The First FMA from Pakistan
Laguna, the Philippines, 21 June 2017 -- On May 23, Sr. Julia Karen Ashraf made her first profession in Mornese Center of Spirituality in Laguna, Philippines, in the hands of Sr. Mabel Pilar, the Provincial and delegate of Mother General. Sr. Julia is the first FMA from Pakistan. While the FMA are not yet present in Pakistan, Sr. Julia got to know of the FMA through the SDB in Pakistan who belong to the FIS Province. Sr. Julia belongs to “St. Mary Mazzarello” Philippine Province and is presently assigned in the community of Mary Help of Christians College in Canlubang, Laguna.
Pakistan, a South Asian country, has the Salesian presence since 1998 with two SDB communities in Lahore and Quetta. Since 2015 was established the FIS - Pakistan delegation.
I’m Julia Karen Ashraf, was born in a Catholic family, originally from Lahore, Pakistan. We are seven siblings, of five females and two males, I’m the 5th child. By the grace of God my both parents are still alive. I consider myself very blessed and I thank God for it that I was born in a Christian family. There are very few Christians in Pakistan. The majority of Pakistan consists on Muslims who are 97% of the whole population. The Christians (both Catholic and other denominations) are 1.5% of the whole population of Pakistan. Being raised up in a catholic family, my grandparents and parents played an important role in my religious formation. They were my first mentors and catechists. Thanks to them in our family there was never made any difference among the female and male racism mentality of Pakistani culture. And they had provided the atmosphere where female and male could have the equal rights.
From my childhood I had the desire to do something good for the poor children and women, since I observed my family doing service with their little resources. When I turned 13, I find myself in great urge for searching the deepest meaning of my existence. I started questioning the importance of my life. To find out the real purpose of my life, I involved myself in many volunteer works and start meeting with different religious congregations in my home town, and in the city but I didn’t find the exact answer I was looking for and was not satisfied and at peace. But the urge of this quest was not extinguished there and kept me serving the Lord in all ways I could do. Though at times I find myself hopeless but I believe that it is the Holy Eucharist that sustained me throughout that period.
I was only 15 years old when first time I met the Salesians in 1999. My two brothers and one sister worked with the Salesians. I was so impressed by the prayer life, dedication and joy of the first Salesian missionaries especially of Fr. Hans Dopheide, (may he rest in peace) I felt so attracted to join the female counterpart of the Salesian Congregation. When I expressed my desire to him he said “pray and wait” until the Salesian Sisters will come to Pakistan (for they themselves have just arrived in Pakistan). After some years another Salesian priest lent me a book about St. Mary Mazzarello and after reading it, I felt assured of my desire to be a FMA.
I was 15 when I expressed my desire to become a religious sister. I had been waiting for a long time already. Now I was 24 years old and though I was involved in many other parish activities such as catechist, working as office secretary in the Pakistan Catholic Bible Commission and many other volunteer works; continue to meet different women congregations but still I simply felt that I am not called to be with them. Deep in my heart I was always hoping to be an FMA even though if it was still a very unlikely dream because the FMA were not present in Pakistan.
One of priest close to our family advised me to join any of the female religious congregations which were already in Pakistan or to choose the married life. As in the Pakistani culture the girls when they start adolescence the parents already start thinking of their marriage. Since I was also coming of age for marriage. After much prayer I answered yes to one of my suitors but on an agreement that I am waiting for the Salesian sisters or any answer from them and I will wait until my 25th birthday; if not I will marry. At the age of 25, I would have to decide whether I would enter the convent or choose married life. And just two months before my birthday after these long years of waiting, the Salesians invited me to attend a vocation encounter in Quetta. I told my fiancé about my decision to pursue my vocation for religious life, even though it was too hard for him to accept it, but giving respect to my decision he had let me go.
In 2009, after a year of preparation with the Salesians in Quetta city, I was finally sent to the Philippines. I was so happy and I felt blessed to be in the Philippines because it is a Catholic country. The majority of the people I encountered were of full of God’s hope, faith, generosity, joy, and welcoming spirit. At once I l felt so much at home. The mix cultural experience gave me new awareness and had widened up my view of not only thinking about my own culture but appreciating other cultures too. As I continue my vocational journey, the desire of belonging completely to God is growing stronger. It is my greatest desire to integrate the values of different cultures I have lived with together, with my own culture and the Salesian charism and bring it to Pakistan; to promote the dignity of life, of women and of young people. It is my prayer, that may God make me His instrument of hope and encouragement for the youth of Pakistan. I also hope, wish and pray with God’s will to see the first FMA community in Pakistan one day.
I am very grateful to all the Salesians who were and who are in Pakistan, especially Fr Peter Zago, Fr Julio Orego and Fr Julio Palmieri for their spiritual and material support to make my dream realized. I am also very grateful to Mother General for accepting me in the congregation and to the Philippine Province (FIL) for the fraternal affection and acceptance.
My personal message to the young people: "My dear young people God is waiting for your yes, entrust yourself to Him, He will take care of your concerns. He knows what is best for you. There will be many ups and downs in life just hold on to God. In the silence of your heart you will hear Him. Trust in Him and He will show you when, where and how to go. I keep you all in the heart of my prayers even I do not know you, you are part of my life. May God bless us and our families."