Finding friendship in a safe haven: A Pakistani researcher’s experience in China

By Xinhua writer Sudeshna Sarkar, Li Li, Ma Qian –

When Saira Safdar, dressed in her white coat, the universal uniform of researchers in laboratories, poring over her test tubes with frothing chemicals in them, and lifting her head only occasionally to make jottings about her experiment on her notepad, she looks like any other student working on their Ph.D. programs at Beijing’s Beihang University.

But there is something to set her apart from the others. The 28-year-old is a new face of Pakistan. “When I came to China as a Master’s student five years ago and people asked me where I am from, I saw amazement in their eyes when I told them I am from Pakistan,” she told Xinhua. “‘Pakistan!’ they would exclaim. ‘But isn’t that where women have to cover their faces and stay at home?'”


It gives Safdar immense satisfaction to show a new side of Pakistan to the outside world. She comes from a small town in the northwestern administrative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a relatively underdeveloped tribal area with strong traditions and a conservative mindset.

“I am the first woman from our town to go abroad on this scholarship provided by the Pakistani government in conjunction with a foreign government,” she said. “The fact that I am unmarried, am pursuing higher education and am living in China on my own will show you the change that has been taking place in Pakistan. When I have so much freedom, think of the emancipation women in the bigger cities like Islamabad and Karachi enjoy.”

Safdar also likes to tell them about a compatriot and fellow Ph.D. student at the university who is from Waziristan, a rugged mountainous region in the northwest. “To people outside, it’s ‘the place where suicide bombings happen all the time,'” she said. “So when they see a woman from there doing her higher studies, they realize there is more to Pakistan than hearsay.”

Safdar’s dream is to contribute to this new face of Pakistan and she says her life in China, the neighboring country Pakistanis regard as their all-weather friend, has contributed to sustaining this dream.

“In the beginning, my dream was to be an engineer, a good wife and a good mother,” she said. “So I became an engineer. But then, when I went to the university, I saw other students talking about studying further and going abroad for that. That’s when I started thinking if I had the opportunity, I would also like to do the same. Then I got the scholarship and my life took a new direction.”


Safdar says since her country opened doors for her, her new dream is to serve her country. To fulfil her new dream, Safdar now wants to be a teacher. “After I finish my research, I will go back to Pakistan and teach in the university,” she said. “I want to be a good teacher whom students will remember as someone who gave them knowledge and where to find support.”

Her Ph.D. is in material engineering. She is working on magnets used in aircraft turbine engines that have to withstand temperature as high as 500 degrees Celsius. She is devising a protective coating that will protect the magnet from oxidation so that it can be used longer and is thereby more economical.

This work, she says, would not have been possible if she had not come to China. Despite initial trepidations about the language barrier in China, she chose to come here because some of her professors, who had been here before her, encouraged her. They said the laboratory equipment and facilities were very advanced and would further her research.

Also, they told her that it was one of the safest places, especially for women. She found all of it true, especially the safety part. “I can go wherever I want and whenever I want,” she said with assurance.

Looking at China’s development, Safdar has no doubt that within years, China will become “the biggest economic giant and the most powerful country.”

“I can say that I came here and had my education (in) China. I feel proud that I have a relationship with China,” she said. “I have made friends here. When I go back, all the things that I have learned from my lab mates, my teachers, will help me. It will be helpful for my students as well.”

Safdar thinks the trend of students going to different countries for their education is a good way of creating fellowship across borders.

“Our government wants (us) to communicate with other foreign students, so we can exchange ideas, learn about different cultures, develop new ideas,” she said. “When Chinese students interact with foreign students and know each other, it’s good for both.”  Enditem