Sonia Shah dreamed of changing the world through girls’ education

Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director wrote a blog on Sonia’s journey, the Sonia Shah Foundation, and the raiser.
Iram and a vast team of Sonia’s friends and peers worked tirelessly to pull off the Feb. 23 event in suburban Chicago. More than 400 people celebrated home page Sonia’s life and achievements, donated to the Sonia Shah Foundation, and enjoyed dinner and live entertainment by the highly acclaimed singer-songwriter A.R. Rahman.

“Iram’s vision was to make this a celebration of the potential of youth to change the world, as well as a celebration of song and music, dance, poetry and art – all of which Sonia loved so much,” Greg said. “She also wanted to bring together diverse people and organizations, as Sonia had often done, around this common cause.”

To read the full blog please click here: Sonia Shah dreamed of changing the world through girls’ education


Rahmania for Sonia – A Success

Congratulations! ‘Rahmania for Sonia’ was amazing, inspiring and beautiful evening. Over 400 people packed into the rolling Meadows club, which was beautifully decorated with purple color theme for the lights and candles…..purple being Sonia’s favorite color. ‘A girl, A dream, A Mission’ was the tag-line for the night and appropriate to the mission Sonia left behind.
Silent and live auction were very successful with painting “Nukta” being the highlight for the evening. Greg Mortensen showed up as a surprise guest to support Sonia legacy and her mission. The entertainment of choreographed dances on A.R Rahman from Dhrishti Art was superb and kept almost all guests glued to the stage till the end of the program close to midnight.
Thank you for all the messages of praise and outpouring of support since natural viagra Saturday.
Shortly, we will be posting the entire program along with entertainment for people who could not join the event. Please stay tuned for much more to come!


Letter to Sonia Shah by Alanna Peccia

My soul mate Sonia

I can’t believe it’s a couple days away from the first anniversary of your passing. I don’t like that word anniversary, and I’m not particularly fond of passing either. But I know you understand what I mean, darling. I wish I could say not a day goes by without me thinking about you, but I think that happens to me more often than I’d like to admit. I cared about you more than any other person I’ve ever met on this planet, yet there are days I can feel you slipping away from me. It’s unbelievable what time can do, but I have your name right over my heart to keep you with me, even though I got it in the wrong Arabic form, sounds like me. It’s crazy to me all the changes that have happened in the last year, and that I couldn’t call you to tell you about a single one. It breaks my heart that the people I love now, and the people of my future will never meet you. Although I try I visit page feel I can never quite describe just how awesome you were, and that I still feel like the luckiest person in the world that you were my best friend. You’ll always be my best friend, and someone who undoubtedly changed my life in more ways than I have even realized. And although a year has passed, and I am older and you are not, there is a part of me that will always be you and continue to grow in love. Out of all the wonderful things our friendship has taught me the most important is to love totally fearlessly whomever my heart feels I should, because the greatest gift you can give someone is the love of friendship, and that my dear friend is what you gave me.

All my love,


Iram Shah

As we prepare for the big day, I want to thank everyone who has been part of this journey. The event committee, the youth leadership council, people who bought tickets (we are sold out), people who donated, people who contributed through their service, words of sympathy and everyone who visited our facebook page and liked it or commented…..you are all awesome!!
You are all part of this journey of helping to change lives of girls, who will change their communities and eventually our world!
There is no bigger gift than giving hope for a bright future.
For me personally it has been a very emotional but fulfilling journey. Sonia’s legacy and mission continues. Although my dream for Sonia to grow up into a mature woman, get married and have children will never be fulfilled but I guess her dream of helping poor girls is more meaningful medicine20.org than my dream for her! I still long for Sonia but slowly beginning to feel that instead of mourning her death, I should celebrate her life more.
“What moves through me is a silence, a quiet sadness, a longing for one more day, one more word, one more touch, we may not understand why you left this earth so soon, or why you left before we were ready to say good-bye, but little by little, we begin to remember not just that you died, but that you lived. And that your life gave us memories too beautiful to forget”.


