Following an encounter with The Foundation in Pakistan, Mohammad Khan was inspired to forge a career helping others. In this article by AusAID’s Phil Lynch, see how Mohammad has come full circle to now work for The Foundation, after completing development studies in Australia.

“God is merciful – but for three seconds he was angry”. A quote attributed to an unnamed local Pakistani man in October 2005 after the South Asia earthquake.

It was a three second episode that claimed the lives of approximately 75,000 people across Pakistan, India and Afghanistan and left an estimated three million homeless. Measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, the quake triggered almost 1,000 aftershocks that continued to damage parts of the region for the next three weeks.

Five years later the country was again devastated by a natural disaster. This time it was floods that wreaked havoc, killing 2,000 people and affecting the lives of a further 21 million.

Back on the day of the 2005 earthquake, Mohammad Khan was busy in his job as operations manager for a housing company in mountainous north-west Pakistan. Hard at work too were the doctors and staff of The Fred Hollows Foundation, the Australian organisation synonymous with provision of eye care in many developing countries.

But the same three seconds were to bring about a sudden switch in direction for the Pakistani arm of The Foundation and at the same time profoundly shape the life of Mohammad Khan – who, as a result, came to study in Australia on a development scholarship to enable him to help his country to reduce poverty.

Until then he had no knowledge of Australia but the sheer scale of the emergency provided a rallying call for anyone with the skills to help, bringing together Mohammad and The Foundation named in honour of much-loved Australian, Fred Hollows.

The Fred Hollows Foundation immediately placed all but emergency eye health procedures on hold and mobilised every resource at its disposal into a rescue, relief and rebuilding effort. Using her well established links in the areas of health, business and defence, The Foundation’s Pakistan Country Manager Dr Rubina Gillani led the team.

The first task was the purchase and distribution of essential items to hospitals, followed by delivery of doctors, medicines, food packages, tents and blankets to villages in most need, before the inevitable direction of efforts towards the recovery and rebuilding process, including the engagement of additional staff.

Mohammad Khan was leading the relief efforts of the Al-Fajr Foundation, a local non government organisation with whom The Fred Hollows Foundation partnered for relief efforts.

“We had about 2,000 earthquake victims to whom we were supplying food, health and medical facilities and accommodation," Mohammad says. "They were fed twice a day with the funding that was coming direct from Australia,” he recalls, speaking of money channelled through The Fred Hollows Foundation by the Australian Government through AusAID. “So that was the first interaction I had with AusAID.”

In partnership with the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Australian Government has since built 511 transitional and permanent schools in the earthquake affected regions and is still hard at work, nearly five years on from that terrible disaster. The rebuilding efforts have been further increased since the recent floods.

The Kashmir earthquake was to trigger a chain of events leading eventually to Mohammad’s arrival in Australia as a masters student at the University of Melbourne. A career in development was born. He is one of 140 Pakistani students with Australian Development Scholarships gained at Australian universities. Each is employing skills and knowledge gained in post graduate study to enhance and enrich the lives of thousands of families fighting to escape poverty in their homeland.  

Prior to 2005, Mohammad’s international knowledge was limited to a few development agencies involved in construction. But the experience gained working alongside Australians in the adrenalin-charged atmosphere of disaster relief has left an indelible impression of our country and aid program.

“I have been involved with a couple of international NGOs and I can say that Australian aid is truly very neutral in nature, in terms of political orientation. You know there is no pre-conditionality and things like that,” he observed while in Australia. “People ... [in Australia] are so polite, so courteous. They’re accommodating, peace-loving people.”

When he saw newspaper advertisements in all the major Pakistani dailies seeking applicants for AusAID scholarships to study in Australia, Mohammad could hardly believe his eyes.

Despite having to battle for a place with thousands of fellow hopefuls he threw every resource at his disposal into the application process. Armed with plenty of material from his experience with The Fred Hollows Foundation, he was determined not to miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I actually came up with a fairly big proposal,” he says, laughing loudly. “I put up some video clips of the camp and the whole thing.”

Very few applicants could have matched his fervour.

“Before coming [to Australia]... when I was working in development, I had this thirst for knowledge,” he explains.

One of the key planks of the scholarship program is to build leadership and technical skills to benefit the student’s country of origin. At any one time between 2,500 and 3,500 people from developing countries are studying in Australia under the program. In the most recent survey of arriving students, 80 per cent stated that their principal reason for seeking a scholarship was to contribute to their country’s development.

And this is the very essence of the development scholarships provided in Pakistan – to help deepen skills and leadership which can in turn be used to help the country develop and better provide for its people. The program is part of the broader aid partnership between Australia and Pakistan to improve governance, health, education, and the rural development.

During his Masters in Development Studies, Mohammad Khan researched topics such as the relationships and challenges posed to development by ethnic conflict, religious tensions, gender disparity, micro-finance, poverty and health issues.

Having already attempted to overcome so many of these issues in a practical sense, the opportunity to round out his knowledge at the University of Melbourne convinced the scholarship panel that Mohammad was well equipped to become a leading development specialist in Pakistan.

Right now he appears even better suited to being an ambassador for the development scholarship program, now known as the Australia Awards. “Even now when I tell my friends and relatives I had such a generous scholarship from Australia they don’t believe it,” he adds with the broad grin that seemingly never leaves his face.

The benefits of the scholarship to both Mohammad and his country are self-evident, but the opportunity to express his gratitude for the Australian Government funding is a bonus. “I couldn’t think of a way to thank them in a manner to which they deserve.”

Mohammed Khan has now finished his studies in Australia and is working for The Fred Hollows Foundation as a project officer in the Pakistan office.