Blog - Page 2 of 6 - Sonia Shah Organization

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Good news on the long road to girls’ education

 

“I feel inspired by and hopeful for the young girls coming to the school against all odds and changing their futures forever.” – Iram Shah

By KARIN RONNOW | Sonia Shah Organization

A growing number of brave young girls in a village not far from the volatile Afghan-Pakistan border are defying centuries-old traditions and making history every day just by learning to read and write.

And more girls join them at the Sonia Shah Memorial School (SSMS), in Kangra, Pakistan, every week. Enrollment at the two-story school has increased to 75 students since the start of the second schoolyear, thanks in part to the “social mobilizer,” who works with parents to address concerns about safety and objections to girls’ education.

“I feel inspired by and hopeful for the young girls coming to the school against all odds and changing their futures forever,” said Iram Shah whose daughter, Sonia, started the school. “I am very happy to see Sonia’s dream coming to fruition.”

A well-traveled, multi-lingual Pakistani-American teenager, Sonia knew the value of education and wanted similar opportunities for all girls – especially those in her mother’s maternal village of Kangra, Pakistan.

“The poorest Pakistani families often go to great lengths to ensure that they can afford to send their sons to school, but rarely do the same for their daughters,” Sonia wrote in a blog. “I have always been keenly aware that …  it is only through the work of the women that came before me that I don’t live in ignorance and isolation. Every girl in Pakistan deserves the chance to create similar change for herself and those around her.”

Sonia worked on the school until her sudden death in 2012 at age 18. Her family’s efforts to continue her legacy through the Chicago-based nonprofit Sonia Shah Organization ensured that the school was completed in 2014 and opened in 2015.

Kangra is a village of 25,000 ethnic Pashtuns not far from the Swat Valley, where Malala Yousafzai was attacked in 2012. Throughout this region, cultural opposition to girls’ education combined with rampant poverty and safety concerns prompt many families to keep their daughters at home.

But, the Sonia Shah Memorial School is thriving.

“The feedback is that the community is extremely happy with the Sonia Shah Middle School,” said Mahnaz Ishaq, a Sonia Shah Organization (SSO) volunteer who regularly visits and coordinates reports from Kangra.  “They very strongly feel the standard of education in our school is far superior to other schools in the area.”

Three female teachers – two with master’s degrees and one with a bachelor’s degree – teach all six classes at SSMS, from nursery (kindergarten) to class five. Higher-level classes will be added each year.

Security at the school is also top-notch. SSO added closed-circuit television cameras to its high boundary walls and round-the-clock security. Parent are “quite satisfied,” Ishaq said. “We have to keep in mind that there has not been a single student casualty, thank the Lord.”

To engage parents, a new parent-teacher association (PTA) recently held a meeting. Parents were reminded of their responsibility to participate in their children’s education by enforcing regular attention and checking classwork and homework.

“Parental involvement is paramount for realizing the importance of girls’ education,” Ishaq said. “If that is not present, then girls will not advance in such remote areas.”

However, “the majority of parents in these parts of Pakistan have never been to a school, so this is the first generation of students,” she added. With an “extremely low” adult literacy rate in Kangra, many families rely on older siblings to help keep tabs on younger children’s progress, she said.

These efforts to keep students academically engaged and learning are buttressed by quality teaching materials and well-trained teachers, access to clean drinking water and medical checks by visiting doctors.

In addition, SSO’s new scholarship program is also helping two underprivileged girls attend college in Chicago.

Next up will be adding solar panels to the school to provide a reliable source of electricity and expanding the scholarship program.

To keep all this going, SSO needs your help. The annual fundraising campaign is under way, culminating with its “Bringing the Worlds Together” benefit concert Sept. 17 at the Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, featuring traditional Sufi qawwali music by the Fanna-Fi-Allah ensemble

To buy tickets for the concert, please visit http://bit.ly/2cXya6p

To make a direct donation, please visit www.soniashahorganization.com.

