One of the most inspiring places on the Internet is “Humans of New York” (HONY), a blog started in 2010 by Brandon Stanton that features photos of every day New Yorkers with short snippets of their life – a view I share with almost 15 million other people who ‘like’ HONY’s Facebook page. The photographs and stories are charming; some make us cry, some make us smile, all make us pause – for a moment, from our every day life, to connect with a stranger, whose sorrows we want to comfort, whose joys make us feel good. In a virtual space too often full of vitriol and emptiness, HONY has formed a community out of worldwide strangers all aching for a good story, for a sense of connection, for a moment of reprieve – and for that vital reminder that we are not alone.
I too believe in the power of personal stories to bring us closer together; this blog and my personal essays and features is a small effort in that direction, particularly in trying to promote understanding of my faith and the country of my birth.
So when HONY announced that it was going to Pakistan, I was thrilled. The stories this week have shown ordinary Pakistanis, against extraordinary backdrops, living, struggling, dreaming, surviving, thriving. I’ve been cheering on each post, and can hardly contain my smile as the beauty of Pakistan and the resilience, strength and grace of its people is shared with the world.
The response has been overwhelming. Pakistanis, in Pakistan and abroad, are expressing heartfelt enthusiasm and gratitude; so many comments echo this sentiment: “HONY I don’t have words to thank you for showing the true image of Pakistan to the world.” Many around the world are sharing amazement at how beautiful the country is; the breathtaking scenery alone, of snow capped mountains, rolling green hills, crystal streams and bright blue skies, is changing some people’s perceptions of a place they pictured as anything but beautiful. “Dear Pakistani people, please forgive me for being ignorant about the beauty of your country. I had no idea Pakistan could look like that.” The posts are enticing many to visit the country; to which hundreds of Pakistanis, in true Pakistani spirit, are responding with open arms and warm invitations to stay in their homes. For some, the photographs are bringing back wonderful memories of their travels through the country: “Pakistan is my very favorite place of all my travels. So friendly, welcoming, and so beautiful. Riding along the Karokoram Highway on the roof of a truck in shalwar kamis is one of my favorite memories. Jeera Jeera Pakistan.” (To which, several Pakistanis gently replied, “that means ‘cumin, cumin Pakistan’; but we appreciate it.” It’s ‘Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan’ – long live Pakistan!) Even those with Pakistani heritage who hadn’t before felt connected to the country are falling in love with it. Someone born and brought up in England commented that he had never fully been at peace with his identity, that given the media portrayal of Pakistan, he had felt ashamed. “Until now. For the first time I feel a connection to Pakistan … now I see the richness, beauty, intelligence, aspiration and resilience.” Adding, simply, “thank you.”
It’s been heartwarming to read people’s comments; to see so many, in every corner of the world, reveling in the beauty and warmth of the Pakistani people. One commenter put it this way: “After seeing all these pictures and posts, if I were to describe Pakistan in one word, that one word would be ‘love'”. Brandon has done more to improve the image of Pakistan, with his mighty camera and open heart, than years of public diplomacy could have achieved.
The posts are also generating an outpouring of compassion, encouragement, and generosity, as HONY posts tend to do; if you want to restore your faith in humanity, just read the comments on any HONY post. In a post about a young man who couldn’t go to school because his family couldn’t afford it, and instead had to work from age six, and walk three days to get to places that now take two hours, a student half way around the world wrote, “because my family lives near the poverty line, I sometimes get frustrated; I’ll study extra hard this semester for you, my friend.” A post about a woman who wanted to be a singer, but community pressure on her mom dissuaded her from singing, elicited this response: “You know, after 26 years, and so much peer pressure, I stopped playing my cello. I picked it up recently, and after battling incredibly hard with some vile and vicious demons, I know it’s one of the best things I ever did. Please sing. Please open up and sing again.” A post about a man who suffered an accident that left him injured and destroyed the tractor that he had saved for three years to buy, generated support from many wanting to buy him a new tractor; Todd Shea, featured in my earlier blog post, is organizing treatment and a tractor for the man who said, “I have nothing left to sacrifice.”
One aspect of sharing these stories that I particularly appreciate is that they reveal facets of my culture that I treasure and that are hardly known unless they’re experienced first hand – strong family ties, respect for elders, gracious hospitality, boundless generosity, and relentless resilience. One post shows a smiling grandfather with his grandchildren: “We lost their mother to a heart attack recently. And their father is overseas trying to find a job. So I’m currently Grandpa, Grandpa, Mom, and Dad.” In another post, a man talks of his father who passed away a year before he got married; he remembers how his father would organize musicals to help his children forget about their hardships. “After God, he was my god.” In another, a 40-year old man says of his mom, “she can never fall asleep unless I’m home safe at night”; a sentiment mothers around the world can relate to. In another, a woman with a steely resolve explains, “I just found out we’ve been evicted. I’ve got to find my family a new place to live by tonight. I’ll handle it. I’ve been through worse.”
There have been about 30 posts so far; a recent post had over 700,000 ‘likes’ from people around the world. I can’t wait to see the rest. With each post, no doubt misperceptions are being challenged, generalizations unpacked; perspectives are being broadened, understanding forged. This is the power of a personal story, honestly told and compassionately heard.
Thank you Humans of New York for sharing what some are now calling Humans of Planet Earth — appropriately, HOPE.
To see all the stories from Pakistan on Humans of New York, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork