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Visiting Pakistani educators mark first day in Missoula with foray to Southgate Mall

Some human idiosyncrasies have no cultural barriers.

After 50 hours of traveling from Pakistan to Missoula, a group of 21 Pakistani educators spent their first day in town Saturday sightseeing at Southgate Mall.

The women peeled off in a shopping scrum in search of shoes and clothes, while the men went to find something to eat.

Bundled in scarves and long coats, they didn't look much different from the locals who swarmed the mall in search of $5 sweaters and two-for-one turtlenecks at the post-holiday blowout sales.

Like Montanans, the Pakistanis know the fine art of layering for cold weather, and they like a good deal as much as Americans do.

At the end of their foray, the group reassembled by the clock tower, where Muhammad Zafar Yab couldn't resist showing the women his one purchase: a giant stuffed bear for his 7-year-old daughter.

He said he plans to buy a few more gifts, but he has time - eight weeks - until he sees his family again.

Yab is among the first group of Pakistani educators to come to Missoula on an educational program sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development and UM's Office of International Programs.

The program, which is funded by the U.S. government, has a twofold mission: to help Pakistan bolster its educational system by improving the quality of teachers, and to help the country become more democratic by creating a greater base of educated citizenry.

Over the course of the three-year program, about 120 to 150 Pakistani school administrators and teachers will spend a few months in Missoula to learn how to improve their education system with the help of UM faculty and area elementary educators.

This learning opportunity is vitally important to the future of Pakistan, said Muhammad Naeem, a college administrator from the province of Sindh.

"There are many problems in Pakistan's educational system due to the lack of trained, skilled teachers," Naeem said. "There is no check and balance to our system. We have overcrowded classes, and no training budget.

"While I am here, my hope is to learn a lot about modern teaching strategies and administrative strategies," he said. "We must know the changes that are taking place in the world and we have to teach our people.

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"Everything, I think, depends on our education system."

In some regions of Balochistan and the North West Frontier provinces, where some of the country's most traditional residents live, most children do not attend high school, and a large percentage of families do not allow their daughters to have any kind of formal schooling.

"It is very frustrating," said Rubina Maswod, an elementary school principal from Balochistan. "The whole family depends on girls, the whole family is run by women, and if the women are ill-equipped, then there is no progress in the home."

During the course of their eight-week program, the educators will visit Missoula's middle schools and high schools, attend classes and study how the curriculum and classrooms work. They will also visit UM classes, and learn from faculty how to build classroom curriculums, how to improve and motivate teachers, and how to use modern teaching equipment such as computers.

Each of the educators will be given a new laptop computer to learn on and to take back home with them to keep. The hope is that each of the educators will stay in touch with their Pakistani colleagues and with their Missoula colleagues when they return to their regular work, said David Seider, program adviser with the Academy for Educational Development, the agency that is administering the federal grant.

Although their trip to America is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they are excited to spend the next eight weeks in Missoula, it is difficult to be so far from family, Maswod said.

"Being gone two months is a long time," she said, "but without sacrifice, you don't get anything."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com

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