Since Partition, Pakistan has been experiencing brain drain for a variety of reasons, from political instability to inadequate job opportunities. According to some statistics, up to two-thirds of Pakistanis want to emigrate.
But today that trend may be shifting.
Despite increased security threats, for young Pakistanis, life goes on. Omer Aftab, who is currently in Lahore, says, "after the initial shock everything goes back to normal, no one skips work and no one changes their plan." Nadia Naviwala, a Harvard University graduate student working with an NGO in Pakistan, adds " it's not fair to escape the situation when you know you can make a change here -- I would still brave the situation, and I am." The younger lot who return to Pakistan feel insecure at times, but understand that this is a temporary phase Pakistan is experiencing, and that eventually things will return to normal. The youth continue to live their lives, and business goes on as usual.
Many young Pakistanis are choosing to return to the Land of the Pure with the intention of carving a forgotten path in a country they left long ago.
But are these students and recent graduates returning because of the post-9/11 global situation and heightened discrimination faced by Pakistanis? Or is it because it's relatively easier to make a breakthrough here? Can it be that Generation Y is more identity conscious and invested in the future of the nation?
Whatever their motivation, young Pakistanis, it seems, are slowly reversing the brain drain.
Naviwala, for example, studies public policy at Harvard and she is currently in Pakistan working with an NGO catering to internally displaced persons. She visited Pakistan five years ago with her family, but says the experience is different now that she's on her own: 'After visiting Pakistan and working on the ground, it's hard to go back to the United States and be so comfortable.'
Naviwala has returned to deepen her academic understanding of the country. 'I can only learn so much about the country from Washington DC or Cambridge. I came back to learn to understand and experience the country as Pakistanis do, which is different from the Pakistani-American perspective.'
Despite her own motivations, Naviwala believes that expatriate Pakistanis return 'not to make money, but because they feel needed here.' A case in point is Talha Zaheer, a freelance writer and avid soccer player based in Toronto who is currently in Pakistan making a documentary film. 'There [are] a lot more opportunities here than abroad,' he says. 'There's so much good work to be done.... I think people need to come here and try to put in new systems that function better. I think if you surround yourself with positive people and keep at it, things will change in Pakistan.
For his part, Omer Aftab, an undergraduate at Harvard University working with a media group in Pakistan, thinks that people return to get a break. 'There are more opportunities in Pakistan. Like Bill Gates says, where there's a problem, there's an opportunity. I'd like to start an entrepreneurial program that benefits a large number of people.' He adds that it makes sense to opt for Pakistan rather than another developing country because 'we can make the most difference here, we understand the community better here, and yes, there is some attachment.'
That attachment can certainly be a motivating factor. As Sehar Tariq, a student at Princeton, put it, 'the one thing I'm passionate about is Pakistan. I might not be passionate about climate change, but if it has something to do with Pakistan, I'd do it.'
Ripe with opportunity, in urgent need of development, welcoming and familiar, Pakistan is well positioned to attract its brightest minds back to their homeland. However, the question remains: can expatriates bring about the change we need or are their ambitions merely romantic notions?
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