Sonia Shah Organization was founded by Chicago teenager, Sonia Shah, before her tragic and untimely death. Sonia’s dream was to educate the girls and women of her ancestral village of Kangra, Pakistan, seeing firsthand the power of education and just how different her life would have been without it. Sonia’s dream is carried on by her mother, Iram Shah, at the Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra, Pakistan, where we educate girls and provide their lunches, uniforms, and basic medical care, run a vocational center for women too old for school, and provide clean drinking water for the entire village. In the last year, we have developed a scholarship program, helping inspirational and deserving women complete their educations in the US. We are a small organization with big dreams, and we hope that you’ll stand with us! Click here to donate.
A Girl, A Dream, A Mission
Sonia Shah (1993–2012)
Sonia Shah was a bright and compassionate Pakistani-American who knew the value of education. She wanted all girls – especially those in her mother’s ancestral village of Kangra, Pakistan – to have the same opportunities as she did.
She once said:
I have always been keenly aware that the efforts of my grandmother and mother are all that stood between me and the life of an underprivileged Pakistani village girl. It is only through the work of the women [who]came before me that I don’t live in ignorance and isolation, and every girl in Pakistan deserves the chance to create similar change for herself and those around her.
Born in 1993 in Chicago, Ill., U.S.A. to Pakistani-Pashtun parents, Sonia quickly became “a global citizen,” Iram Shah, her mom, said.
“From the age of 4, she traveled with us and lived on three continents, in five countries and spoke five languages (Pashto, Urdu, Spanish, Chinese and English). Every time she went to a new school, I thought she would have difficulty, but she managed to fit right in.”
History was her favorite subject. In a 2011 college-application essay, she wrote:
I love history because it’s the best story I’ve ever been told. It is surprising, fascinating, and sometimes fantastical, yet its truth gives it a power no fairy tale or novel could ever have. … I’m happiest when learning about the world around me, but now I desperately want to be able to use what I learn, to make an impact on the world I work so hard to understand.
My heroes have always been brilliant, flawed people who have acted, who have changed our history and made our world. Now I want to try to join, instead of only watching them. I want to serve and help others while I am pursuing my passions and interests. I want to leave this world knowing that I have changed it in some quantifiable, positive way, no matter how minuscule.
One of her heroes was humanitarian Greg Mortenson, who spoke at her school just outside Chicago when she was a 14-year-old ninth-grader. Sonia was deeply moved by his stories about working to promote girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Soon after, Sonia and her mom moved to Switzerland. Mortenson’s words stayed with her. During a family visit to Kangra when she was 16, she looked around with new eyes.
In this village of 25,000 people in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, extremist violence, rampant poverty and deeply held cultural values prompt many families to keep their daughters at home. Uneducated girls face a grim future in this environment.
Sonia was astounded to see how few girls attended the area’s government schools, and dismayed that so many girls never learned to read and write. Her dream was born: she would build a girls’ school in Kangra.
She graduated a year early from her Zurich high school, took a “gap year” (2011- 2012) and got to work. She started the nonprofit Kulsoom Foundation, named after her maternal grandmother. She designed a website. She blogged. And she knocked at the door of every NGO that might partner with her or have something to teach her.
Few doubted her tenacity would yield results. Jeff Coleman, father of one of Sonia’s high school friends, later said. “The idea of building a school, she [Sonia] would do that. She was that kind of kid.”
When she went back to Kangra on her own, though, some friends and family worried. Iram recalled: “When she left, people called me and said either I was too brave or too stupid. My own family has not lived in that village [for years] and here a 17-year-old American-born girl was going to live for weeks. I didn’t stop her because I knew she had made up her mind.” She also knew Sonia’s “innate balance, ability to see both sides of any issue” would serve her well.
In Kangra, Sonia lived with villagers in their rustic homes and spent time with the school-age girls. She noted that electricity and clean drinking water were in short supply. She identified a piece of land in the middle of the village and “convinced me to buy it,” Iram said.
