“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.