By Zubeida Mustafa
BEFORE India’s external affairs minister arrived in Islamabad on Friday, there was talk of the low expectation of progress in bilateral relations between Pakistan and India.
We were warned against expecting anything ‘spectacular’ coming out of the visit. Do we need spectacular developments in everything we do? Mercifully a peacenik, ex-ambassador Aziz Ahmad Khan, was realistically positive when he pointed out that the ‘good atmospherics’ that exist today can strengthen the India-Pakistan peace process.
Who has contributed to the atmospherics? The fact is that Track-2 diplomacy — Aziz Khan’s Jinnah Institute has been an active player in the field lately — has helped create love and friendship between ‘ordinary people’ on the two sides. They have torn down the psychological barriers erected by officials. By institutionalising the peace process, the ‘second-trackers’ have certainly created space for the pro-peace elements in the two governments.
Hats off to another band of devotees who I would call the unsung heroes. They forge trans-border bonds between people quietly and discreetly. There are several of them who are keeping hope alive even in our darkest hour. One of them is Cheryl Ferreira, a Montessori trainer of Indian origin who works in London. In this age of gloom she gives a message of hope. “When conditions hit rock bottom, there is no other way for them to go but up,” Cheryl would insist when I despaired. Considering her terrible experience in our city, Cheryl’s composure makes her story remarkable. It is not a new one as so many of us have experienced the trauma of an armed robbery in Karachi.
Cheryl’s case was different. She was really not obliged to come here and expose herself to the risks Karachiites face because they have no option. She chose to come to help fellow educationists in Pakistan. She was here to conduct the annual examinations of the Montessori Teachers’ Training Centre in Karachi which is affiliated with the Amsterdam-based Association Montessori Internationale.
The MTTC prepares students for an internat-ionally recognised diploma — the only institution of its kind in Pakistan. So rigorous is the training and examination at the MTTC founded by the legendary Mrs Gool Minwallah and now managed by her capable successor Farida Akbar that one can rightly be proud of the education it imparts. To maintain uniform standards globally and to ensure academic excellence, the AMI insists on the presence of an external examiner when students are tested.
In the good old days, there were examiners coming from all over the world to test our girls studying for a Montessori diploma.
Then things began to sour. Violence and crime drove away the Westerners. The Sri Lankans continued to visit. Eventually, they also stopped coming.
Ultimately, it was left to Cheryl Ferreira to keep the Montessori tradition alive in Pakistan. For five years she had been visiting Pakistan without fail for a week in May to test the candidates, help compile the results, attend the diploma ceremony and return to London to resume her work at the Maria Montessori Institute.
As was her wont, Cheryl arrived early in the morning of May 25 on what she had planned was to be a week’s stay. She was met by her host at the Karachi airport. On their way to the city, their car was stopped and they were robbed at gunpoint. Cheryl was deprived of all her baggage including her travel documents.
What followed became a test of Cheryl’s commitment. Purchasing toiletries and clothes to wear was a minor headache. The real challenge was to get a new passport and have the British residence visa stamped on it. This entailed two visits to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, several visits to the immigration police in Karachi and ultimately a journey to Mumbai to wait it out for the British visa. Pakistani friends and a British MP had to get involved to facilitate the process.
The end result? Cheryl had to stay in Pakistan for five weeks and another five weeks in Mumbai. A professional trip that was to end on June 2 kept Cheryl away till Aug 19.
What is striking about this story is Cheryl’s attitude. Not once did she ever complain or say an unkind word about Pakistan’s failures. We as her hosts felt embarrassed and worried but she was calm, reassuring us that all would end well.
The robbers robbed Cheryl of her passport but not her humanism. She remained focused on her job to examine 60 young women appearing for their exams. Imbued with the Montessori spirit she was dismissive of her trauma and, what is more, she emailed us, “By God’s Grace, hope to see all of you in Karachi next year”. Cheryl knows that she is needed here to keep the Montessori training course going in Pakistan.
In our hour of isolation we need many Cheryls who are willing to extend the hand of friendship. They help improve the atmospherics. At a time when we display all the signs of a dying nation, I am reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French scholar, who wrote in his book Democracy in America: “If the lights that guide us ever go out, they will fade little by little, as if of their own accord…. Some people may let the torch be snatched from their hands, but others stamp it out themselves.” People like Cheryl help keep our torches burning.