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Rob Byers: My Pakistani education

The workday was done, and I gave Malik a ride to his hotel. Before he disappeared through the doors of the Embassy Suites, he smiled and asked me to wait. He had something for me.

He returned from his room and presented me with a sleeveless jacket and wool cap -- the kind commonly worn by men in Pakistan, his homeland, where he would soon be returning after three weeks in Charleston and the Gazette newsroom.

Yaqoob Malik is a reporter -- an investigative reporter, as he will proudly tell you -- at an English-language paper called Dawn in the Attock area of Pakistan.

Earlier this year, he and several hundred other Pakistani reporters applied to the International Center for Journalists, which was arranging a State Department-funded trip to the U.S. and a chance to work with and observe an American newspaper.

Only 20 of the applicants made the cut. It was literally the opportunity of a lifetime for Malik (as he prefers to be called).

But while the other journalists drew assignments at big newspapers in New York, Miami and so on, he was being sent to Charleston, a place none of them had heard of, and the smallest town on the list.

This drew some good-natured ribbing from a few of the others and left Malik a bit crestfallen.

But, as Malik describes it, when he landed among the hilltops at Yeager Airport, each sporting its showy autumnal best, he knew that he would have the last laugh.

And while many of the larger newspapers brought their visitors along slowly, in true Gazette fashion, we threw Malik right into the fray. He published a story in the first few days of his visit, before any of the others, and from there, he was off to the races.

"I only have (fill in the blank) days left here," he would tell me the minute he finished each story and asked for another. "I want to do as much as I can."

Malik covered local Muslim issues, focused on people in our area of Pakistani descent and wrote columns about the political situation in his homeland.

His command of English and the written word were certainly better than my Urdu, but his stories, as you might guess, needed a good deal of editing and explanation in order to bring the West Virginia audience up to speed on his topics.

As I worked with him on the stories, so began my Pakistani education.

Malik was supposed to be here learning from me and the others at the Gazette, but it soon became clear that my schooling on Pakistan, its people and the obstacles facing its reporters was just as thorough, if not greater, than what he took away.

On a recent weekend morning, as I stood in my kitchen drinking a cup of coffee, I heard my phone chirp. It was an email from Malik. He had sent me the story he had filed for Dawn that day.

It was full of protests and beatings, anger and death. Reading it from the serene safety of West Virginia, I quickly realized that my new friend was in a spot neither serene, nor safe.

Pakistani journalists risk their lives to tell the truth. Government and police protections are nearly non-existent. Kidnappings and assaults of journalists are rampant.

Malik shrugs off the fact that his home was ransacked a few years ago.

"Sometimes, my children will ask, 'Why, Papa, do you have write that?'" he said, but he soldiers on, performing a service absolutely crucial to the advancement of his country.

While he was here, Malik would often marvel at how beautiful Charleston is, how friendly its people are, how calm life is here. For him, it was the perfect place to carry out his American assignment, and it likely won't be the last time he sees the West Virginia hills, if he has his way.

He plans to bring his wife and children for a visit to Charleston next summer.

So, until then, stay safe, my friend. Byers is the Gazette's executive editor.


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