilyas ’13 Reflects on Summer in Pakistan

With a Bowdoin Orient as an example, Mariya Ilyas ’13 helps students in Pakistan start a high school newspaper.

Having received a Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace award coordinated through Bowdoin Career Planning, Mariya Ilyas ’13 spent the summer in her native Pakistan, starting a high school newspaper at Al-Imtiaz Academy, a secondary school for working-class families in Abbottabad.

Ilyas lived there until she was eight, long before it became known as the location where Osama bin Laden was killed. Ilyas reflects on the experience of being back in a land that has seen such turbulence and what introducing journalism to students meant to them, and to her.

Before May 1, 2011, the day news about Osama bin Laden’s death broke out, no one had heard of a place called Abbottabad. But for me, Abbottabad has always been a second home.

Despite my apprehensiveness of going back to a turbulent country, this summer I taught journalism at a high school in Abbottabad, my hometown now infamously known as ‘Osamabad.’ As a recipient of the Davis Projects for Peace Award, I had the honor of initiating a sustainable journalism program at the Al-Imtiaz Academy (AIA), a school I interned with the summer before.

Overall, my experience was wonderful. I learned as much as I taught, if not more. I am passionate about journalism and I am humbled for the opportunity to share its power with others. However, it was definitely challenging to teach journalism in a country where the freedom of the press is not constitutionally protected. A perfect example of this is the death of Saleem Shahzad, an investigative Pakistani journalist who was killed in his pursuit of the truth. Whereas I sought to inspire my students with the power of words, freedom of speech and the ideals of ethical journalism, I could not compete with the fact that journalism has become a deadly profession in Pakistan.

Despite learning about the risks associated journalism, my students—13 boys and 13 girls—enthusiastically completed the intense summer journalism program. They not only learned about journalism and how to practice, but also visited a radio station and the printing press of Dawn to see journalism in action. At the end of the program, the students produced their very first school newspaper, The Imtiazian. This student publication will continue at AIA annually.

My Davis Project for Peace reaffirms my strong belief that journalism has the power to transform the world for the better. By teaching Pakistani children journalism and helping them start a school newspaper, I learned that the potential to cultivate seeds for positive and peaceful change in the world lies not in the hands of our rulers, but in inspiring the young.

Outside the classroom, the experience of being in my birth country this time around, post-Osama, was daunting. Holding a blue passport and loaming around in a city where the most wanted terrorist was killed invited suspicious and unwelcoming looks from strangers. In fact, I was even accused of being a CIA spy. More than anything else, however, I found myself continually battling anti-American sentiments wherever I went. When I defended America, a place where I have spent majority of my life, my patriotism was questioned.

This summer further brought into perspective the cultural clash I always experience when I travel from America to Pakistan and vice versa. My dual identity is a continual paradox; I find myself defending my “Americanness” in Pakistan and my “Pakistani-ness” in America.

Interestingly enough, the feeling of not belonging to one particular place inspired me to pursue an independent study in sociology about dual identities and concept of ‘home’ for those living in the diaspora.

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