Human Development Foundation Helping People Help Themselves

The ability of a country to progress and evolve has always been dictated by the education level of BOTH the males and females living within that country. They are pillars that support each other, build upon each other, and grow upon each other. If either is lacking, the country will remain stagnant. Pakistan has a female literacy rate far below even 50%. For females 15 or older, the number has been as low as 30% in recent years.
Pakistan is the 6th most populated country in the word, with 180 million people living in an 800km2 area. It is estimated that by 2040, this number will far surpass 300 million. Add in the fact that Pakistan only spends 2-3% of its GDP on education… and you have a recipe for disaster. Half of the soon to be 300 million people will never even see the inside of a class room. Half of the 150 million that are lucky enough to go to school will receive a poor quality of education. To make matters worse, it is the women of Pakistan that will be discarded first for seats in any type of school. The literacy rate of men in Pakistan is essentially double that of women.
How can we expect Pakistan to strive with these conditions? It is up to us to help bring balance and to bring Pakistan into a new age. As more women receive quality education, the progress Pakistan could make is endless. Sonia Shah understood this simple idea and decided to do something about it. It is up to us to make her dream a reality.


The Dreams of Our Daughters for Our Daughter (By Nabeela Rasheed, PhD)

This past year has highlighted the desperate need for girls education in Pakistan. Much has been written about the incredibly brave, erudite and visionary student activist Malala Yousafzai, since that horrific day in October 2012 when she was attacked for her beliefs in universal education for women. See latest on Malala in the following MSNBC clip . But no amount of bullets, weapons or threats can halt a movement whose time has come. Education for women in Pakistan is not just a wish or abstract idea, it is a fundamental right, it is a social imperative, it is an absolute must.
Gordon Brown, former prime minister of United Kingdom and now United Nations Special Envoy for Education, made an impassioned plea to the international community to make education a higher priority. Indeed, at the beginning of this century, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals included the laudable target of ensuring primary school education for all children by 2015. As that deadline approaches, we learn that there is a £13 billion funding gap to achieve that goal. Furthermore, it turns out that two-thirds of the children in need of that funding live in just ten countries. Prominent amongst those countries is Pakistan. The very place where Malala’s campaign began. So what can be done? We cannot leave the situation as a status quo. Realistically, we also cannot raise that almost insurmountable figure in one go as a community. What we can do is to pool resources. Join a campaign. Be a part of a vision.
In Chicago, that vision has already been created and its wheels have already been set in motion by another brave girl with close ties to Pakistan. Sonia Shah, a very special teenager living with her family in Chicago felt a strong calling to give back to the girls of Pakistan.
Writing during her high school days, she recognized that “nations must be held responsible for the education of their people.” But she also understood that as individuals we can also do our part and not just leave this all-important task to the caprices of “nations” and “governments” and “NGOs”. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and decided that she would do her part by “starting a girl’s elementary school in … the same village that my grandmother left so many years ago.” With that state goal in mind she set out a full plan on how to achieve some measure of the Millennium Development Goals.
Sonia was an exceptional girl. She completed her education a year early and dedicated a gap year to establishing Sonia Shah Foundation. With this Foundation she planned to provide education to the girls of her grandmother’s village. Speaking 5 languages herself, she planned a bilingual school for girls with a curriculum that would be taught in Urdu and in English. She procured the land , gathered the necessary donations, established the curriculum, began the search for the teachers and oversaw the groundbreaking of the building. And then just as her dreams for the school were about to take flight, her young life was cut short.
Given that there are presently at least 5 million children of both sexes that are in need of education in Pakistan, begs the question, why only a girls school. Gender inequality in education is extreme, even in the western society, girls are less likely to have access to school, remain in school or progress to higher education. It is only through education that women can achieve their economic, political and social potential. As such, education of young girls is an imperative and intrinsic part of any program designed to redress gender-based discrimination against women and girls. It is critical to achieve a basic level of education for girls, because providing this basic right to girls ensures that those girls are later able to secure other rights to which they are entitled. The improved educational opportunities for girls, leads to a better understanding of health, nutrition and family planning as well as alleviating poverty.

