18 Lessons Humans of New York Taught Pakistanis About Themselves

By Umair Mahmood | 13 Aug, 2015

Humans of New York (HONY) was a project started by Brandon Stanton in the summer of 2010 after he got fired from his finance job. Brandon traveled through Pakistan in 2015, showing glimpses of the country to the world. Interestingly, it seems the pictures taught Pakistanis more about themselves than they did to the rest of the world.


1. When you are afraid you fail to see the progress you could have made and where it could have taken you. It applies not just to swimming but everything in life.

“The most important thing about swimming is to not be afraid.”
“What advice do you have for people who are afraid?”
“Just don’t be afraid. Or you’ll drown.”

(Hunza Valley, Pakistan)



2. Women continue to battle inequality in Pakistan. If women are given the opportunity, they can work wonders and play immensely important roles in the development of Pakistan.

“One beautiful thing about advocating for the poor is that feminist ideals are advanced naturally. In order to fight eviction from their homes, women who patriarchy has kept secluded have been allowed to emerge into public life. Their husbands have been forced to choose their homes over their idea of honor. Even within my organization, the patriarchy is being broken down. Energetic young females are beginning to share influence with older male members. When you’re in a tough fight for a common cause, you can’t afford to be choosy about where the best ideas are coming from.”

(Hunza Valley, Pakistan)

3. When it comes to our family and country, we are willing to give up everything.

“This is the worst time of my life. I have two brothers. A few years ago, one of them was diagnosed with polio. And he can’t walk anymore. And last year, my other brother got a brain tumor. And he can no longer remember my name. So one brother needs me to be his legs. And the other needs me to be his mind. My father is too old to work, so I support us all on a soldier’s salary. If something happens to me, there will be no hope for any of us.”

(Hunza Valley, Pakistan)11836673_1043223582418408_9205610610344059436_n


4. Everyone has their own dreams and aspirations. The world often tries to come in between, but with self belief and perseverance, anything is possible – even in Pakistan.

“I was born paralyzed from the waist down. But this community is so tolerant that I never had to worry about fitting in. I only had to focus on improving myself. Everyone treated me as normal. I got everything my older brother got, including punishment. I never once escaped a spanking. I dove off cliffs. I swam. I played cricket and badminton. I climbed trees. The only thing my family told me not to do was play music, because they thought it would distract me from my studies. But eventually I got so good, they couldn’t even tell me to stop that.”

(Hunza Valley, Pakistan)


5. Life in Pakistan can be difficult. But this is our country, our home.

“I’m studying overseas at a small college in Minnesota. I’m just home for the summer. There’s definitely more outward freedom in the states to wear what I want and do what I want. But I never feel completely at ease because there are only three Pakistanis at my school, and I feel that everything I do reflects on my family, my religion, and my country. I feel pressured to always be exceedingly polite and well behaved, even when I don’t feel like it. But in Pakistan I can relax more, even though the electricity sometimes goes out and I’ve already been mugged twice since I’ve been back. Because here I feel like my actions only reflect on me.”

(Hunza Valley, Pakistan)11831676_1045079198899513_1544997242159806181_n


6. Happiness is wanting what you have.

“When I’m bored, I call up Radio Pakistan and request a song, then I start dancing. I’ll even dance on a rainy day. It’s my way of expressing how grateful I am. I am the happiest man in Pakistan.”

(Passu, Pakistan)


7. Everyone has a heart, and every heart wants to love. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, American or Pakistani. 

“I admired her from afar for a while, and eventually summed up the courage to tell her my feelings. She told me that she felt the same way. This was before cell phones, so at first our meetings were limited to random interactions on the street. But then we both got mobiles and started talking on the phone. Eventually she told me that she wanted to marry me. I sent my mother to ask her family for permission, but they didn’t think I was a suitable match. They were a higher class of people. They were educated. Her father was a business owner. I tried to plead with them: ‘I’m not paralyzed,’ I told them. ‘I work. Why am I not good enough?’ But I was never given an answer.”

(Hunza Valley, Pakistan)


8. Many of us take our education for granted. We forget that with education comes hope, and with hope comes a better future for Pakistan.

“Education changed the lives of my entire family. Before education, we knew only how to work. It was always very quiet in our home. My grandfather was a laborer, but he paid to send my father to a tutor so that he could learn to read. He told my father that, if nothing else, he should begin by learning how to read and write his name. When I was born, my father taught me how to read. I started with local newspapers. I learned that our village was part of a country. Then I moved on to books. And I learned that there was an entire world around this mountain. I learned about human rights. Now I’m studying political science at the local university. I want to be a teacher.”

(Hunza Valley, Pakistan)11253734_1045192165554883_4561212694742836236_n


9. “Maa Maa Hoti Hai“. Regardless of whether you’re 16 or 46, you’ll always be your mother’s child and she will always worry for you out of love.

“I’m forty years old, and she still can’t fall asleep unless I’m home safe at night.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)


10. Life will always present you with challenges. How you deal with those challenges will determine the kind of person you become.

