Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster

Featured Writer: Marilyn Gardner

I am the first to admit that given the choice of a 5 star hotel or camping I will pick a 5 star hotel.  I tell friends that anyone who grew up in the developing world with a commode for a toilet and one bath a week would appreciate my love of luxury so it was with some surprise that I found myself so eager to work in flood relief in Pakistan.

When I first heard news of the floods that began to spread their strength and turmoil in various parts of Pakistan in August of 2010, I felt sadness that was somewhat distant and removed.  Raised as an American in Pakistanwith the call to prayer as my alarm clock it was my childhood love and home, but as an adult I have been more connected to the Middle East through work and travel.  My memories of Pakistan are primarily relegated to occasional emails from friends and to those moments on the subway when I close my eyes and the rhythmic movement transports me back to the Pakistani trains of my childhood.   That changed when I saw a picture in the New York Times of the city of Jacobabad under flood waters.

Jacobabad in the Sindh district of Pakistan was home to my family when I was a little girl, it was there that I broke my leg and where my mothers artificial flowers were stolen.  Stuck into the ground around our house to add color to clay that would never grow anything, they provided a source of joy for a few hours and then they were gone!  The NYT photograph hit my heart in a way I had not anticipated and through what could only be a work of God an opportunity came about for me to participate as a nurse in Medical Relief with internally displaced persons in that very area.  I never imagined that I could be a tiny part of this or that my life for a short time would resemble a National Geographic feature story.

Although I grew up in Pakistan and then lived as an adult raising my family in Islamabad, Pakistan followed by seven years in Cairo, Egypt, my current reality is that I work in downtown Boston and drink a Starbucks coffee daily.  I shop at Ann Taylor and get frustrated when my hot water runs out or I don’t have time to put on my eyeliner – this my friends is the somewhat unfortunate truth.  Early September, suddenly the idea of working with victims of the flood began to become real and I began to be cautiously excited, knowing I may not have what it would take but being willing to take that chance.

On October 15th, armed with thirteen thousand dollars worth of donated medical supplies and numerous bottles of vitamins, I boarded Etihad Airlines and flew via Abu Dhabi to Karachi ending the journey in Shikarpur, Sindh.  Just outside the Shikarpur gates, a kilometer from the hospital where we were staying, we saw the remains of the ‘Pictures of the Day’ from the October 4th online edition of the New York Times – 27 burnt convoy trucks. They had been destroyed by members of the Taliban in the area and those same Taliban had been found hiding out in a mosque just a half kilometer from our base.  I remembered saying to a colleague just the week before, “Don’t worry! I’ll be no where near the burnt convoys!” I hadn’t paid as close attention to the location as I should have.

The two weeks that followed were filled with what I will call holy moments – watching a mom point to Heaven in thanks as food was distributed to her family, laughing with children at my own mistakes in Urdu and Sindhi, praying in the depths of my soul for the baby who looked like a skeleton at 4 months of age and the emaciated mom who held that child with the love only a mother could have, putting shoes on an ancient woman with a million stories written into the wrinkles on her face to guard the ulcerated sore on her foot against infection, delivering a sewing machine to a widow who danced with it on her head and seeing so clearly that people are created in the image of God.   These women and children in their unwashed yet beautiful bright colored clothing were dear to the heart of God and “no mere mortals”.

The team of a doctor, two nurses, a community health worker, interpreter, and food distribution team were like a mini United Nations from 6 people groups with ability to speak 6 different languages between us but a unity in purpose and spirit that gave us efficiency as well as times of laughter and joy. We covered 8 villages and two IDP camps in 14 days with surveys of needs, medical camps and food distribution. Mud huts, tents provided by USAID, rope beds, chickens, roosters, water buffalo and cow dung completed the setting and tested our nostrils and stamina but everyday provided a new adventure and new moments of awe. We gave out malaria medicine like it was candy at Halloween and scabies lotion and soap even more so. We experienced desperate eyes change to eyes of hope as a mother realized that her child would be cared for, as a father realized his daughter’s wound would heal. The holy moments were greater than those experienced in any church I have attended and brought me to my knees in tears, laughter and gratefulness.