While she is no longer with us, Sonia left behind Sonia Shah Foundation, the Foundation that she started to achieve her goals of education and enlightenment for the girls from her grandmother’s village. She committed to the hands of that Foundation the dreams and hopes that she had for the school and for the girls in Pakistan. Beyond providing mere literacy, it was Sonia’s aim to provide the girls with the basic tools they would need to be fully vested and functioning members of a free and enlightened society. As the world settles into the 21st century, it will be through the efforts of Foundations such as the Sonia Shah Foundation that the Millennium Development Goals will be realized.


Sonia Shah Foundation is partnering with The Human Development Foundation (HDF) to implement the project: HDF-Sonia Shah Memorial School in village Kangra, Pakistan. Sonia Shah Foundation and HDF are entities with shared interests concerned with helping disadvantaged people and communities in Pakistan. HDF, combats extreme poverty by “Helping people help themselves.” Their powerful, Holistic Model is comprehensive and is focused on lasting change in 5 key areas – Education, Health Care, Economic Growth, Social Mobilization and Sustainable Environment. HDF development goals are fully aligned with MDGs and HDF continues to work towards its goal of ensuring that by 2015 boys and girls in HDF program areas have the opportunity to complete primary schooling while eliminating gender disparity in the school system.


Malala Yousafzai

Earlier this year, an incident where a 14 year old child was shot by the purveyors of evil rocked the world. We felt rage, shame, and a desire to help these kids who were being forced to keep away from education!

The funds from our event will be dedicated to build schools in the Kangra Village which is merely 140 miles away from the spot where young Malala was shot. By the grace of the powers to be, Malala survived but the dreams of those little girls still hang in the balance and our participation will help keep them alive!

Sonia Shah Foundation is happy to announce that Malala Yousufzai has made a full recovery and left the hospital. The whole world came together in prayers and spirit when this symbol of education was attacked in October. However, there is work to be done to take Malala’s dream forward.

Please help Sonia Shah Foundation in building Schools for young girls in the Kangra village, a mere 100 miles from the place where young Malala was shot.

Mehreen Zakeri, 31, immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in February 2017 and now lives in Chicago with her husband. Prior to her move, she worked at the Oil Marketing Company in Karachi, Pakistan. Her decision to volunteer for SSO was sparked by her experience at the organization’s 2017 fundraiser in Chicago.

“During the event, I got to listen to one of Sonia’s letters,” she said. “It touched my heart, and her passion towards girls’ education inspired me to contribute towards this cause. I believe, as I quote John Dewey, an American educational reformer, ‘Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.’ Hence, education is the basic right of each child and specifically, an educated girl equals to an educated generation. So, this revolution is so powerful that being a part of it is an honor in itself.”

Enxhi (Angie) Uzeir, 22, studies biology at East-West University in Chicago, and is one of two current SSO scholarship students.

I support SSO for the reasons of enabling me to achieve goals that might otherwise be impossible,” Angie explained. “Through it I became the first person in my family to be able to attend college and follow my dreams.” 

When Rory McKee, a fifth-grader in Evanston, Ill., first heard Iram Shah speaking on the radio, she was stunned to learn that there are places in the world where girls can’t go to school.

“The radio person said there was someplace in Pakistan where girls don’t get to go to school because [their families] need help running the house and doing chores, so they choose their daughters to do that,” she said. That made her mad. “Girls should go to school because boys and girls are the same. Neither one is better. They should both go to school.”

Guided by her mom, Rory went to the Internet to learn more about how Iram’s daughter Sonia had started a girls’ school in a rural Pakistani village

“Sonia’s relatives live in Pakistan, and she visited them and was moved by meeting girls there that didn’t go to school,” Rory said. “[Sonia] wanted to do something about it. And I thought, there are a lot of people at my school. I could do something there. I wanted to get more money so more girls could go to school.”

So she did. Then a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Evanston, she raised $200 for the Sonia Shah Organization (SSO). She said she wanted to tell these girls “that other people in the world care about them, their education.”

Zuleyma Cordero, 25, is a Sonia Shah Scholarship Program recipient, attending Harper Community College in Palatine, Ill. and on track to graduate in spring 2018 with a double major in accounting and business. She also works full-time and volunteers for SSO.

The first person in her family to go to college, she has said that Sonia’s legacy provides constant motivation, she added.