“The road is long, but full of hope,” Iram Shah said.

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Paying tribute to prominent qawwali singer killed in Karachi

By Karin Ronnow

Pakistani cyclists ride past a wall image of late Sufi musician Amjad Sabri in Karachi. | Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistani cyclists ride past a wall image of late Sufi musician Amjad Sabri in Karachi. | Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Amjad Sabri, beloved Pakistani Sufi qawwali singer, was killed by extremists in Karachi in late June. His death was mourned around the world and raised “new outcry over sectarian and extremist violence in Pakistan,” the New York Times reported June 22.

Sabri, 45, was driving to a TV studio to record a Ramadan show when two gunmen on motorcycles fired into his vehicle and then escaped, according to the Times report.

Qawwali is the “devotional music linked with Sufism, a mystical variant of Islam deeply entwined with the traditions of South Asia,” according to NPR.   

 “Amjad Sabri was one of the country’s finest qawwals, known for his soul-stirring renditions of mystic poetry,” Dawn (Pakistan) reported. “He enthralled music aficionados with his brand of spirituality, mysticism and ecstasy for years. He was not only well versed with the structure and aesthetics of qawwali, but also knew how to make it adaptive to the contemporary music, keeping its essence alive.”

The beloved and prominent qawwali singer Amjad Sabri (1976-2016) was killed by extremists in Pakistan in June. | Open source

The beloved and prominent qawwali singer Amjad Sabri (1976-2016) was killed by extremists in Pakistan in June. | Open source

Following Sabri’s death, Tahir Qawwal, leader of the American qawwali ensemble Fanna-Fi-Allah, created this tribute video and shared it with Sonia Shah Organization (SSO).

Fanna-Fi-Allah group will perform this song and many others at SSO’s benefit event on the evening of Sept. 17 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Chicago. For tickets, visit www.soniashahorganization.com.  

Celebrating Sonia’s dream on the Fourth of July

By Iram Shah

Sonia Shah Organization - Sonia and Iram ShahOn this day, the Fourth of July, we Americans celebrate our freedom with a sense of pride and much fanfare. We sometimes forget the abundant rights and privileges we have here: freedom of speech, education, equality and much more. Though far from perfect, America is still one of the places where you can live your dream. It is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Sonia was born in Chicago and lived a big part of her life in Europe, but was always grateful for the privileges she had as an American. She was also acutely conscious of the absence of these privileges in some parts of the world, especially in Pakistan.

Education is a great equalizer and a fundamental part of the American Dream, and Sonia wanted that for all girls. 

In her blog she wrote:

Sonia Shah Organization - Sonia and Iram Shah“I just wanted to take the time to talk a little bit about why I feel that supporting education for girls in Pakistan is such an integral part of Pakistan’s movement towards stability and development, especially at a time when both seem so unlikely. … The poorest Pakistani families often go to great lengths to ensure that they can afford to send their sons to school, but rarely do the same for their daughters. Poor mothers need their daughters to help them at home, and poor fathers can rarely afford to even feed and clothe their children properly, and so view a daughter’s tuition fees as an unnecessary expenditure. 

“These uneducated girls are then made dependent on their male relatives, perpetuating a cycle of destitution in a country [where] 24 percent of its 170 million people live below the poverty line. 

“Educating a girl can aid in the development and improvement of her entire family and even her entire community, and will stabilize a nation rocked by ignorance and hardship. It is now becoming even more important to continue to fund and support girls’ schools, as the Taliban has destroyed over 400 schools in the Swat Valley and tribal regions, and have targeted girls’ schools in particular. With tens of thousands of children left without a school and a government unable to rebuild schools quickly, I believe that it is essential to reach out to and educate as many girls as we can.”  

Sonia’s dream to change the world one girl at a time is alive and progressing. We should never give up on our daughters and the future they can create for us. 

Happy Fourth of July!

