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Published: Monday, 7/17/2006

Pakistani physicians haven't forgotten roots

CHICAGO - Every summer for a week Pakistani-American physicians gather in some metropolitan city and transform it into a Pakistani ethnic enclave. For days they immerse themselves in myriad activities that include scientific meetings, political discourses, alumni gatherings, fashion shows, banquets, music programs, and poetry recitals.

The usually staid and opulent luxury hotels turn into kaleidoscopes of colors and are permeated with the aromas of desi food and chattering of foreign tongues. This seasonal migration of thousands of physicians and their families takes place during the annual meeting of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America (APPNA).

Twenty-eight years ago I was a reluctant participant in the preliminary discussions that led to the formation of the association. In my self-assured and somewhat arrogant exuberance, I tried to dissuade my friends from taking such a silly step. Soon I realized that such an organization could be a bridge of understanding between our adopted land and the land of our birth. And it could also help bring about some changes in the lives of the hapless poor who paid for our free education.

From that reluctant start in 1977 in Dearborn, Mich., the association, with a paid membership of more than 2,000, has become the most influential body of Pakistani immigrants in this country. It helped write the health policy of the country in 1983, has been instrumental in postgraduate medical education and training, and has been helping with the training of Pakistani physicians in this country.

But its crowning achievement was the launch in 1987 of APPNA SEHAT (literally Our Health) a village health and literacy program in Pakistan. Spearheaded by then president Dr. Nasim Ashraf, the program's goals were to immunize children, teach women how to make rehydration fluid for diarrhea, improve sewage systems, install hand pumps for clean water, and teach basic reading skills to women.

It started out by adopting a few villages and in a span of 20 years it has grown to cover 250,000 people living in 50 villages scattered throughout the country. The results have been spectacular. Maternal and infant mortality has declined, literacy in children and women has increased, and, thanks to vocational training, women now bring some extra income to the household. The program is run on a self-help basis and it costs $2 per person per year to administer. The United Nations took note of the program and many western countries helped with grants to help continue it. Soon after that, a human development program was launched by APPNA that works in tandem with APPNA SEHAT.

Dr. Ashraf now heads Pakistan's National Commission for Human Development in Islamabad and is a member of the federal cabinet. The APPNA SEHAT model is now being implemented on a more ambitious scale. The initial success was evident when the U.N. and foreign donors started supporting the program. Now the Chinese are implementing the program in their country.

In the field of medical education and health care, many alumni associations are helping their colleges with material, skilled manpower, and curriculum development.

An alumnus of Khyber Medical College has endowed a visiting professorship in the College of Medicine at the University of Toledo, where young scholars from Peshawar, Pakistan, come to learn methodology of research and teaching techniques. There are many other such examples.

But perhaps the greatest test came in the wake of the devastating earthquake in northern Pakistan in October, 2005. APPNA not only collected funds for the victims but also arranged for medical specialists to go to the earthquake areas for short visits and work in the makeshift clinics and hospitals, including the MASH unit set up by the U.S. Army in the earthquake zone.

And Pakistani physicians have also been responsive to the needs here at home. APPNA's disaster relief work for Katrina was substantial and many members traveled to Louisiana to work in the storm-ravaged areas.

The American-born second-generation of Pakistanis have a strong American identity. These annual meetings keep them connected to their Pakistani roots.

I am glad my advice was turned down 28 years ago.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain served as president of APPNA in 1982 and was co-author with Barbara Floyd of a 2005 book "APPNA Qissa, A History of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America."

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