There was for me an added bonus.  Almost anyone who was raised in a country other than their passport country (better known as a third culture kid) can relate with the immigrant experience.  The sense of isolation, nontransferable skills and being ‘other’ can creep up at the oddest of times and result in a deep loneliness and sometimes conflict with one’s passport country.  The two words ‘between worlds’ best describe our lives and feeling most at home in Heathrow Airport waiting for a connecting flight is very common.

During the time I was in Pakistan, I was not other – I was home.  Seeing friends who knew me when I was young, receiving blessings from men who worked with my father and women who had deep friendships with my mother, walking through compounds to the embraces of old friends, and being woken yet again by the call to prayer were more holy moments that I had not anticipated as I prepared to go.  I was told a couple of years ago by a wise friend that there are times in our lives when we need to remember who we are.  I was given that gift through the action of working in flood relief and going toPakistan.

I arrived back in JFK International Airport in New York City after 23 hours of travel and within a few minutes felt ‘other’ again – there was a moment of confusion as I looked at the Immigration line options.  Was I really a resident alien?  An alien? No – I was aUS citizen shaped by cultures and moments that were not of my own doing.  In that moment I recognized that the peace of belonging happens deep in my soul and that peace can transcend the outside circumstances.

I don’t know why I was given the gift of going and not others – that is a mystery to me but I know it is nothing I did and really simply Grace.

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57 thoughts on “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster

  1. Marilyn, your first words, about how photos of the floods in Pakistan hit you harder than other disaster stories because of your connection with Pakistan – those words, that feeling resonated with me. I spent several years in Japan, and when I saw images from the tsunami last year – those hit me so hard. The lost dolls and destroyed roofs and buildings were so Japanese, and so destroyed. The people searching for loved ones were so like my friends. You are fortunate that you were able to go and to help out. I currently have children at home and work in our family business, and although I had the impulse to just go do something, I really could not at this time in my life.
    Thank you for sharing your story and photos with us!


    • Kyle – I remember as I read about the tsunami getting on email with someone who grew up in Japan and said the exact same thing you are describing. Not being able to do anything and feeling paralyzed when these places we love are hurting is excruciating. I was in the same position with the earthquake in Pakistan in 2004. There was no way I could go given my job and child situation. That’s why being able to go this time and actually do something was so incredible. May you be able to get back to Japan soon and share in their story. I’m grateful you read this and for your comment.


  2. Just finished your post Holy Moments. What a touching piece. I loved the image of your mothers plastic flowers stuck in the lifeless mud. Imagined a child snatching them and taking them to her mother. Seeing the smiles was comforting as the story is indeed a holy horror, in many ways. The color in their clothing is like seeing beautiful blossoms burst through the rubble of their difficult experiences. Thanks for the inspiring piece. I feel gratitude, and hope. Leslie http://www.authenticimperfection.wordpress.com


  3. If we could just get the Governments (and bankers) out of the picture, I think the people of this world would get along just fine. It’s wonderful to see all of the smiling faces.


  4. You are truly blessed to be able to go to the aid of others. In that sense, we are ever moving between being the object and the subject and being the other and the one. I wish you all the best and that you will continue to be a blessing unto others even as you are blessed continually.


  5. Deeply moving that return to one’s roots in times of need. My own roots feel like they are in Guatemala, even though I’m a Canadian by birth. I do participate in triage mission to bring surgery to the inhabitants of remote Guatemalan villages. Nothing like what you’ve lived, but satisfying nevertheless to feel that I’m giving back to a country that has given me so much.


    • Would love to hear more about Guatemala and amazing to be able to go into remote villages. I felt exactly that way about Pakistan in terms of giving back just a fraction of what I was given. Did you grow up in Guatemala?


