One medical predicament created an unlikely bridge between Pakistan and Alabama, with Shahzeb Anwer at the center.

It is hard to think of two places more distinct than the state of Alabama and Pakistan. Geographically, politically, culturally– any way you slice it these two seem diametrically opposed.

However, one medical predicament created an unlikely bridge between the two locations, with 31 year old Shahzeb Anwer at the center.

The story begins in Pakistan, where Anwer is originally from. Anwer had been diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism, a disease that caused him to get kidney stones once or twice a year since he was 18. He began having digestive problems, and developed skin issues, but learned that treatment for his medical issue was a surgery impossible in Pakistan because of limited technology. 

He looked into traveling to Turkey, Singapore, the UK, and India for treatment, but pandemic-related travel restrictions made things difficult, and Anwer was worried about travel costs as well as the out-of-pocket cost of the procedure itself. Eventually, Anwer found out that having the procedure done at UAB hospital in Birmingham, Alabama was the most cost-effective and efficient place to receive the medical care. 

He Goes to the Internet to Learn About Alabama

So, he started learning more about Alabama, a state he’d never even heard of before. Like many would do, Anwer consulted the internet- posting on websites like Facebook and Reddit to ask for help understanding the culture he was about to enter, if only for a short time. 

His first post in Birmingham’s subreddit was benign– about clothes. Trying to be respectful and immerse in a new culture, he asked if he should get new clothes, unfamiliar with the customs of this new city. What came next blew Anwer away.

“People responded in a way that I wouldn’t even expect from my own people in Pakistan,” he said to a CBS news correspondent. People online, in the group from around Birmingham, began helping Anwer in unique ways they knew how– helping with logistics, giving him travel tips, and offering emotional support along the way. 

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One of those who offered help was Andrew Harris. When Anwer made his way to Birmingham, Harris helped him with transportation, bringing him to medical appointments, grocery stores, and helping with other miscellaneous tasks to ease the transition. Harris said he wanted to help dispel stereotypes Anwer might have had about the South, and Alabama specifically.

“He would always try to pay me,” Harris said. “But I didn’t want his money. I’ve gained such a friend – a best friend for life.”

Anwer Fell in Love With a Place and Culture

Anwer became enamored with the city of Birmingham the more time he spent there, which happened to also be his first time out of Pakistan. He grew to love the range of cuisine, from local Indian and Thai restaurants to fast food chains like KFC and Five Guys. He spent time exploring the local scenery, as well, walking through Highland Park and the trails of Mountain Brook.

He told CBS that Birmingham became his unexpected home away from home – a place he’ll never forget. 

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Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and after his surgery was successful, Anwer had to return to Pakistan. Fortunately, his medical problems were finally resolved, but those that helped him weren’t ready for him to go. 

“When he started to leave, I got this huge hole in my stomach – in my heart – that I was about to lose him,” Andrew Harris said. “Knowing him such a short time, I was surprised that I started having those feeling, but he’s already become such an important part of my life.”

Birmingham Got the Invite to Anwer’s Special Day

However, Birmingham stayed in Anwer’s heart and mind. When he started planning his wedding some time later, he returned to the same online group he originally posted in, and shared an open invitation to his wedding all the way in Pakistan.

“Birmingham treated me as their favored son,” he said. “Birmingham literally gave me the attention that people give out to celebrities… So that’s why I did it. I believe someone should be coming, because Birmingham has now become a part of my life.”

Unfortunately, no one from Alabama was able to attend the wedding, as the government was denying visas due to a recent regime change in Pakistan. However, the lasting impression that Birmingham left is still very special, and Anwer will surely not forget the warm welcome he received any time soon.

Stories like this one remind us of the importance of an open-mind, and how impactful small acts of generosity can be.

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