Second academic year under way at Sonia Shah School in Kangra

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By KARIN RONNOW | for Sonia Shah Organization | 6 June 2016

HINSDALE, IL – Three female teachers and 52 students have begun the second year of school at the Sonia Shah Memorial School in the shadow of the continued extremist violence that plagues the region.

“We are getting girls – and some boys – who were not in school before and teaching them with a strong curriculum,” Iram Shah of the Sonia Shah Organization (SSO) told the invitation-only crowd gathered for a dinner fundraiser at the Pakistan consul general’s home in suburban Chicago June 2. “The teachers are educated girls who are living in the village. They speak good English. And they’re bold.”

Bold is necessary, especially in Kangra, Pakistan, a remote, impoverished, conservative village in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, near the volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan border. “Kangra is not far from Swat, where Malala was shot,” Iram said. Protecting students and teachers is imperative at the fledgling primary school.

“The idea of building a school, she [Sonia] would do that, she was that kind of kid.” – Jeff Coleman

“People say Pakistan is a tough neighborhood,” Consul General Faisal Niaz Tirmizi told the guests. “Well, Kangra is a very tough neighborhood.”

The idea of building a school in this difficult environment came from Iram’s daughter Sonia. At at age 16, Sonia visited her maternal grandparents in Kangra and was appalled at the gender disparity in the rural government schools. She knew the value of education in her own life and wanted the same for the girls in Kangra. Over the next two years she developed a plan to build a private girls’ school in the village.

Sonia Shah Organization / Educating girls in PakistanNot every teenager could pull that off, said Jeff Coleman, father of Emma, one of Sonia’s dearest friends. “But the idea of building a school, she [Sonia] would do that, she was that kind of kid.”

Sonia started her project in 2011 and “convinced me to buy the land in the middle of the village,” Iram said. The project was moving apace in 2012 when Sonia died in a car accident just days before starting her freshman year at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The loss devastated her family.

“When the tragedy struck, we couldn’t get our heads around this,” said Zafar Malik, a member of SSO’s US-based management team. “That doesn’t leave you. After that it was so hard to imagine that their lives could be brighter. But I told Iram. ‘There’s something big here. I can feel it. You have to do it now or lose it forever.’ They picked up what Sonia wanted them to do.”

It wasn’t easy. Just months after the school was completed and inaugurated in 2014, it was bombed. No one was injured, but the blast destroyed several walls and windows of the school building and the new water-filtration plant was destroyed. Days later, 148 people were killed in an unrelated bomb blast at a school in nearby Peshawar.

Despite the setback, Iram said at the visit this site time: “We cannot give in to terrorists, and this devastation, along with the tragedy of Peshawar, shows us that now more than ever, our cause is critical.”.

SSO rebuilt the damaged two-story school and water plant just in time for the first day of school in April 2015.

“Now this is the second year,” Iram told guests during an hour-long presentation. “The school has three full-time teachers, a principal, and a social mobilizer. And we have good security; now in Pakistan there have been other bombs and schools are required to have security guards.

“The teachers are educated girls who are living in the village. They speak good English. And they’re bold.” – Iram Shah

“The water plant supplies clean drinking water to more than 700 families in the village and health is getting better. Some families still don’t send girls to school. But many of those girls do come to get water and the school principal stands outside encouraging them to attend,” she said.

The principal’s efforts are multiplied by that of a “social mobilizer,” who teaches conservative and often illiterate villagers about the importance of girls’ education in hopes of increasing enrollment at the school.

“We had a woman first. It didn’t work,” Iram said. “Now we have a man and he talks to the men in the village about sending their daughters to school.”

These efforts are key because – as Sonia knew –uneducated girls face a grim future. “Women live inferior lives” in Kangra, the narrator of a four-minute video shown at the fundraiser said. “A life with good education and equal opportunities [for women] is a wish still unfulfilled in this village.”

Although it is too late for many women to enroll in primary school, SSO has also set aside two rooms of the school for a women’s vocational center, scheduled to open at the end of June. Handicrafts and sewing skills will help women make a little bit of money to help support their families.

