I’ve been back from Pakistan a few weeks and I feel as though I’ve run a marathon I’ve been so busy since I’ve returned. I was invited to visit the country by USAID to work with women artisans on product development and getting them export ready as an international buyer for my fair trade business, World Shoppe.
While I was traveling for business, the trip was fraught with personal issues. The security concerns were very real and the security briefings before and during our trip did little to ease my concerns about being in Pakistan.
My mother was terribly concerned because she has been through a war herself. She knew first-hand the dangers visiting a conflict-zone presented. My husband, although concerned about my safety as well, knew this is just something I had to do and encouraged my trip. My 5-year-old daughter is used to seeing me travel and gone for a period of time but was happy to see me back. My 4-year-old son, who is also my youngest, took it the hardest, I think. Even now that I’ve been back a few weeks, he constantly asks where I’m going and when I’ll be back. It should be interesting to see how he reacts when he returns to school in the fall.
As I had promised my family, we connected regularly throughout the day with the aid of my Blackberry through email, phone calls and many text messages. Having that access was important for both me and them to know I was safe and missed them. I spoke with my kids on the phone so they could hear my voice daily. And, yes, I cried when I got off the phone with them because I missed them terribly and couldn’t wait to see them.
Safety Concerns for All of Us
I should note that we had abundant security from the moment I landed in Islamabad, then when I arrived in Karachi, and up until our security personnel dropped us off at the airport and made sure we walked through the security check-in point. While I never once felt unsafe, the fact that I had security with me at all times was troubling. It made me wonder why I needed that much security. And, to add to the pressure, I was concerned that my very presence made all of us a security risk to the very women we had come to Pakistan to see and work with. I did not enjoy feeling as though other people’s lives were in danger because I was there.
But I believe firmly that my visit will prove beneficial to the women artisans in the long run. While we were in Pakistan, we spent a lot of time discussing their designs, how they fit into the Western market in terms of design appeal and prices. We discussed the exporting process, what types of information they would need to provide to satisfy U.S. Customs requirements, and, just as importantly, what styles and price points would appeal to American women.
I brought along American consumer and trade magazines to share with them so they could see what is being shown in the U.S. right now. We discussed quality control and the need for good communication. As an importer of products from developing countries, I’m cognizant that it’s not always easy or practical to rely on strict timelines when it comes to shipments (power outages, strikes at ports, bad weather, etc., are not exactly uncommon). But, as long as I know there might be delays, I can manage them on my end as I have retailer customers waiting on orders.
I learned so much while I was in Pakistan, but I have learned equally as much since I’ve been back.
One of the artisans admitted to me that she wasn’t sure what to make of our trip and how receptive we would be working with them or their products. Most of the media coverage we see of Pakistan is about the violence – hence the reason for my security concerns before going there. Alternatively, what Pakistanis hear and read about our country isn’t always positive either. (See the article in the LA Times about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Pakistan and our country’s promise to provide funding for infrastructure aid to give you a glimpse of what Pakistanis thoughts of the outreach. )
The Rest of the Story
This, of course, only tells part of the story. I’m committed to telling the other part – the part that shows women artisans committed to their work and helping make their country a stronger community of people. I want to show Americans that our neighbors in Pakistan are thoughtful, talented and full of life. They are doing what they can to provide much-needed employment to their communities and increase the economic development of their country.
On the flip side, I want to prove to Pakistanis that Americans are not ignorant, self-absorbed and opportunistic. I want them to see that we genuinely care about the well-being of others and are excited to be working with them.
Making an Impact
Will our partnership make an impact? I hope so – if nothing else, I hope it will help make an impact with the artisans and their immediate families and employees. I have a feeling our work will have a ripple effect, though. I’ve already seen it happen and I’ve barely been back in the U.S. one month.
In the last month alone I’ve already received orders from several retailers who are thrilled to be carrying the line in their shops. We’ve made arrangements to have Amna Shariff, one of the artisans with whom I’m working, to visit Chicago and be part of our U.S. debut launch party to be held on August 26 at one of the retailers who will be carrying her jewelry: Greenheart. For those in the Chicagoland area and interested in coming, more details can be found here. It will be a wonderful way to meet Amna and hear her stories firsthand on what it means to work as a woman artisan in Pakistan.
Also, I reached out to the Pakistan Consulate General in Chicago to share the news of our event. I was excited to hear that he was not only thrilled that we were hosting the event, but he and his wife paid a visit to see me at recent trade show where I exhibited Amna and Nadia’s jewelry (another artisan with whom I’m working in Pakistan). As of right now, unless his plans change, he will be coming to our launch party as well.
In the last month I’ve been actively telling the story of my trip to Pakistan to retailers, the media, my friends and family. We’re making progress as a country and while I’m proud to be an American, I’ll be that much prouder when I know our international friends feel we have their best interests at heart, too.
I hope to return to Pakistan soon. While security concerns are very real, I know my Pakistani sisters have my back and I’ll be taken care of next time I return. In the meantime, I hope you’ll follow our pictures and stories of our artisans on Facebook and my TravelingMom articles.