When she returned home to Chicago, she kept her determined pace. In addition to working on the school, Sonia pursued her interest in politics, landing a prized internship with President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. Her father, Mahmood, said she worked on the campaign “dawn to dusk” for months.
Tragically, late in the summer of 2012, just before leaving to start at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., Sonia was killed in a car accident in Chicago.
Everyone who knew her was devastated.
Obama wrote to the family: “My team says that although Sonia was one of the youngest interns at campaign headquarters, she was one of the most determined. There’s no doubt that her dedication will continue to inspire all those who were lucky enough to work with her.”
Sonia’s lasting gift to us all is that she truly made a difference in the world. She had said, “I want to leave this world knowing that I have changed it in some quantifiable, positive way.” And she did.
“I am Sonia”: History of the SONIA SHAH ORGANIZATION
Educate. Engage. Empower.
The Sonia Shah Organization was founded by Chicago teenager before her untimely death in 2012. Sonia Shah’s dream was to educate the girls and women of her ancestral village of Kangra, Pakistan. Her own life experience had taught her the power of education; she knew just how different her life would have been without it. She wanted all girls to have the same opportunities.
After Sonia’s sudden death, “We couldn’t get our heads around this,” family friend Zephyr Malik later recalled. “But I told Iram, ‘There’s something big here. I can feel it. You have to do it now or lose it forever.’”
Bolstered by friends and extended family, Sonia’s parents, Iram and Mahmood, channeled their grief into something positive. “We lost a precious life, but Sonia’s death will not be in vain,” her mom said. “Her dream has become our mission.”
They renamed their daughter’s Kulsoom Foundation, calling it the Sonia Shah Organization (SSO), and picked up where Sonia had left off.
Brick by brick, the school was built. Concern about the lack of clean drinking water, and the hours women and girls spent every day hauling water from the river, inspired them to also build a water-filtration plant adjacent to the school, supplying clean water for the entire village.
The two-story Sonia Shah Memorial School was completed in 2014 – an amazing accomplishment in this conflict-ridden region. Kangra is in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, not far from Swat, where Malala Yousafzai was shot for going to school. “People say Pakistan is a tough neighborhood,” Pakistan Consul General Faisal Niaz Tirmizi said. “Well, Kangra is a very tough neighborhood.”
Just after the school was inaugurated, but before classes started, the school was bombed. No one was injured, but the blast damaged the school’s walls and windows and destroyed the water plant. Sonia’s family stayed the course. “We cannot give in to terrorists, and this devastation,” Iram said, “shows us that now, more than ever, our cause is critical.” SSO rebuilt the school and water plant just in time for the first day of school in April 2015.
Today, three female teachers – two with master’s degrees and one with a bachelor’s degree – teach dozens of students in kindergarten through class five. All students receive textbooks, uniforms and stationery. A visiting doctor provides basic vaccinations and wellness checks. And security is top-notch, with high walls, round-the-clock security and closed-circuit TV cameras.
“The community is extremely happy with the school,” said Mahnaz Ishaq, a SSO volunteer who regularly visits Kangra. “They very strongly feel the standard of education in our school is far superior to other schools in the area.”
SSO opened a women’s vocational center in 2016, teaching handicrafts and sewing skills to help women support their families. The center has proved wildly successful: all training programs have been full and the waiting list continues to grow.
In 2016, SSO also began a scholarship program in the United States, with two deserving young women receiving financial and other support to help them fulfill their dreams of higher education.
“A scholarship is the kind of thing many, many girls here need,” said Malik, an educator who worked with Iram to start the scholarship program. “This is not just restricted to students from Pakistan. We will help disadvantaged girls from all backgrounds. And the scholarship students will become our ambassadors. They are the people who will show SSO to the world.”
Sonia’s spirit lives on in all these programs. Students proudly declare: I am Sonia.
“I feel inspired by and hopeful for the young girls coming to school against all odds and changing their futures forever,” Iram said. “The road is long, but full of hope.”