Article, Bend Bulletin 1/20/2006

Building more than houses

Bend man’s visit to Kashmir helps change locals’ idea of the West

By Markian Hawryluk / The Bulletin

Published: January 20. 2006 6:00AM PST

Where are you headed for your vacation this year? Cancun? Maui? Maybe Europe?

Local businessman Sam Carpenter has a different suggestion: Pakistan. Oh, and did we mention you’ll be doing manual labor when you get there? It’s not quite Club Med, now, is it?

On Oct. 8, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the northern region of Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Azad Kashmir, killing more than 87,000 people and injuring 69,000 more. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, extensive damage occurred in the Muzaffarabad area, where entire villages were destroyed, and at Uri where 80 percent of the town was devastated.

The first reports of the quake suggested the damage was not that bad. It was only a day later that Carpenter, who had been to Pakistan several times before on business, learned of the true magnitude of the damage.

He started making arrangements to fly there. He would be one of the few Westerners allowed to roam freely through the country.

For many of the Pakistanis and Kashmiris, he would be the first Caucasian they had ever met.

When he got a haircut and shave in Lahore (for 65 cents and a $2 tip), his Pakistani friend told him the barber would probably talk for a year about cutting a Westerner’s hair.

“The kids come up to me and just touch me. The men come up with two-hand handshakes and smile at me, and when I smile back, it’s ‘Oh my god, maybe that’s not true what I’ve been told about the West,'” Carpenter says. “I’ll bet you I affected two hundred people that way.”

Carpenter started thinking: What if he could get even 20 Americans to travel to Kashmir, each impacting 200 to 300 people that way? He made arrangements with a Pakistani nonprofit relief group to meet Americans at the airport and shuttle them to affected areas. There they would work alongside the locals to build shelters for the affected villagers. An estimated three million people remain homeless in the midst of a fierce Himalayan winter.

Carpenter says in many ways, the Kashmir region is more closed than China because of a border dispute between Pakistan and India. It is the longest-running border dispute in the world and has led to two of the three India-Pakistan wars, in 1947-1948 and in 1965. The two sides had another brief skirmish over the area in 1999.

Despite United Nations efforts to bring the two sides together, the Kashmir region remains split between the two nuclear powers. But Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been quoted as saying the earthquake may present “the opportunity of a lifetime” to settle the dispute once and for all.

Carpenter believes it’s an opportunity to change perceptions of the United States as well. The predominantly Muslim region has heard plenty of rhetoric about how Americans are “slaughtering innocent Muslims” in Iraq.

“America is seen as this colossal force, and because it’s seen as this colossal force, I think it’s naturally seen as evil,” Carpenter says. “However, having said that, Kashmiris love Americans. They think we’re self-centered and they hate the government, but they treated me like a king. And they were so delighted to know that I wasn’t a crazy guy.”

When he returned to Bend, Carpenter created Kashmir Family Aid, a nonprofit organization aimed at raising funds for the earthquake victims and facilitating relief efforts. While other international relief groups are in the region to provide aid, Carpenter says his organization will differ in two ways. First, 90 percent of the funds collected will go directly to relief efforts. Carpenter has pledged to cover any administrative costs greater than 10 percent of collections from his own pocket.

He has also pledged full transparency. His Web site, Kashmir, will list all donations and provide a full accounting of how the money was spent. Carpenter plans to take the funds to Pakistan himself and ensure that they are used to buy the needed materials and supplies, and used to help the victims of the quake. He plans to return to the region in February.

Carpenter will present a lecture and slide show on the earthquake and relief efforts on Sunday (see “If You Go”). He hopes to raise money for the relief efforts, but more so to encourage individuals to travel.

“I know there will be plenty of donations, but close to my heart is to get some young American males over there,” he says. “The idea is for the Americans and the Kashmiris to work together.”

Volunteers are asked to pay for their own flight and to bring $5,000 to distribute to the relief cause. They would be put on a work crew with four or five Pakistani or Kashmiri workers, who may not speak any English. Volunteers must spend at least three weeks in the area, helping to build 180-square-foot shelters to house eight to 10 people.

For cultural and safety reasons, only males will able to join the work crews for the time being. Carpenter is working on finding ways for women to travel to Pakistan and help with the relief efforts.

Volunteers must be capable of doing hard manual labor under difficult conditions.

“They will be dirty and cold,” Carpenter says. “But if they want to get in belly deep, they will be working with a bunch of friendly people in a very exotic and mysterious place. And it will be the time of their lives.”