The Sonia Shah School was bombed.

The Sonia Shah School was bombed.

This week has brought the gravest of tragedies: the massacre of 148 at a school in Peshwar–132 of the victims children. Our hearts break for these children and their families, and there are simply no words to express this fully.

A couple days before the attacks in Peshwar, the Sonia Shah Memorial School was bombed. We are beyond grateful that no one was hurt, but the water filtration plant–which provided clean drinking water to more than 700 families–was destroyed. Walls were demolished; windows were shattered.

Before:

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After:

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Sonia’s dream has been damaged, but it will recover. Luckily, we can share with confidence that the villagers are enthusiastic about the development of the school and the water filtration plant. We know we have to rebuild–for the girls, for the villagers, for Sonia. We cannot give in to terrorists, and this devastation, along with the tragedy of Peshwar, shows us that now more than ever, our cause is critical.

We are matching donations until next Sunday.

From now until next Sunday, December 28th at midnight CST, we are matching every penny contributed to our current campaign which will help run the Sonia Shah Memorial School for an entire year and rebuild the water filtration plant, which cost more than $16,000. Your support is more important now than it has ever been before. Stand with us! Let us show the world that we believe in the importance of educating girls and changing the world.

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If you have not yet contributed, now is absolutely the time. Double your difference, your influence, your piece of Sonia’s dream. Together we can rise up and say, “You won’t win. We won’t stand for it.”

Share the campaign with your networks and learn more here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/opening-a-school-for-girls-in-pakistan–2/

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Opening the Sonia Shah Memorial School – Campaign

We’re thrilled to announce that the Sonia Shah Memorial School building is completed and open! Help us prepare to welcome the first class of girls and offer them what would never have been possible without your help and support: a world-class education. With this campaign we are raising the year’s operational costs so we can bring in girls, feed them, teach them, and give them the opportunity to make a true difference in our world.

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The status of the Sonia Shah Memorial School.

  • Since our last campaign, the school building has been completed, and a necessary water filtration plant has been built and completed. The water filtration plant is currently providing drinking water to almost 700 households.
  • The school was officially opened with a ceremony on Sunday, October 19, 2014 in the village of Kangra in Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Pakhtunkhwa’s minister of education, Mr. Mohammed Atif Khan, opened the ceremony and gave speeches. He made an inspirational analogy of a bird who is trying to put out a large fire by bringing drops of water in her beak. Someone asks her the question, “How will you put out such a big fire with such few drops of water?” The bird replied, “On the day of judgement, I want my name to be on the list of those who tried to put out fire–not in the list of those who caused the fire, and not in the list  of those who who did nothing!”
  • The school will open its doors in April 2015. Uniforms and lunch will be provided. The principal and the teachers are in the process of being hired. We will also start a vocational center for women of the village in two rooms of the school. Due to the constant electricity outage, we will install solar panels on the roof of the school.

Sonia’s mother, Iram Shah, in Kangra, Pakistan for the opening of the Sonia Shah Memorial School in fall 2014

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What this campaign will do.

This campaign will raise the money for one year of operational costs.  The school will include 8 teachers (including one principal) as well as one woman in janitorial staff. There will be approximately 150 students in 6 grades: kindergarten to 5th grade. The breakdown of our operational costs are:
  • Teachers and principal salaries, training, travel and benefits: $1000 per teacher a total of $8000.
  • Books, stationery, eLearning, and library contents: $3000
  • Utilities, water and security services: $2000
  • Student health screening, immunization and everyday emergency treatment at school: $3000
  • Lunch, uniforms and hygiene training: $2000
  • Maintenance, and monitoring: $1000
Did you know that, in the US, the cost per public school student per year is $12,608? We are sending each child to school for an entire year for one-hundredth of that cost: $126. Imagine what we can do with your contribution!

I am Sonia.

Sonia knew that her education was everything in her life, from her cultural experiences and multilingualism, her travel, her experience as the youngest intern in the President’s Campaign of 2012, and the confidence in her own power and equality.

We look at each girl in Kangra, Pakistan and know that with a proper education, she too could be that remarkable girl we loved in Sonia. We look inward and know that each of us, benefiting every second of every day from our education, is just like Sonia, too–that without that education, we are each little girl in Kangra, Pakistan. We take nothing for granted, but instead assert proudly, I am Sonia!

Are you Sonia, too? Show us! Here’s how:

  •  Every contribution makes a huge difference in our school and in the lives of our students. Give what you can and help us change the world, one girl at a time.
  • Help us spread the word by using the hashtag #iamsonia on Twitter & Instagram! Tell the world why YOU are Sonia.. and why they are, too.
  • Show your support to your networks by posting a picture of you wish “I am Sonia” written on your palm or even a piece of paper – and if you post on Facebook, make sure you tag our Facebook page: Sonia Shah Organization.

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Nothing makes us feel stronger about Sonia’s legacy than support from people like you.

The remarkable story of a remarkable girl.

