It’s the start of the year, but soon it’ll be that time again, people, when the question of what to do with your future becomes increasingly pressing. You may be within a few months of graduation, or maybe you still have a year or two left in your degree, but whatever the case, believe me when I say that you should be thinking about it. At some point, you’ll have your $25,000 degree in hand and weeks and weeks of free time laid out before you like empty rooms in a new house. The question is: how to go about filling them?
I’m going to tell you a story about one option. It involves a superwoman (who is also the grandmother of the editor-in-chief, Luke). She’s a woman of indomitable spirit whom I’ve had the fortuitous pleasure of getting to know myself.
Saloma Smith has been going to Pakistan for 30 years, doing non-profit work educating the poor and underprivileged of Pakistan’s Sindh province. A teacher by training, Saloma made the decision to run a school for children of the country’s Christian minority, who are often discriminated against and, in the words of someone who’s been there, are “the poorest of the poor”, after a trip she took as a single mother with her then-teenaged children. After running schools in rural areas for years, Saloma set up a school in the city of Kunri, and she operated it uninterrupted for almost two decades until just two years ago, when she had to close it due to staff shortages and bureaucratic roadblocks. An unofficial “tuition centre” was undertaken instead.
“For some years I couldn’t get anybody going. And so I couldn’t do this by myself,” says Saloma. Running a Christian school in Pakistan isn’t easy: government inspectors are often rude and demanding, funding is scarce, parents in rural areas often recall their children to work in the fields, and the only available teachers to be found are frequently poorly qualified and require on-the-job training, which Saloma sees as part of her mission. Finding Westerners to come and volunteer their time is harder than it sounds. Two years ago, she was accepting volunteers for six-month trips. For this article, Luke and I interviewed two young women: Ruth, who had volunteered at Saloma’s school before it closed, and Rachel, who was about to depart on her first service trip with Saloma in Pakistan.
How does one find people willing to spare six months of their lives, give up on the creature comforts of the West for third-world poverty, and live in a rural area where few foreigners ever set foot? Rachel sees many of her life’s events as “God preparing the way” for her meeting with Saloma. Rachel was going to a Bible college in the States and working as a certified nursing assistant when, one day, she noticed two elderly women looking lost in the school’s hallway. She approached them and offered to help.
Saloma, as it turns out, was visiting the college (her alma mater) with a friend and giving a talk about her work in Pakistan, and after hearing her speak, Rachel said, “We need to talk after class.” Rachel is half-Jewish and half-Saudi Arabian, but feels “a little bit more called to the Saudi Arabian side”, so doing a service trip in a Muslim country intrigued her.
I asked Rachel whether she’d done anything like this before and was quite astounded by her response. “I did a very short-term missions trip to Algeria—two weeks,” she told me. Rachel described living among the Sahrawi refugees and “basically house-hopping through the desert”. I concluded that she was ready for this.
Ruth, on the other hand, was a member of the mission committee at Saloma’s church, and after hearing Saloma talk, she expressed an interest. What surprised Ruth, though, was the commitment of six months; she had been expecting to be away for only two. But after considering it, Ruth concluded that this was what she was meant to do.
As for the role of service, says Rachel, “I knew at the age of five that I wanted to go be a missionary.” But the women added that they believe Christian work doesn’t mean educating just children of a specific religion, but anyone who needs help.
After hearing the women’s stories, I decided to focus on the specifics of this venture. The difficulties came out—the ones listed above, plus things you wouldn’t expect, like finding half the class gone for week-long wedding trips in the spring, and not being able to go out on the street without a male escort—but so did the successes. Ruth told us about Hannah, a poor pastor’s daughter who had been a student in Saloma’s school and who upon graduation was accepted to study social work at university. Coming from a community where illiteracy is still rampant, this was an absolute milestone, not only for Hannah, but for her family and future offspring, who would be able to exit the vicious cycle of poverty.
Rachel also stressed the importance of the school’s English lessons in a country where English is “the actual national language”. All schooling after grade 10 is done in English in Pakistan, she explained, so if a student is not fluent, he or she is effectively unable to graduate from high school, let alone continue on to postsecondary studies. Smith is also a fluent speaker of Urdu and initially offered instruction in that language, but says that parents see English as a bigger benefit for their children.
The women noted that although the tuition centre primarily serves Christian students, religious studies are only taught at an optional Saturday Bible school plus a half-hour lesson per day. Islamic education is compulsory in Pakistan, so the Muslim children would have their lessons separately, and Smith would educate the remaining students in their own religion during that time. But the main emphasis is on academics, according to Saloma, formerly of the Toronto District School Board.
“Our standards are very high,” she said. “Two of the kids got into medical school, and that’s a big percentage.” In a graduating class of six, it is indeed, and one other student from the class was accepted to study engineering. “And that also is a testimony, that we do our work well without anyone standing over us,” Saloma added, referring to the tuition centre being free of direct government involvement.
I wrapped up by asking Rachel what she feared most about going abroad, and her response was very light-hearted. She told me about health issues she has that are difficult to manage even with modern conveniences, let alone abroad. But “Trials and tribulations increase your endurance and your patience,” she said. I found her optimism brave, almost recklessly so.
But this has also been the predominant attitude of Saloma Smith over her three decades of journeying back and forth between Canada and Pakistan. “During my training, I never felt like she’s eighty-five,” Rachel told me at one point. “More like a twenty-something. So I was wondering why she’s so passionate.” Rachel concludes that it’s Saloma’s faith in God, which inspired her to found the school in the first place, that keeps her going at her pace.
And with these words the interview ended, and I was left to ponder the great life of a woman who was grandmother to many, and to consider my own in comparison. What can I do that would positively affect people, that would change their world in ways big or small? We will have to wait and see, but for now, I’m throwing out there the idea of exposing oneself to something new and doing a service trip, be it with Habitat for Humanity, Free the Children, UNICEF, or some other organization. The options are widely always available; all one really needs is the willpower.