May 2017 - Sonia Shah Organization

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My Gift to Sonia: From Iram on This Mother’s Day

Motherhood is different for every woman on the planet. My experience is vastly different from my mother’s, for example.

Born in a remote rural village in Pakistan, my mother Kulsoom grew up in a patriarchal society where girls and women had few opportunities to engage with the world outside their homes. When she married and had children, she insisted my father move the family to the city, where she believed her daughters might be able to pursue the same opportunities as her sons.

Sonia with Kulsoom

Her determined efforts effectively launched us into the world with skills, awareness and opportunities vastly different than she had been given. I am who I am today because of her.

When I left Pakistan for higher education, I moved half a world away from my mother to pursue the opportunities she had made possible. I earned my bachelor’s degree and my MBA from the University of Chicago. And I felt Mom’s support with every step I took. But I did not truly appreciate her experience until I had a daughter of my own.

Sonia was my first child and she sashayed into the world undaunted. She was smart and curious. She took risks and made things happen. Sometimes, Sonia’s confidence and determination were anxiety producing or bittersweet, much as I now understand my departure from Pakistan was for my mother.

Motherhood is a balancing act. We strive to protect our children while simultaneously knowing that difficult experiences will make them stronger and more resilient. My two younger sons Issa and Adam remind me of this daily!

Tragically, Sonia died two days before starting her freshman year at The College of William and Mary. She was just 18 years old. But she had already made her mark. She started the Sonia Shah Memorial School in her grandmother’s village, ensuring that generations of girls there will have the same access to quality education as she did. She made us all proud.

Sonia Shah Organization - Sonia and Iram ShahMy mother Kulsoom is now 87 years old, full of life but getting very frail. I remember her as a vibrant, strong woman, a driver behind my successes and achievements. I know she has entered the last chapter in her life and I feel blessed to care for her. Every day is a privilege.

On every Mother’s Day, Sonia gave me a gift of jewelry with a heart. I joked with her that I had “too many hearts.” Now I know that’s not possible.

Taking Sonia’s vision of educating underprivileged girls is my gift to her for the rest of my life.

Happy Mother’s Day to women around the world!

Iram Shah is president of the Chicago-based Sonia Shah Organization   

Read more about the legacy of these three amazing women on our website, www.soniashahorganization.com

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan
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Good health = good learning: SSMS medical checkup ‘camp’ diagnoses & treats students

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan

Dr. Ashfaq Utmanzay checks the heart and lungs of a Sonia Shah Memorial School student during a recent medical camp at the school.

By Karin Ronnow | Sonia Shah Organization | 11 Feb., 2017

KANGRA, Pakistan With promises of fewer stomachaches and more energy, the students at Sonia Shah Memorial School (SSMS) lifted the small plastic bottles of deworming medicine to their lips.

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan

A young student at Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra, Pakistan, swallows her dose of de-worming medicine.

Some of them took a first tiny sip, cautiously testing the white liquid. Others turned their faces toward the sky and bravely poured it into their mouths, their Adam’s apples jiggling as they swallowed.

Deworming was the first order of business at SSMS’ recent one-day “Medical Checkup, Screening and Supplementation Camp,” part of the Sonia Shah Organization’s (SSO) effort to augment the limited healthcare options for the poor in Kangra. 

“Many of our students are malnourished and anemic,” SSO chairwoman Iram Shah said. “We cannot turn our faces away. We have to take care of the children who come to our school.” 

Sadly, in Pakistan, a rapidly developing country of nearly 200 million people in an area half the size of Alaska, most indicators of the nation’s health “are either failing to improve or worsening,” according to the World Bank. For example:

The solutions to this reality are complex, but school-based medical visits play a significant role, said Dr. Ashfaq Utmanzay, who organized SSMS’ medical camp.

His most distressing, and urgent, discovery was that Ursula, a girl in class two, has a rare heart condition known as Tetrology of Fallot (TOF), “a serious congenital heart disease,” Utmanzay said.

TOF is caused by four heart defects present at birth that reduce the oxygen in the blood. Surgery is typically performed in the first year of life, so Ursula’s late diagnosis makes her situation even more urgent. “She needs surgery, cardiac repair for TOF,” Utmanzay said.

Good health = good learning

In the developing world, people primarily suffer from avoidable health problems simply because they are poor, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. Poverty is the cause of or a significant contributor to hunger and malnutrition, illiteracy, lack of clean water and a scarcity of qualified health workers.

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan

Every child is weighed and measured as part of the comprehensive checkups provided by Sonia Shah Organization.

Intestinal worms — hookworm, roundworm and whipworm exemplify the profound links between poverty and health. One of the most comment ailments among children in the developing world, worms are typically seen as a “disease of poverty, affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth.” Worm infections cause anemia and malnutrition, impair cognitive development and make children more susceptible to other infections and diseases. 

At Sonia Shah Memorial School, the medical team found “about all” of the children were anemic, most probably caused by malnutrition and worm infestations, Dr. Utmanzay wrote in his final report.

Each child was weighed and measured, had their blood drawn and tested, and received a physical exam. Other findings included:

  • About half of the children had seasonal allergies and/or respiratory-tract infections;
  • About half the children suffered from recurrent diarrhea;
  • Four of the children had P. ovale malaria;
  • And, in addition to Ursula, six students had chronic health problems that required hospital referrals for specialized treatment.

Although the results were not surprising, given the high rates of disease and ill health in Kangra and much of rural Pakistan, they merit immediate attention. After all, good health is directly linked to children’s ability to learn. 

That’s why bringing a medical team to the school, right to the children, makes all the difference,” Shah said. “We know that healthy students do better academically, are better behaved and have fewer absences. We want our students to have the best possible shot at a brighter future.”

Treatment & prevention

In addition to deworming, all students who tested positive for seasonal and endemic diseases received medications such as ibuprofen, cough medicine or rehydration formula for rotavirus (a highly contagious gastrointestinal disease with acute diarrhea). The medical team also provided a two-month supply of supplements — multivitamins, iron, calcium and vitamin D — for each child.

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan

Vitamin and mineral supplements are now being distributed daily at the school.

“These medications and supplements are given to students every day at school,” said Mahnaz Qureshi-Ishaq, who oversees school operations as a member of the volunteer management team.

That decision was made jointly by SSMS Principal Serish Hussain, Qureshi-Ishaq and the doctor.

“If we give the everyday supplements at the school, there is less waste and kids learn how to take them,” Utmanzay said. “Also, there is concern that if we send medicine home to illiterate parents, they will not be able to read instructions. Or the whole family ends up drinking the cough medicine in one day. Or they just won’t give the medicines to their children; parents already believe, wrongly, [that] polio vaccine makes their children infertile.”

The medical camp is an integral part of SSMS’s approach to quality education, Qureshi-Ishaq said. The school also operates a water-treatment plant, providing potable water for the school and the village.

“Child malnutrition is also a serious problem so we are also working on providing lunch for all students this year,” she said. “All of these tools — deworming, vaccinations, vitamin supplements, clean water and improved nutrition — help children reach thrive physically and intellectually.”

The medical team prepared a report on each child’s health and delivered two copies, one for the school and one for parents. The doctors and principal are working to schedule vaccinations for hepatitis B and typhoid. And in late spring, the medical team will return and check for improvement.

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