I think of what a great inspiration Sonia was and still is to this day,” Zuleyma said. “I like to reflect on how she is changing lives of young girls, including myself. And that it all started with the passion she had, and with the idea of making history. She didn’t give up at the sight of any difficulty, she pressed forward to achieve her goal.”

Zuleyma’s volunteer work includes help with fundraising campaigns and events.

Shahzmeen Hussain, 22, graduated in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois-Champaign- Urbana, and now lives at home with her family in Skokie, IL.

“I came across Sonia Shah Organization at a dinner gathering over a year ago, where Iram shared the compelling story of Sonia’s sincere vision and goals for the children of Pakistan,” she said. “I come from a family that is dedicated to primary, secondary and higher education, so it was a no-brainer for me to become an ambassador for Sonia’s dream.

“It is true what they say, ‘If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ That change begins here, with us at SSO, and I’m proud to be able to improve the lives of children across the globe,” she said. 

Shayaan Alvi Borok,16, lives in Oak Brook, Ill., and attends Hinsdale Central High School. “My mom is one of the board members, so she told me about the organization and I wanted to get involved,” Shayaan said. “I support Sonia Shah Organization because it is truly trying to make a difference in Pakistan, a place that I have a strong connection to. I am also a woman and undoubtedly believe that all girls deserve a quality education.”

Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian and girls’ education advocate. He is the co-founder of Central Asia Institute (CAI), an international NGO that established hundreds of schools, especially for girls, in remote and often volatile regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. He co-authored three New York Times bestsellers about his experiences, Three Cups of TeaStones into Schools and Listen to the Wind.

Mortenson grew up with three sisters on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where his parents helped start a medical teaching hospital and an international school. The family returned to Minnesota in 1973, where Mortenson finished high school. He then served in the U.S. Army in Germany; studied at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., on a football scholarship; and graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1983 with degrees in liberal studies and nursing. For a decade he worked as a trauma nurse, putting in extra shifts to save money for mountaineering expeditions.

The sudden death of his sister Christa from epilepsy led him to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, in her memory. His experiences there changed his life, prompting the creation of CAI and his enduring vision to promote girls’ education around the world.

Mortenson left CAI in 2016, but continues to advocate girls’ and women’s empowerment. He says, “You can drop bombs, build roads or put in electricity, but until girls are educated, a society won’t change.”

He has received many accolades for his work, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service and the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan) medal, and honorary degrees from 16 universities.

He lives in Bozeman, Mont., with his wife Tara Bishop, daughter Amira and son Khyber.

Dr. Sairah Alvi is a scientist, lecturer and philanthropist with a passion for the written word. With a PhD in hematology/oncology and extensive post-doctoral work, she works as a consultant for large pharmaceutical companies and an adjunct faculty member at International Islamic University and Shifa International Hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan and Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan.

Sairah’s first love, however, is Urdu literature. She is director of the Urdu Institute of Chicago, which promotes Urdu language and literature, and an ambassador for Pakistan’s National Book Foundation, organizing events at her home for writers, poets and musicians from Southeast Asia and the United States.

She was educated and has lived and worked in the United States, South Africa, England, and Pakistan. Her husband is an English South African physician and chairman of pathology at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill.

Sairah earned her master’s degree in global management from London School of Economics, two masters’ of science degrees in immunology and molecular genetics from the University of Cincinnati, and a PhD in hematology/oncology from Rush University in Chicago. She did her post-doctoral work at the University of Cape Town and the South African Institute of Medical Research in Johannesburg.

She has published over 100 original articles in peer-reviewed cancer journals, and continues to lecture extensively at various universities, medical centers and scientific conferences.

Sairah hosts most SSO board meetings at her home and plays a key role in organizing annual fundraisers, SSO-related events in Pakistan, and visits to Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra. Her other charitable activities include support for the ARCS Foundation, dedicated to advancing women in science and technology; and HDF and TCF, which build schools and health centers in Pakistan. She is a member of Good Samaritan’s Festival Committee and her family supports numerous arts and cultural organization in Chicago, including the Chicago Art Institute and Goodman Theatre.

She lives in Oakbrook, Ill., with her husband. They have three children: her oldest daughter is a physician; her son studies economics and international relations at University of St Andrews in Scotland; and her youngest daughter is in high school and aspires to be a lawyer. 