To ensure quality education, all 52 students enrolled this year received textbooks, uniforms and stationery. Solar panels will be installed on the roof this summer to provide electricity to the school for lights and computers. Also, a team of three doctors continues to visit Kangra every three months to provide basic vaccinations and wellness checks.

 But all of this takes money, Iram told her guests. Operating costs for the school in 2016 are $139,185.

“The bigger charities don’t really need us, they already have so many supporters and resources. Iram needed me; the area she comes from is still very backward.” — Hamiya Tirmizi

Hamiya Tirmizi, who devoted hours preparing the house and the food for June 2 fundraiser, said, “Every year we are asked why we support one charity over another. Well, the bigger charities don’t really need us, they already have so many supporters and resources. Iram needed me; the area she comes from is still very backward.”

Her husband, Faisal Tirmizi, said, “I was born to a very powerful woman. I remember my mother always said the best way to transform society is to educate a girl. … Education is close to my heart.”

Emma’s parents, Jeff and Lucy Coleman, are also among SSO’s most devoted supporters.

“We’ve been to all the events, every one of them,” Jeff Coleman said “Our daughters were in high school together and hung out [with another student]. The three of them were a fun group. They were very smart, very engaged kids. I appreciated this group because they woke my daughter up a little. [Emma and Sonia] really loved each other.”

  One of the highlights of the evening was the introduction of SSO’s first international scholarship student, Aimon Wadood. This poised young Pakistani woman is pursuing an associate degree at Truman College in Chicago.

“Aimon has only been here for four years, so she has some language problems, but she’s very hard working,” said Zephyr Malik, who has played a key role in getting the scholarship program started.

His work in education in the Chicagoland area has shown him that, “The underbelly of the Pakistani community here is neglected. People who are cabdrivers and shopkeepers, their children are not doing well and [a scholarship] is the kind of thing many many girls here need. But 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.”

The Sonia Shaw Organization needs your help. Please donate on the website, www.soniashaworganization.com, or by mail (1280 Carol Lane, Deerfield, IL, 60015, USA).

SSO is a registered 501(c)(3). The tax number is 801262104.

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School Progress, Visit, and Priorities

Thank you!

In August, members of the Sonia Shah Organization visited the school in Kangra in to witness the astonishing progress in the year since the building was erected. Enrollment is now at more than 50 students, and the school is still accepting new attendees throughout the year. The school has 3 full-time teachers, a principal, and a social mobilizer. The students were all excited about learning and were eager to show off their knowledge. The water-filtration plant has been rebuilt after the bombing in December 2014 and is better than ever, providing water to so many local families. We have a team of three doctors who visit Kangra every three months to provide basic vaccinations, and we are hoping to be able to increase the care provided very soon. The community of Kangra is pushing to extend the school to 9th and 10th grade, so that the children can stay in school in the village longer (and you know every additional year of schooling makes a tangible difference!). We are simply thrilled and motivated by their commitment to the school and appreciation of the power of education. In fact, many villagers are taking their children out of the government-run school in Kangra and enrolling them in the Sonia Shah Memorial School. Finally, for those in the village who are too old to enroll in the school, we are prioritizing the building of a vocational center.

We think back often to Sonia’s dream, when it was just that–a dream. And today, it’s a reality. Why? Because of your support. So we have something we’d like to say:

Thank you.

Thank you for supporting us both financially and with your confidence and spirit; thank you for standing behind us when the school was bombed and we had to rebuild; thank you for believing in our cause and the dream of one girl to change the lives of many. We are only just beginning the process of changing the world, one girl at a time, but we feel so confident knowing that the process is indeed in motion.

Will there be challenges along the way? Certainly. But we know that together, with you, we can overcome them and that we will come out stronger on the other side. The trip to visit the school and our students was very fulfilling, but made clear to us that the school still has some needs so that the students can continue their education: 

1. Solar Panels

With unreliable electricity in Kangra and extremely high temperatures, solar panels would ensure that school is not interrupted. 