      • Hello Marilyn, I was not born in Guatemala but came here by choice, If you want to read more about my life here, you can go to my blog Entretroisvolcans.worpress.com. Some of my posts about Gutemala and India are in English


  6. Great to know you have so much to offer and indeed did offer so much going back to help out when you could help. Yes, I completely recognised the feeling of not being sure where home is and the an immigrant sense of alienation at times, when home is not home and coming home is going back.
    Thanks for liking my post. How did you get so successful with your blog? Of course your content is great.
    Johanna van Zanten


    • This was so very kind….I didn’t feel awesome as some of the parts I didn’t tell were about being so hot and getting frustrated when the shower didn’t work..love my creature comforts too much! But thank you!


  7. This reminds me so much of a super-glamorous friend of mine who accompanied her doctor-husband on a medical mission trip to still earthquake devastated Haiti last summer. She had so many holy moments to share with us. And look at how joyful so many of these Pakistanis are! We all need to learn from them, that we do!


    • Love this comment! It’s so funny, I never dreamed I would be a career woman working in Boston on a daily basis….that’s why the trip back to Pakistan was so good for me and went to my very soul. Would love to hear some of the stories from your friend.


  8. Dear Marylin,

    I am close to tears as I write this comment. Being a Pakistani, I know the true extent of devastation caused by the floods. Having been to some of the water-logged areas myself, I have seen families mourning the loss of their loved ones, resorting to leave their homes and moving to other cities, children crying with hunger, people standing in line just to get their share of the rations, and all the bureaucratic red-tape.

    I personally know a lot of people who were actively involved in flood relief activities, and I salute all of them, including you. You are a true source of inspiration and a real-life hero(ine).

    Take care and keep helping!

    Best Wishes,
    Yousuf Bawany


    • Yousuf – Thank you so much for this comment. Your description is exactly as it was….the malaria, the wounds, long lines of hungry people, fights breaking out for sheer hunger, and yes – the bureaucracy. I was so happy to be in a situation where every penny and kernel of rice or dahl went straight to the people at the camps and resettled villages. It was a joy to go and I am planning to go back this next fall. Thank you – feel free to take a look here for more on this series: http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/2011/01/03/series-on-pakistan-orientation/ I write a fair amount in the blog about Pakistan and memories of Pakistan. I look forward to taking a look at yours!


  9. Thank you for sharing your experiences…it reminds me so strongly of Matthew 25:45, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did unto Me.” Praying for the people of Pakistan, you are loved!


  10. When we remove all of the “stuff” that we’ve grown accustomed to in first-world living, we are reminded that that a true community is one in which people rely on the strong relationships that they build with one another. Not an automatic checkout at the grocery store or a talking cellular. I’ve seen it, too, in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The experience is humbling and a wonderful blessing.
    I loved this entry and look forward to reading others. 🙂


  11. What a beautiful sharing. God Bless you for your gracious heart. How wonderful to be able to go back to your child-hood home and be such an inspiration and help during Pakistan’s time of need.


  12. i never knew you have been a Pakistani, and yeah last year Pakistan went through difficult times, and its great to know that u passed your childhood in my homeland Pakistan, and im very thankful to Almighty-ALLAH that he sent you back to Pakistan ,you really did a great job ,and i have no words to explain how greatful im after reading this post,im really inspired and your this work will always be a inspriation for us Pakistanies .


    • Thank you – I love Pakistan and long to give a different picture than the one that is common in the media. I have been given so much by the country of Pakistan that it was a privilege to return.


      • YEP the media always depict Pakistan as a terrorist State but the media never shows the beautiful places and amazing thing about my Country, im glad to hear this from u 🙂
        may God bless U 🙂


  13. What a beautiful moment of realization. Sometimes these moments (or gifts) come to us in order to bring us down to our lost “human” level. The importance is not specialty coffee or the newest blu ray, what is important is the human race and our respect and love for one another. Thank you for sharing this wonderful gift.


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