Ms. Iram Shah is a humanitarian and global corporate executive with a career across multiple industries and countries. A senior vice president at Schneider Electric, a global leader in energy management and automation, she also runs the Sonia Shah Organization, started by her late daughter, which focuses on educating and empowering underprivileged girls.

Iram’s corporate career of more than two decades spans numerous Fortune 500 companies — including Schneider, Gatorade, Coca Cola, BP, and Zurich Financial — in five countries in industries ranging from oil and gas to financial services and manufacturing. 

She has served on several nonprofit organization boards, including Seeds of Peace, Central Asia Institute, Schneider Foundation and Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity. She is passionate about girls’ education and women’s empowerment and has been thought leader and keynote speaker at national and international women’s forums. 

Iram earned a master’s degree in business administration from University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Advanced General-Management Program. She was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the UK in 2005one of 11 top international Woman Leaders in Chicagoland by Chicago Women magazine in 2017; received the chancellor’s excellence award from Chicago’s East-West University in 2017.

She lives in Deerfield, Ill., with her husband Mahmood, two sons, and her mother.

Gianni and Giavanna Geati are 11-year-old twins in sixth grade at St. James School in Arlington Heights. Gianni plays basketball and soccer, as well as being a percussionist in the school band. And Giavanna, also a musician, plays piano and percussion in the school band. She also enjoys cooking and sewing. 

A year ago, when Gianni Geati was in fifth grade at Saint James School in Arlington Heights, Ill., his teacher assigned him and his classmates to each “write a news story out someone you know who has done a good deed or performed an act of kindness.” Coincidentally, Gianni, then 10 years old, had just heard about Sonia from his sisters — Giuliana, Liliana and Giavanna. They had just attended SSO’s 2016 fundraising event. 

“When [my sister] told me all about it, I was very inspired about all the things Sonia Shah did,” he said. “The next day in religion class I had to write about somebody who inspired me.”

Here’s what he wrote: 

“This girl, Sonia Shah, went to Pakistan and built a school for girls. In the past, only boys were allowed in school. Sonia helped many other girls go and get their education. She was only 17 years old when she raised money and made the plan to build a school. Unfortunately, Sonia died in a car crash. Her mother then founded the Sonia Shah Foundation.”

In an appearance onstage at SSO’s 2017 fundraiser in Chicago, Gianni explained, “I chose to write about Sonia Shah because I have three sisters and I think it’s very important for girls to get education.” 

Mr. Zahir Lavji is director of ZL Advisory LLC, a consulting service to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical-devices industries, primarily focused on commercialization. He also mentors healthcare start-up companies, entrepreneurs, university technology-transfer offices, and medical faculty. Having grown up in Africa and managed businesses globally for more than 30 years, Zahir is keenly aware of the important role education plays in personal and social mobility.

In 1972, Zahir left Uganda as a refugee during the mass exodus and emigrated to Canada where he established his new roots. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in pharmacology from the University of Toronto, and his MBA from the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada.

He spent much of his professional career with Abbott Laboratories, an Illinois-based healthcare-innovation corporation working in more than 150 countries, from which he retired as vice president for international marketing. His career included commercializing billion-dollar pharmaceuticals and glucose-monitoring, medical-nutrition and critical-care devices. As regional director for Abbott in Central and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, he successfully integrated the Knoll acquisition into single Abbott entities. And as president of Abbot Japan, where he spent eight years, he also managed business alliances with major Japanese pharmaceutical companies.

He devotes considerable time and expertise to mentoring healthcare startups from the Chicago Innovation Mentors group; chairs the Supervisory Board of Temple Therapeutics a development stage Biotechnology startup; is an active investor with Hyde Park Angels; is a Consultant with Breuer Partners & Company, a healthcare consulting organization; serves on the review committee for the University of Chicago’s Innovation Fund at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; and is a panelist for PROPEL-Sikich Investment Banking’s private workshop series.

In addition to pro-bono work in his field, his charitable activities include assisting the Aga Khan Foundation in the Midwest and serving as a standing member of the Alzheimer’s Association Chicago Rita Hayworth Gala.

He lives in Lake Forest, Ill., with his wife Rozmin and daughter Safina.