Lahore (AsiaNews) - They have dedicated their missionary lives to the development of education in Pakistan, with particular attention to women's education that today - in many cases - is even better than that of males. Over the years, they have started schools and high schools in various parts of the country; even in the Swat Valley, which in many parts is a Taliban stronghold, they had managed to establish a center for studies, which ended up in the crosshairs of extremists who - after some time - devastated it, destroying all the material contained within. However, in spite of difficulties and threats they have wished to continue their work, which continues still today. This is the story of five Sri Lankan nuns who have been in Pakistan for years helping to develop the educational sector; an important element in the life of the country, to whom AsiaNews in the past dedicated a detailed report (see Education can stop the Taliban in Pakistan).
Sister Mary Dorothea, from the congregation of Carmel, originally from Sri Lanka, set foot for the first time in Pakistan on April 21, 1981. She was the pioneer, the first of a group of five nuns - over time she was joined by Sister Theolinde, Sister Kanthi, Sister Luke and Sister Helen Theresa - called to the country by the then Archbishop of Lahore Msgr. Armando Trindade (in office from 1973 to 2000) to contribute to the development in education and health care.
The Carmelite nuns, Sister Mary tells AsiaNews, lend their efforts to six different schools in Lahore, two in Gujranwala and one in Issanagri, as well as a hostel in Faisalabad (Punjab province). The first school - in the Urdu language - started six months after their arrival in Pakistan, in Mariam Nishat Colony; later the nuns started a class for adult literacy and a vocational center for girls. The next year saw the opening of a clinic, dedicated in particular to the most vulnerable of the population.
The first challenge, said Sister Mary Dorothea, was to persuade families to let their daughters study. Upon their arrival, in fact, the boys generally received better education than their female counterparts. And the parents, according to a widespread opinion, judged it "futile" to send also their girls to school. It took years, and daily visits by the nuns to the families, for something to change; now the situation is reversed, the sister continues, so that "today the girls are more educated than the males." It is no coincidence, in fact, that in recent times even the Pakistani bishops' conference has been concerned with the problem, by appealing to families to let their boys study and thus to contribute to the advancement of society. "The boys don't attend on a regular basis", he confirmed, "and they don't seem interested in their studies" both due to the family environment in which they grow up, and the social reality that drives them away from books and notebooks.
However, the work of helping young people to become literate, says the Carmelite nun, allowed them to "educate both the parents" and their families. And their environment, their lives, their homes "have changed for the better." "In the past, the parents", she adds, "were not willing to spend money on their children's education. But now they see the benefits that have derived from the study, and for this reason they urge their children on." The schools are not only a place of learning, but also serve to strengthen the student's faith and their spiritual formation with Masses, celebrations, prayer meetings, catechism and studying the word of God.
Over the years, the work of the sisters has also met with resistance and difficulties of all sorts, as occurred in Mingora, a city of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the "beautiful Swat Valley," as Sister Mary remembers it. The Carmelites had launched a five-year plan of studies for girls, which they abandoned after a year and a half due to threats from Islamic fundamentalists. The nun said they constantly received threatening letters in which "the Taliban told us to leave the school" and it was "a frightening experience." For two weeks they found themselves "in the crossfire" between the army and the Taliban; five days after evacuating the school, the extremists bombed the building, then burned everything inside, "setting fire to fifty computers and hundreds of books, including valuable ones."
The discouragement and fear did not, however, prevent the Sinhalese religious from starting their work anew, the mission dedicated to study and culture, thanks to the invitation of Archbishop Emeritus of Lahore, Msgr. Lawrence J. Saldanha, who entrusted to their care the diocesan institute of St. Joseph. "For the Jubilee Year", Sister Mary Dorothea concluded, "absolute priority must be given to education" as the only way to contribute concretely to the development of Pakistan.