Marvin Parvez regrets that when Pakistan and Afghanistan receive international attention these days, it’s usually about a bombing or attack.
Through his longtime humanitarian work — currently as a regional representative in Islamabad, Pakistan, for Community World Service Asia — he finds most people in the region to be genuine, generous and “extremely hardworking” as they try to provide a better life for their children.
“People want to have good relationships with their neighbors in the next street and their neighbors in the region,” Parvez told United Methodist News Service during a U.S. visit in August to partner agency offices in New York and Washington.
This week, Parvez also is representing the Church of Pakistan at the World Methodist Conference in Houston. A native of Karachi, a city of more than 20 million on the southern-most tip of the Indian Ocean, he grew up in a Methodist family. In 1970, four denominations — Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Scottish Presbyterian — united to form the Church of Pakistan.
Over the years, as he has worked on humanitarian projects in central, south and southeast Asia, Parvez said he has expanded his vision of his own identity. “I would consider myself more an Asian than just a Karachi-ite,” he noted.
“Ecumenist” is a fitting description, too, although Parvez also has a broader description of that term.
With 200 staff and projects in Pakistan, Aghanistan and Asia-Pacific, CWS Asia represents not only different denominations but also different ethnic and religious backgrounds, even those who do not identify with a faith tradition. “To us, humanity is the prime focus of our work,” he said.
Working on the community level
CWS Asia is a partner now with Church World Service — the ecumenical relief agency currently led by the Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist pastor — rather than one of its country offices. That change was part of a natural evolution that began around 1997, when Parvez was hired.
“Nationalization has a long history in the ecumenical world,” explained Parvez, who is based in Islamabad. “It’s taken a long time, because we wanted to be on solid footing.”
The key, he noted, was building good systems, forming good relationships around the globe and gaining credibility and experience. CWS Asia, which is part of the ACT Alliance, has accomplished those goals, says David Wildman, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
Being present in Pakistan as a CWS country office since 1954 and working “over the long haul” in communities created the relationships that resulted in CWS Asia’s strong transition to an independent regional agency, Wildman said. “They continue to do quality work and have excellent staff on the ground and in the field.”
In recent years, Global Ministries has provided funding for peace education for schoolchildren and various projects related to the Church of Pakistan, including a plan to increase security at Christian schools, said Becky Asedillo, a Global Ministries executive who has made several visits to Pakistan. “We are in conversation around providing new support for the agency’s programs,” she added.
One program that had the support of Global Ministries, the Church of Sweden and the British Methodist Church was “Making Church-Run Schools Safe in Pakistan.”
A massive attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, which killed 145 students and staff, the majority between 8 and 18 years of age, led to a government recommendation that church schools improve their security.
“Schools have become a major target in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Parvez explained. “The church schools provide quality education, but at a very affordable rate. So they didn’t have money to upgrade their security systems and structures.”
The project, implemented by CWS Asia and three local partners — the Dioceses of Hyderabad, Multan and Raiwind — included installation of surveillance systems, stronger walls topped with barbed wire and metal barriers, and training for staff and security guards.
UMCOR support for disaster relief
Vulnerable communities in Pakistan’s mountainous regions that are prone to drought, flash flooding and the occasional earthquake often need disaster assistance. CWS Asia often works in partnership with the United Methodist Committee on Relief in those situations.
On Oct. 26, 2015, for example, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck major cities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, affecting all four provinces of Pakistan. The earthquake left several hundred people dead, thousands injured, and even more without shelter or a source of livelihood.
In partnership with UMCOR, CWS Asia provided winterization kits for 470 affected families in the Swat district, including quilts, floor mats, plastic sheets and cotton mattresses.
A few months earlier, when heavy rains caused severe flooding in Pakistan’s Sindh Province,
the Gothki District was among the most affected. UMCOR and CWS Asia met the emergency food needs for 530 of the most vulnerable families and provided access to safe drinking water to 4,500 flood-affected families from the Gothki District.
Parvez also credits UMCOR with supporting his agency to expand its reach to Iran at the end of 2015 to help refugees living there from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan prepare for a harsh winter.
In Qom, south of Iran’s capital, Teheran, the winterization program particularly helped women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities. “Winters can be very harsh if you don’t have proper clothing or blankets,” Parvez noted. “Kids were especially given socks and hats.”
Sometimes displacement is related to regional conflict. CWS Asia offered aid, for example, to displaced residents in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan during fighting as the Taliban took over the province. Programs related to interfaith harmony and peaceful co-existence are part of the regular overall work.
In the end, the agency’s effectiveness all goes back to the connections with communities, Wildman said, which earns it respect from those communities, from governments and from the larger humanitarian aid community.
Parvez credits cooperation as an important element for success in humanitarian outreach. The partnership with UMCOR and Global Ministries “continues to grow,” he pointed out. He added that the umbrella for participation offered by ACT Alliance, which also includes United Methodists, has extended beyond humanitarian appeals.
“The alliance has grown and become much stronger in all areas, whether its development, advocacy or humanitarian aid,” he said.