Uncategorized Archives - 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.

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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To My Daughter with Love.

_DSC0019 (2)My dear Sonia,

On this third anniversary of your passing away I am this website filled with pain, loss, love and hope. Hope for all those girls whose lives you have changed forever. Your dream is coming true and you mission is progressing. On my recent trip to the school, I saw the heartwarming transformation in those young lives. Some of the children came to school without shoes but were happy to learn. I saw 15 years old girls proudly sitting in the first grade hungry to learn, writing their names for the first time, full of hope and laughter.

I saw your picture hanging in the principal’s office and realized that I will never see you, talk with you or touch you in this life but I will always be connected to you via these girls. Every girl in the world that you touch is Sonia, who will change their families and their communities. What a gift to the world!
You have changed my life for better too. I have a purpose and meaning in my life. I am stronger, wiser and resigned to a higher power. I feel I am following your lead and picking the bread crumbs. In your life we lived and traveled the world from Thailand to Switzerland, touched all the beautiful landmarks. In your death you are leading me on a spiritual journey from Mecca to Medjugorje to Jerusalem. You were a gift to me in your life and a gift in your death!

We continue to love you and inspired by you!

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In Memory of Sonia: Letter from Greg Mortenson

09192014.news_.mortenson.ap_As we approach the anniversary of Sonia’s tragic death, we wish to share the words of those who knew Sonia. This letter from Greg Mortenson touched us deeply, coming from a man who had the same dream as Sonia and realized it so profoundly.

“Iram and family,

Asalaam-o-Alaikum. Tara (my wife), Amira, Khyber Khan and myself offer our profound condolences on your tragic loss of Sonia. There is no greater bond than that between mother and child, and no greater loss than to lose your child, for which no words adequately suffice to. God sometimes chooses those who are most dear to us, to be his special angels to watch over us, and I know dear Sonia is amongst those. Our daily prayers are with you, and in the midst of this pain, we hope that you have some comfort in remembering the happy and precious times you shared.
When a child or young adult shows the courage and tenacity to be a humanitarian to serve others, that I believe is one of the finest examples of what a parent can be proud of. Sonia certainly was a leader of her peers, who at a young age, and in a chaotic world of mostly self centered youth, had a vision and did not hesitate to put her big heart into action to make a difference with the Kulsoom Foundation, and the children of Kangra. The note that Sonia wrote during a difficult time last year was tremendously inspiring and we should make sure her vision succeeds. Over the last week, I’ve looked at her pictures a few times, and when I see the girls and children sitting on the earthen verandah, it brings tears to my eyes and a conviction that we should do all we can to make sure her dream is realized.

With our love and sympathy,

Greg, Tara, Amira & Khyber”

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