Washington South Asia Report
PAKISTAN-BASED “GO-TO GUY FOR DISASTER RELIEF” VISITS UW
By Ethan Casey, South Asia MA Student
Todd Shea, who responded to the devastating 2005 earthquake in mountainous northern Pakistan and now runs a hospital there through his organization SHINE Humanity, spoke on May 25 in the Walker Ames Room in Kane Hall as part of the Henry M. Jackson School’s Global Focus series, and met with the UW Pakistani Students Association. His visit was hosted by the South Asia Center at the Jackson School.
Shea's promising career as a singer-songwriter was interrupted by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In New York to play at the famous CBGB nightclub – a gig that never happened – instead he emptied his musical equipment from his van, drove to Chelsea Piers, and asked how he could help.
The experience led to the discovery of a new vocation providing logistical support to emergency workers in the aftermaths of disasters. He worked in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and in Pakistan after the October 2005 earthquake there. He has remained in Pakistan and runs a hospital in the remote village of Chikar. When the January 12, 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, he cut short a U.S. fundraising tour to spend six harrowing weeks there.
“Before I came to Seattle, I thought I would just meet a bunch of left-wing nut jobs – and I was right,” says Shea. “Seriously, I really enjoyed the speaking engagements and the opportunity to speak to young people. Perhaps I helped form some of their direction in the advice that I gave them. That's always the most gratifying thing.”
Shea says he decided to remain in Pakistan because it was the first place he had worked where people asked him to stay, because he saw a long-term need even as other relief workers were packing up as the emergency phase wound down, and because he fell in love with the children there. He likes to say that the American public hears “two percent of the story ninety-eight percent of the time” when it comes to Pakistan. “I want the American people to know the truth, and not the misperceptions,” he says. “I believe that if they had all the information, they would know what to do with it. But I don't think they have complete information. I think that will create opportunities for a better world.”
UW biology major and PSA officer Umema Ahmed felt “completely inspired and uplifted” after meeting Shea and hearing his story. “I felt empowered and proud of Pakistan,” she says. “I couldn't believe that all his humanitarian work started from just asking someone if they needed his truck for supplies on September 11. And to learn how much he has helped Pakistan was amazing! He is a great speaker. It truly is people like Todd that make a difference in the world and stand as an example for everyone else. I hope many others can follow his lead and do more humanitarian work – and more importantly do humanitarian work for countries like Pakistan that have a bad reputation due to the constant negativity portrayed in the media.”
During his visit, Shea also spoke at Seattle Central Community College and enjoyed a few days camping on the Olympic Peninsula. “It's been wonderful,” he says. “I love this town.”
Shea's humanitarian work goes hand in hand with an effort to build much-needed bridges, which he tries to do in his public speaking around the U.S. “I want to be a part of showing Muslims that America is not out to destroy Islam or kill Muslims,” he says. “I have not seen any evidence that that is what our intentions are. But I think it’s high time we showed Pakistanis the best of America. … I’m one that doesn’t believe in doing things just because they might benefit you now or in the future. I believe in doing things that are good, and then naturally they don’t come back to haunt you. And they automatically come back to you in positive ways. Work for justice, avoid hypocrisy, go out in the world and live the values that you espouse, and I think you’ll be okay.”
To judge from his UW visit, his message is finding a receptive audience. “Todd has shown us a different side of Pakistan,” says Umema Ahmed, “and I hope many will get to see that side and follow his lead.”
Return to the Spring 201 Washington South Asia Report