I’m Julia Karen Ashraf. I was born in a Catholic family originally from Lahore, Pakistan. We are seven siblings - five females and two males; I’m the 5th child. By the grace of God both my parents are still alive. I consider myself very blessed and I thank God that I was born into a Christian family. There are very few Christians in Pakistan. The majority of Pakistan are Muslims who are 97% of the whole population. The Christians (both Catholic and other denominations) are 1.5% of Pakistan's entire population. 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. They provided the atmosphere where female and male could have equal rights.
Since childhood I had the desire to do something good for poor children and women, having observed my family doing service with their little resources. When I turned 13, I found myself feeling the urge to search for the deepest meaning of my own 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 started 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 every way I could. Though at times I found myself without hope, I believe that it was the Holy Eucharist that sustained me throughout that period.
I was only 15 years old when, for the first time, I met the Salesians in 1999. My two brothers and one sister worked with the Salesians. I was so impressed by the life of prayer, the dedication and joy of the first Salesian missionaries, especially 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 come to Pakistan - for they, too, had only just arrived in Pakistan. After some years, another Salesian priest lent me a book about St. Mary Mazzarello; 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 already been waiting for a long time. Until I was 24 years old, I was, however, involved in many other parish activities such as catechist, working as office secretary in the Pakistan Catholic Bible Commission, and many other volunteer works. I continued to meet different women congregations, but still I simply felt that I was not called to be with them. Deep in my heart, I was always hoping to be an FMA even though it seemed to be a very unlikely dream because, again, the FMA were not present in Pakistan.
A priest close to our family advised me to join any of the female religious congregations already in Pakistan, or to choose to marry - in Pakistani culture the parents of girls, on their reaching adolescence, already start thinking of marriage - and I, too, was coming of age for marriage. After much prayer, I answered “yes” to one of my suitors, but on an agreement that I was waiting for the Salesian sisters, or any answer from them, and would wait until my 25th birthday; if no answer came, I would marry. At the age of 25, I would have to decide whether to enter the convent or choose married life. And just two months before my birthday, after those 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 extremely hard for him to accept it, but he respected my decision and let me go.
In 2009, after a year of preparation with the Salesians in Quetta city, I was finally sent to the Philippines. The majority of people I encountered were full of God’s hope, faith, generosity, joy, and welcoming spirit. At once, I felt so much at home. The mix of cultural experiences gave me a new awareness and broadened 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 bringing it to Pakistan; to promote the dignity of life, of women and of young people. It is my prayer that God make me His instrument of hope and encouragement for the youth of Pakistan. I also hope, wish and pray – Godwilling - 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 come true. 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 young people: "My dear youths, 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 if I do not know you, you are part of my life. May God bless us and our families."