Kathy Lu: How the world provides for an indomitable Pakistani journalist

08/16/2014 7:00 AM

08/16/2014 6:24 PM

Among the first questions the visiting journalist from Pakistan asked me was, could he meet Lady Gaga while he was here, on his first visit to America.

I tried to let him down easy.

Then, perhaps only minutes later, he asked if he could meet the president. As in Barack Obama.

Again, I tried to temper my incredulity with a polite “not so sure.”

Who does he think he is? Who does he think I am?

As I’ve come to learn, it’s not that he thinks he’s important. It’s just that to him, the world will provide, but you don’t know how much unless you ask.

Zahid Gishkori was born 32 years ago in Layyah, a small city in northwest Pakistan with flourishing mango, orange and pomegranate trees.

His mother never went to school. Through fifth grade, Zahid’s schooling took place outdoors, as there was no school building. The students sat on “hot naked ground,” Zahid says, and “teachers had been teaching me and my fellows on a wooden board.”

He was one of three students in his secondary school who got through 10th grade. Most of his friends and classmates had quit school by then because their families needed them to work, to make money. He is eternally grateful that his parents didn’t ask the same of him.

His father regularly listened to BBC. Zahid was in the ninth grade when BBC London read a letter he had written to them about a program on Pakistan’s agricultural economy. He was so excited that a teacher encouraged him to become a journalist. So in 2004 — just 10 years after his town saw its first electric light bulb — Zahid left home to pursue a master’s degree in English and literature.

He completed his education in 2007, then moved to Islamabad, his country’s capital, to work as a journalist.

Since then, he’s earned two more degrees, in media sciences and political science, and currently works at The Express Tribune, an English daily that is a partner of the International New York Times. He’s reported from India, Germany, Sri Lanka and Nepal. He is fluent in six languages.

But it was the Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship that brought him to the United States for the first time.

Founded in 1983 by Alfred Friendly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former managing editor of The Washington Post, the program brings foreign journalists to the U.S. to learn how the press functions in a democracy. The fellows are placed in host newsrooms across the country from April through August.

The Star has had a long relationship with the program, and the Alfred and Jean Friendly Foundation board president, Randy Smith, had worked at The Star for 30 years. He is now at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Zahid — in true persistent form — said he was accepted on his fourth application.

Zahid had a few goals before he arrived. One was to work with The Star’s investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Mike McGraw. Mike was happy to oblige before he retired at the end of April.

Zahid wanted to learn more about writing — and through working with various editors, he knows how high our standards are for publication.

And he even did things not on his list. Zahid asked if he could attend the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference in San Francisco. It seemed unlikely, but with Mike’s help and a full scholarship, Zahid headed there in June.

Zahid visited St. Louis, Jefferson City and Columbia during his stay, and plans to see New York and Maryland, too, before he leaves.

All of this was possible because at some point, he said, “Listen, I want to ....”

Knowing Zahid’s life story is proof that nothing is impossible.

Zahid has more than 1,900 followers on Twitter while most of the people in his town aren’t familiar with a computer or cellphone.

He is now connected to the Kansas City Pakistani community, who have been so friendly and giving of their time to one of their own.

He has also made lasting friendships with me and his other main newsroom steward, Candace Spurny. Candace, the assistant to the editor, treated Zahid like a son — something he says he won’t forget.

He will return to Pakistan knowing what it means to have freedom of the press.

“American journalists work in a free environment; nobody uses them for their personal gains,” he told me. In Pakistan, journalists not only earn poor wages but also can be threatened by the government’s military. Journalists have been killed for what they report.

Zahid left on Aug. 9 for D.C., and will fly home on Aug. 23.

One of the last major events he attended here — as a guest of our just-retired editorial page editor Miriam Pepper — was Obama’s speech on July 30 at Uptown Theater. He got to sit a short distance from the leader of the free world.

I never thought Zahid would cross that wish off his list.

So I will not be surprised if one day, on Twitter, Zahid posts a selfie with Lady Gaga.

Because for him, anything can happen.

To reach Kathy Lu, call 816-234-4394 or send email to klu@kcstar.com.  Follow her at Twitter.com/kathyluwho.

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