By KARIN RONNOW | For Sonia Shah Organization
CHICAGO, IL – Sonia Shah’s determined work on behalf of girls’ education make her a part of what humanitarian Greg Mortenson Saturday called “the greatest revolution of our time.”
In 2009, he said, Sonia, then a high school student, “told me how she wanted to change the world.” And then she got to work – doing more in the next few years to help the girls of a remote, conservative Pakistan village than anyone imagined possible.
The Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra, Pakistan, is her legacy, Mortenson told the crowd of Sonia Shah Organization (SSO) supporters, and is helping to change the world – one girl at a time.
“Schools are being abandoned” across Pakistan and militants have twice attacked the Kangra school, he said. “But at the Sonia Shah School, the lights are on.”
“Sonia, one young woman, is part of the greatest revolution of our time.” – Greg Mortenson
On a beautiful late-summer evening at the Museum of Contemporary Art, more than 175 people gathered to celebrate SSO’s growing list of accomplishments on behalf of women and girls. A passionate performance by the Sufi qawwali ensemble Fanna-Fi-Allah topped off the multicultural Bringing the Worlds Together event.
“At the ripe age of 17,” Sonia was tenacious about providing “basic education to girls in the world who are denied this fundamental human right,” SSO board member Zahir Lavji said during his program introduction.
Although Sonia died suddenly in a car accident in 2012, her dream lives on through her mom, Iram Shah, family, and a dedicated team of volunteers who run the Chicago-based nonprofit organization.
“Sonia was a gift who keeps giving and tonight I want to share what we have achieved with your generosity and support,” Iram told the crowd. “We have come a long way.”
“We have now 75 children in the school. Our filtration plant continues to provide clean drinking water to the village. We also have excellent security, with round-the-clock guards and new closed-circuit TV cameras,” she said, as photos of students lit up the screen behind her.
All three initiatives announced in 2015 are also well under way, she continued. Solar panels will be installed on the school in coming months, “which will provide uninterrupted electricity and security at night.”
A new women’s vocational center opened in June, Iram said. “We thought we may not get anyone to register. To our surprise 40 women registered the first day and we have a wait list of 100 women.”
And the first two recipients of Sonia Shah Scholarships, Aimon Wadood and Zuleyma Codero, started college in Chicago this fall.
For Zuleyma, the scholarship makes what she thought were impossible dreams a reality. “It is just a whole new experience for me. It gives me hope that I can ensure financial status for my family,” she said.
And it all started with Sonia.
“I first met Sonia at the Northshore Country Day School, where she was a student,” Mortenson recalled. This remarkable young woman spoke five languages, was the youngest intern on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, and took a gap year before college to work on the school in Kangra, her mother’s ancestral village. “During that year she laid the seeds for the school.”
“This is a remote area, plagued by poverty and violence,” said Mortenson, an SSO board member and author of Three Cups of Tea, said of the conservative Pashtun village near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
SSO’s valuable work there is part of a broader movement to build a stronger world by empowering women and girls, he said. “It will take generations,” but because of her inspiring work, “Sonia, one young woman, is part of the greatest revolution of our time.”
“But the journey is not done, we have many mountains to climb together.” – Iram Shah
Ruby Writer, a Chicago teen who raised $600 to support SSO, is also “part of the greatest revolution,” program emcee Hasan Amin said.
Ruby explained that she was deeply moved by the movie Girls Rising, and she her friends “had the idea to bring the film to my school. We invited parents and friends and explained how hard it is” to promote girls’ education in these remote areas. That led to an online fundraising campaign.
After hearing Iram interviewed on Chicago public radio, Ruby said she knew SSO would be the perfect beneficiary of the funds.
With deep gratitude, Iram said Ruby’s contribution and all money raised Saturday night helps SSO continue its life-changing work.
“But the journey is not done, we have many mountains to climb together,” she said. “Many [students] come to school without a proper breakfast and are malnourished. Some of these kids don’t have shoes. We want to provide school lunches, uniforms and medical check-ups and expand the Sonia Shah Scholarship program.”
It is a journey of hope and promise, she said. “Please join us.”
More photos below.