“When I was ten years old, I had a bad disease that caused me to lose consciousness and when I woke up, I was blind. I screamed: ‘Mom, I can’t see anymore!’ And we both started crying. It’s been a very hard life for me. Nobody would give his daughter to a blind man. If I dwelled on how lonely I am, I’d have died a long time ago. My only friend is the radio.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)


11. The biggest form of discrimination women receive is from their own society, a society that is too often engulfed in a sexist mentality.

“I want to have my own career. I don’t want to depend on anyone else. But there’s a view in our society that an independent woman doesn’t belong here. She is not ‘one of us.’ So if you want to do some things on your own, they expect you to do everything on your own. And that’s difficult. Because wanting to be independent doesn’t mean I want to be alone.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)


12. There are good people everywhere, trying to bring a positive change in the best way they know how.

“Lyari is a tough neighborhood. There are a lot of gangs, and people are always trying to bribe young kids to do bad things. I’ve run this arcade for 15 years. It makes me happy to see children playing games instead of getting caught up in those things.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)11822759_1047845135289586_7392509813455256123_n


13. Love is a two sided relationship.

“Shortly after we were married, I got tuberculosis and rashes broke out all over my body. They smelled so bad that I had to be cleaned three times a day. She always made me fresh food and made sure I had clean clothes every time I bathed. One morning, during this time, she asked me: ‘Would you do the same if I got sick?’ I promised her: ‘I’ll do even more.’ She died a few years ago from a brain tumor. She was in bed for the last three years of her life. Toward the end, she couldn’t identify people. Water from her brain would drain from her eyes. I ran home from the shop three times a day to help her go to the bathroom. I was always sure to turn her. She never had a single bedsore. In the end, the doctor told me: ‘It would not have been possible to take better care of her.’”

(Karachi, Pakistan)


14. Your gender shouldn’t define your future. #womenempowerment

“I belong to a very conservative family, so I’ve been dealing with a lot of permission issues. There are a lot of boundaries on me. Most of the women in my family are housewives, and my father would prefer me to become a housewife as well. But I’ve been working so hard in school. I’m studying all the freaking time. These exams are so tough. I don’t want all this hard work to be wasted. I want to be a businesswoman. My mother is a housewife. She needs to ask my father for everything. When he’s not around, she tells me: ‘Do exactly what you want to do.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)


15. Opportunities are harder to come by in Pakistan. Don’t waste them by taking things for granted.

“My father made this business and I took it over from him. He was a self-made man. His own father died young, so he only studied up to fifth grade. He quit school and started delivering food and tea when he was ten. Eventually he bought this small table, and grew it into a restaurant with 27 tables. He wanted us to have a better life. With all the work he put into us, I should have accomplished more. But I was responsible for my own destruction. He sent me to one of the best high schools in the city, but he was always at work. So I had no supervision and all I did was play video games. He worked so hard for me and I didn’t even study. But my son will be different. He’s going to be an important man.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)11826000_1049556145118485_979784245481978886_n


16. There’s nothing more valuable than a child’s happiness.

“He’s my only grandchild. Every time he does anything, I enjoy it. The other day he pulled down the TV set. I didn’t even mind.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)11825142_1050699768337456_5888639465022407760_n


17. Many Pakistanis have lost their lives due to terrorism. Unlike the rest of the world, Pakistanis are able to remember the goodness in people rather than focus on the evil.

“My father was killed in a suicide bombing in 2003, while he was attending Friday prayers. We were at home. We’d prepared a lunch for him and were expecting him any minute. Suddenly our relatives began calling to ask if he’d been at the mosque. He left us a small, sweet message before he died. He said: ‘I love you all and follow what I taught you.’ The ambulance driver told us that he refused to be taken away, and that he insisted they treat other people first. We believe he was martyred. And we believe that those who are martyred never die. We think he’s still with our family and shares our concerns. Whenever I am tense or nervous, or achieve something big, I smell him. He had his own smell. I don’t know how to describe it.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)11846507_1050746634999436_4352058680788760736_n


18. Mainstream media doesn’t tell the entire story of Pakistan and Pakistanis. There’s a different story that people often don’t hear.

“It seems that violence is the only lens through which ordinary people in Pakistan are viewed in the media. Even if it’s a story about a Pakistani rock band, it will be set in the context of a violent society. There’s nothing false about the perspective. Pakistan has a problem with violence. Violence is used to silence journalists, and judges, and moderate religious scholars. And it seems to be getting worse. Every time I see somebody on television speaking out in anger against extremism or corruption—I’ll say a prayer for them. And every time one of those people is murdered, those of us who aspire to be like them grow a little more afraid. So it’s not that the reports of violence are false. But they are only a small part of the truth. There’s so much other life being lived here. But there’s only so much space in international newspapers. And there’s so much news in the world. So only the most jarring stories make the cut.”

(Karachi, Pakistan)11828592_1051754668231966_1463061436921675384_n


One of the greatest things about Humans of New York is that it shows us an insight into someone’s life. Too often we walk or drive past people, lost in our worlds, always quick to judge someone based on what they look like, what they’re wearing or what they’re driving. We forget, that each individual person has their own story, some good and some bad. And though at times we thing we know everything about the world, we can learn a lot more than we think from each other.

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