Sonia was an exceptional girl. She spoke five languages, was the youngest intern in the President’s Campaign of 2012, and kept the needs of others above her own. She completed her education a year early and at only 17 years old, she dedicated a gap year to go to Kangra, Pakistan and build a school for the girls of the village.

Sonia was determined that she would get to know the women of Kangra, understand their needs and then do what it takes to help improve their lives.  Sonia created a non-profit foundation to accomplish her task, and, in typical Sonia fashion, the foundation was in the name of her beloved grandmother, the Kulsoom Foundation.

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.

For a girl born and raised in the United States and Europe to go live in a rural Pakistani village, amongst the village women, and observe and respect the conservative social norms – takes courage, resolve and a heart of gold. These attributes are the spirit of Sonia.

And then just as her dreams for the school were about to take flight, her young life was tragically cut short. Usually, when a person passes away at this young an age, people speculate on what this person would have achieved if they had lived for a longer time.  However, in the case of Sonia, we find ourselves wondering how this unusual girl was able to achieve so much and impact so many in her all too brief eighteen years of life.

Sonia’s mother, a woman whom she revered for her ambition, intelligence, and heart, carries on the efforts in Pakistan, fulfilling Sonia’s dream as her legacy. Sonia’s story and dreams for girls in Pakistan have inspired so many to give their time and resources to help make this dream a reality.

Pakistan as it is.

In Kangra, Pakistan, only 3 out of 10 girls ever go to school, and hardly any of them ever get to high school. In Pakistan there are over three million girls not in school, and almost half (49%) of the girls who do begin primary school leave before completing the final grade.

This is especially troubling, as by 2050, Pakistan will have the 4th largest population in the world behind, China, India and the USA. Yet Pakistan only spends 2.7% of its annual GDP on education, spending seven-times that on defense. The effects of such a poor education system are evident. Pakistan’s total literacy rate is a dismal 50%, while only 36% of Pakistani women are literate.

Education can change everything.

As a teenager, Sonia Shah recognized and understood this potentially world-changing notion. She wrote of her heritage, gratitude, and wisdom from personal experience in an essay at only 17 years of age:

My grandmother was married at the age of thirteen and left school after passing the eighth grade. Despite her lack of formal education and a life lived in the rural northwest of  Pakistan, she was intelligent and ambitious. She convinced her husband to move their family to Peshawar, the largest city in the region, and ensured that all six of her children received the best education available. My grandmother’s almost ferocious support of her children’s education encouraged her youngest child, my mother, to enroll as the only female in a class of 80 at the local business school. On the first day of classes, my mom’s teacher asked every student in the room about their plans for the future. When my mom responded that she wanted to travel to  America to get her MBA, he laughed. Mama remained unfazed. She eventually did go on to get  her MBA at the University of Chicago, and it is thanks to her determination that I enjoy a world-class education and the comforts of the West.

In addition to her firsthand experience of the immense difference education can make, Sonia was also well aware of the facts. Indeed,

  • Literacy translates directly to success in the workforce.
  • Women with a secondary education earn 70% of what men earn; with a primary education, they earn 51% of what men earn.
  • Illiterate women with no completed education earn even less than 51% of what men earn.
  • Yet perhaps most astounding of all, women with a high level of literacy earn 95% more than women who are illiterate.

Armed with the facts, the experience, and clearly the intelligence and ambition that had been passed down through the women in her family, Sonia Shah made it her mission, despite her young age, to change the lives of thousands of girls in Kangra, Pakistan by building a girls’ school herself and providing desperately needed education.  Yet Sonia’s story was tragically cut short before she could see the opening of the school.

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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.” 

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.”

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.

Ruby Writer is a Chicago teen who became one of SSO’s first Youth Ambassadors after raising $600 to support SSO. Inspired by the film Girls Rising, she her friends “had the idea to bring the film to my school. We invited parents and friends” and explained how “necessary and life changing [education is], for not only the one girl’s life, but for the entire world,” said Ruby, now a 15-year-old freshman at Walter Payton College Prep. 

In conjunction with showing the film, Ruby launched an online fundraising campaign for girls’ education and, after hearing SSO President Iram Shah interviewed on Chicago public radio, decided to donate the proceeds to SSO.

“Sonia’s story really resonates with me because I feel as if I can compare to her,” said Ruby, who lives in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. We’re both young, driven, privileged girls, fighting for what I like to think we both feel is a fundamental right: education.”

Since then, “My mom and I have both become really strong supporters of this organization,” she said. In January 2017, Ruby and her mom, the artist Monica Rezman, were SSO’s ambassadors to the Women’s March on Washington, held on Donald Trump’s first day as president.

The mother-daughter duo also put in long hours to help organize SSO’s September 2017 fundraiser in Chicago, at which Ruby served as emcee. And she volunteered to do the audio recordings of Sonia’s college-application essays for the website.

“When I was reading them … I realized that so many people want to change the world and we all want to make an impact in such a positive way. But Sonia was able to articulate her aspirations so well. It made me cry. And since then, there’s no doubt in my mind that Sonia’s still with us here today and that she’s a role model for all of us,” Ruby said.

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.

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