2. Uniforms

A school uniform will give the students a sense of pride and ensure that they have clean clothes to wear. 

3. Preventive Care

Health checks and vaccinations will also ensure that education is the top priority and that students are healthy enough to learn. 

4. Lunches

Many of the students’ families don’t have the means to provide meals, and class work is not retained on an empty stomach.

Our plans for the Sonia Shah Memorial School and the village of Kangra are ambitious, but resources go a long way within the cause. Did you know it costs only $126 to send a girl to school for an entire year? Contribute today and help us change the world, one girl at a time. We also offer recurring contributions, making it easier than ever to support SSO on a monthly basis–you set the amount!

Important Tax Information

As a donor or potential donor to the Sonia Shah Organization, we wanted to remind you of our tax ID information, for your records. SSO is a registered 501(c)(3), EIN: 801262104.

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In Memory of Sonia: Letter from Claire

_DSC0234It’s difficult to understand just how incredible Sonia was if you didn’t know her. So sometimes, we feel it’s best to let those who did speak for us. As we approach the anniversary of her death, we remember her life and her dream. Her piano teacher, Claire, articulates so well the memory we have of Sonia.

“I thank Sonia’s spirit for gathering us together, not just today, but every day since her passing into the next world. Her spirit has created a deeper bond between all of us who were blessed to know and love her.
I thank her for her innate respect for the vintage of age and the vivacity of youth. I thank her for her vision (which her loving family carries forward) to be of service to others. I thank her for taking responsibility to bring all people together in harmony towards common goals for the benefit of humanity.
I thank her spirit for stirring each of us to rise to the challenge of our lives while we yet have time on earth.
I thank her spirit for giving us who knew her the courage to dare to unfold our lives with one another in deep, trusting friendship.
Sonia’s fine contribution to our world in her short 18 years of service is a perpetual inspiration.
I pray that God will guide us all to have faith as we struggle to lead good lives, never giving into darkness, that we too may become part of those immortal dead, like Sonia, who live on in the memories of the living.

May God bless you all forever,
With our eternal love,
Claire & Ralph”

Progress After the Bombing

As you might remember, the Sonia Shah School was bombed in December. Fortunately, no one was hurt, nor did they injure our spirits! The water filtration plant and school building, however, were not so lucky. We are happy to announce we have been rebuilding! We could absolutely not have done any of this without our generous donors, and we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts. It is you who is helping Sonia’s dream become a reality! Together, we can be resilient against violence and educate the girls whom we believe have the potential to change this world.

We have now hired the teachers for the school year, as well as 24-hour armed guards to protect the school and students when they arrive in only two short months. Help us fight violence with compassion and educate the girls who can change everything. There is still so much more to be rebuilt, but we know we can do it with your help.

Donate here.. We have one-time options AND easy recurring options!:soniashahorganization.com/contribute/

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An Evening of Hope, Celebration, and Dedication

Our annual fundraiser turned out to be an incredible event, with very special guests, wonderful food and entertainment, and an amazing turnout of Sonia Shah Organization supporters. Together visit this website we are changing the world, one girl at a time!

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In Memory of Sonia: Letter from President Barack Obama

obama letterOn the 3rd anniversary of Sonia’s tragic, untimely death, we often remember Sonia through the words of those who knew her. This letter from President Barack Obama shows that the young women we knew and admired so much shined through to all she met and worked with.

“Dear Iram and Mahmood,
I want to convey my heartfelt sympathy at Sonia’s passing. I hope that your cherished memories bring you and your family some measure of comfort at this tragic time.
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.
I am grateful for all of Sonia’s hard work, and I am proud to have had her support. Please know that the Obama for America family is thinking of you.

Sincerely,
Barack Obama”

Help us continue Sonia’s dream–a school for girls in Pakistan–and change lives. soniashahorganization.com/contribute/

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