“I really want to get to know much more about India,” said a young student who took part in the Exchange for Change programme by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a non-profit organisation dedicated to cultural and historic preservation. When asked at a recent orientation session here if they wanted to visit India, the excitement was palpable. “India is a nice place and there were nice people like Gandhi, besides my grandparents were born in India,” said one student who was part of the programme earlier.
Indian students said they found a lot of similarities between the two countries, not the least of them being gajar (carrot) halwa and rossogollas. They too were keen on visiting Pakistan. The programme envisages a series of exchanges between school students from India and Pakistan who write letters to each other, share cards and collages and eventually visit each other in small groups.
Some of the questions asked by Pakistani students are: “Do Indian women wear embroidered ghagras (long skirts),” “do you eat mangoes” and on a more serious note about monuments in India. The exercise combines fun and educational experience and also engages students from both countries like never before. One student said: “I always prayed for India and Pakistan to be friends and now my prayers are answered.”
The programme is an interactive initiative that works at improving relationships between two countries and a constant exchange of letters, postcards, pictures, artwork and videos encourages children to form their own opinions and have a clearer understanding of history, culture and lifestyle through cross cultural communications.
CAP project manager Ammar Khalid said the third phase of EFC India, to be launched in January 2014, will connect 2,500 students each from the two countries. “Schoolchildren from Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore will interact with students from India in Dehradun, Delhi, and Mumbai and over the course of the programme, we will facilitate dialogue in various ways,” he explained.
The programme began in 2010-2012 in collaboration with Routes2Roots, an Indian non-profit working for peace and dialogue between Pakistan and India. In the first phase, the 16-month programme allowed for a sustained dialogue between 2,400 students through letters, postcards, collages and oral histories. Ten schools in Delhi, Karachi, Lahore and Mumbai took part. In the second phase, the number of students rose to 3,500.
Students often share the histories of their grandparents and other aspects of their life and last year 24 students between the ages of 10 and 14, and 12 teachers visited India as part of the exchange.
Mr. Khalid said the idea was to identify some common talking points such as food, music, films or books. “You can gauge the impact of the project when you see the exchanges between the children. The programme has been very successful in the sense that it facilitates a dialogue between the two countries. There are so many misconceptions which can be cleared and it helps identify commonalities.”
Students also learn about history and geography and even monuments. For example, in Pakistan most students only know the Taj Mahal, Mr. Khalid said. The project helps understand the connected history of the two countries in a different way. Even though there may be fears about visiting each other’s countries, that has not stopped the programme from growing since it began and the number of students taking part has doubled.
The third phase, which begins in January next year, will end in March 2015.
Apart from letters of introduction and opinions about history, students also exchange photographs and collages of historical locations to familiarise each other about the history of the city in which they live. There is also an exchange of oral histories where schoolchildren take part in open houses at their respective schools, where their parents and grandparents narrate stories about Pakistani and Indian history. These stories are recorded and sent across the border.