Eight women from Pakistan recently traveled halfway around the world to visit the United States.
They are part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, and their project is focused on “developing future women leaders.”
One place they stopped to learn those lessons was Grand Island.
While here, the group met with local and state leaders, including with Gov. Pete Ricketts on Tuesday at a Rotary Club meeting. They said while there are certainly differences between their culture and that of the United States, the focus on family in Nebraska was similar, and the state’s hospitality shined through.
“Everyone had the same message in the end,” said Reeda Sheikhani, one of the visitors. “They want to make Grand Island a place to raise their families.”
Others who made the trip were Shahpara Salim, Saira Furqan, Sana Durrani, Gulshan Zahid, Hifza Jillani, Naila Habib Khan and Sheeba Haider.
The women have backgrounds in everything from psychology and health to media, nonprofits, politics and finance, and they came from all over Pakistan.
The IVLP is a professional exchange program meant to provide knowledge about U.S. society, culture and politics. It is administered through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and participants are nominated by staff members at U.S. embassies around the world.
Typically, those involved visit four U.S. communities over three weeks, meeting with public and private sector organizations, participating in social and cultural activities and exploring American history.
In keeping with their program, the eight women from Pakistan spent time learning about women’s roles in America and the resources to support them and promote equality.
They had already visited Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Calif., and Portland, Ore., before their stop in Nebraska, and they will be traveling to Chicago Wednesday.
In Grand Island, Sheikhani said, they met with many leaders, including the president of the chamber of commerce, women ministers, senators, a district judge and the mayor.
Though Zahid said they weren’t sure what to expect in a smaller, more rural area like Grand Island, they were pleasantly surprised.
The women all said Nebraskans were welcoming, and the hospitality was obvious.
Grand Island’s 50,000 population is much smaller than some of the other cities the women visited, and it’s much smaller than what some of the women are used to. Karachi, for instance, has a population of more than 20 million. Even so, Durrani said the trip offered them the chance to get a wider view of the cultures in the U.S.
“It was a great opportunity to see the different parts of the U.S. because it’s different from part to part,” Durrani said.
Salim also said some of the values weren’t so different from those in Pakistan.
In their talks, she said, they noticed the importance of family, which is similar to their culture.
“They have a strong sense of community,” Sheikhani said.
Some things, however, struck the group as different.
Listening to some of the stories, Zahid said, showed how much support there is for single women and older people in the U.S.
“I’m really impressed by the practices followed by the U.S. in the area of relief and providing support to women,” Furqan said.
Durrani added that it seems that more people are willing to volunteer for such programs.
“It really makes a difference,” she said. “Whereas we don’t have as much volunteerism.”
Being in the U.S. also shows places where Pakistan can improve, Jillani said. Though women make up more than half of the population there, the visiting women all said they would like to see more women working and more equal representation.
“Coming to America, you see that,” Jillani said.
Salim said those are lessons she has learned on the trip, and some of them can be applied at a local level when they return home. For long-term change, Salim said, society has to change where it gets its leaders — and women are an important part of that.
“If you want to bring change in a society, the right person to focus on is the woman because she takes care of the family,” she said.