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Pakistani Immigrants in Seattle Confront a Huge Challenge at Home

As the first notes of the Quran, sung by a diminutive imam in an embroidered prayer cap, fill the Westin Bellevue's ornate Grand Ballroom, a sea of hands moves to cover heads.

At the hotel, 450 people from Seattle's growing Pakistani community have gathered to help the troubled country they left behind.

It's been a tough year for Pakistan.

Suicide bombings and battles between the Pakistani military and Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley have created images of a nation unraveling. For Seattle's Pakistani-American community, numbering about 1,000 families, it's difficult to watch from a distance.

"Five months ago, after a regular dinner with friends, we were having the same conversation we always have about how our leaders [in Pakistan] have failed us," said Jawaid Ekram, a manager at Microsoft and one of the organizers of the new Seattle chapter of The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which raises money among Pakistani expats for education projects in Pakistan.

"And we just realized it was time to take matters into our own hands."

Ekram, along with many of the people in attendance at this fundraiser, is part of Pakistan's "brain drain," a term that describes the loss of highly educated and skilled people from poor or unstable countries to opportunities abroad.

The field of medicine offers a startling example: Pakistan ranks as the third-leading source of international medical graduates in the world, but the country is grappling with a shortage of doctors. It's estimated that Pakistan loses a quarter of its doctors each year to emigration.

People skilled in business, technology and the creative professions also leave the country in significant numbers.

While some criticize white-collar immigrants for leaving developing countries in the lurch, these expatriates say their success in America has allowed them to contribute to important development work back home in Pakistan.

The Census Bureau recently tallied 286,302 Pakistanis in the United States. Other estimates put the figure closer to 500,000.

The first immigrants to the U.S. from what is now Pakistan came to the West Coast to work in agriculture and logging and on the railroads in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But many of today's Pakistani immigrants are drawn to the Puget Sound region by high-tech jobs at companies such as Microsoft and Boeing.

"Lately, only highly skilled people and their dependents are coming to the U.S.," said Ahsan Wagan, vice consul general at the Pakistan Consulate in Los Angeles, who says it is hard to provide accurate demographic information due to irregular registration in the Pakistani community. "Out of every 100 or so people that come, I would say 60 or 70 are white-collar workers."

But with almost a quarter of Pakistan's population living under the poverty line and many more without access to basic resources, these professionals represent a small class of Pakistanis who have the means and ability to immigrate abroad.

"My feet will always be in two boats," said Raza Ul-Mustafa, an organizer for TCF-Seattle at the Microsoft campus, where he has worked as a program manager for four years. "The previous generation was more about taking this side or that side, but I'm seeing the world as more interconnected now."

Sending money home

One way Pakistani expats remain connected to Pakistan is through a steady flow of money. In 2007, money sent back home from Pakistanis living abroad made up 4 percent of Pakistan's GDP.

Pakistanis in the U.S. sent back more than $1.7 billion last year. The Citizens Foundation, based in Karachi, Pakistan's economic hub, receives as much as half of its budget from Pakistanis abroad and relies on overseas chapters such as TCF-Seattle for overseas fundraising.

The organization tackles some of the stark educational inequalities there by building and maintaining well-funded schools in Pakistan's poorest communities. Now the largest educator of children in Pakistan other than the government, TCF serves 80,000 students in 600 schools.

"If you want to save Pakistan, educate her," said Dr. Ahson Rabbani, vice president of TCF in Pakistan. "Our vision is to remove barriers of class and privilege to ensure that the citizens of Pakistan may become agents of positive change."

That class and privilege is on display at Karachi Grammar School, one of the country's most elite private high schools.

High walls and glossy foliage block some of the city's steamy heat, and teenagers in blue uniforms complete with ties and KGS emblems click down breezy hallways. Almost all these students are headed for colleges outside Pakistan, more than half to universities in the United States.

"I believe very strongly that the brain drain is a very bad thing. You take everything from this country and then you take it all abroad," said Moneeth Alvi, an 18-year-old headed for Cornell University this fall. "I think it's terrible. It's people like us this country desperately needs."

Many feel conflicted

Alvi said he plans to return to Pakistan after he completes his education. But many in attendance at the fundraiser back in Bellevue said job offers, U.S.-born children and political instability can make such a promise hard to keep.

While neighboring India has seen the brain drain mitigated in recent years by a domestic tech boom and a growing economy, Pakistan's economy remains largely underdeveloped, with few employment opportunities for highly skilled professionals.

"I've seen people who have come as students and they get their degrees and they find jobs. And every year they say, 'This is the last year and then I'll move back,' " said Rizwan Nasar, an independent ad agent and current president of the Pakistan Association of Greater Seattle.

Nasar's path to settling permanently in the Seattle area embodies the conflict felt by many Pakistanis here. He fell in love with Pakistan as a boy scout when he traveled the country camping. He talks about eating freshly caught trout with rural farmers in the scenic Swat Valley.

He says he even considered a political career, dreaming of reforming Pakistan's education system from the inside out, but was discouraged by a senior politician.

"He told me, 'You have to be a landlord or a thug to make it politically here, and you're neither,' " Nasar said. "His advice to me was go and make a nice life for yourself in the U.S."

After finishing his degree in the U.S., Nasar returned to Pakistan, joined an ad agency and decided to make a life for his new family there. But after four years, he said, he couldn't adjust to the business culture and a sense of insecurity that felt stifling.

"When I went back," he said, "I realized I felt like such a misfit."

The Bellevue event reflects a community straddling two cultures. Teenage boys in bulky new Nikes and traditional Pakistani dress sulk in the hallway, avoiding their parents.

The program includes a performance from a famous Arab-American comedian and breaks to observe evening prayers in a conference room turned makeshift mosque.

The evening's auction raised $243,000, which will be used to build and maintain a school for three years in a poor neighborhood of Karachi.

"Some people think going back [to Pakistan] makes more of a difference, and some people say that staying here you can do the most," Ul-Mustafa said.

"But one thing we have to agree on is that coming here isn't the last chapter."