Sonia Shah Organization was founded by Chicago teenager, Sonia Shah, before her tragic and untimely death. Sonia’s dream was to educate the girls and women of her ancestral village of Kangra, Pakistan, seeing firsthand the power of education and just how different her life would have been without it. Sonia’s dream is carried on by her mother, Iram Shah, at the Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra, Pakistan, where we educate girls and provide their lunches, uniforms, and basic medical care, run a vocational center for women too old for school, and provide clean drinking water for the entire village. In the last year, we have developed a scholarship program, helping inspirational and deserving women complete their educations in the US. We are a small organization with big dreams, and we hope that you’ll stand with us! Click here to donate.

Learn more about Sonia or about the organization.

For Sonia Shah

A Girl, A Dream, A Mission

Sonia Shah (1993–2012)

Sonia ShahSonia Shah was a bright and compassionate Pakistani-American who knew the value of education. She wanted all girls – especially those in her mother’s ancestral village of Kangra, Pakistan – to have the same opportunities as she did.

She once said:

I have always been keenly aware that the efforts of my grandmother and mother are all that stood between me and the life of an underprivileged Pakistani village girl. It is only through the work of the women [who]came before me that I don’t live in ignorance and isolation, and every girl in Pakistan deserves the chance to create similar change for herself and those around her.

Born in 1993 in Chicago, Ill., U.S.A. to Pakistani-Pashtun parents, Sonia quickly became “a global citizen,” Iram Shah, her mom, said.

From the age of 4, she traveled with us and lived on three continents, in five countries and spoke five languages (Pashto, Urdu, Spanish, Chinese and English). Every time she went to a new school, I thought she would have difficulty, but she managed to fit right in.

History was her favorite subject. In a 2011 college-application essay, she wrote:

I love history because it’s the best story I’ve ever been told. It is surprising, fascinating, and sometimes fantastical, yet its truth gives it a power no fairy tale or novel could ever have. … I’m happiest when learning about the world   around me, but now I desperately want to be able to use what I learn, to make an impact on the world I work so hard to understand. 

My heroes have always been brilliant, flawed people who have acted, who have changed our history and made our world. Now I want to try to join, instead of only watching them. I want to serve and help others while I am pursuing my passions and interests. I want to leave this world knowing that I have changed it in some quantifiable, positive way, no matter how minuscule.

09192014.news_.mortenson.ap_One of her heroes was humanitarian Greg Mortenson, who spoke at her school just outside Chicago when she was a 14-year-old ninth-grader. Sonia was deeply moved by his stories about working to promote girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Soon after, Sonia and her mom moved to Switzerland. Mortenson’s words stayed with her. During a family visit to Kangra when she was 16, she looked around with new eyes.

In this village of 25,000 people in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, extremist violence, rampant poverty and deeply held cultural values prompt many families to keep their daughters at home. Uneducated girls face a grim future in this environment.

Sonia was astounded to see how few girls attended the area’s government schools, and dismayed that so many girls never learned to read and write. Her dream was born: she would build a girls’ school in Kangra.

She graduated a year early from her Zurich high school, took a “gap year” (2011- 2012) and got to work. She started the nonprofit Kulsoom Foundation, named after her maternal grandmother. She designed a website. She blogged. And she knocked at the door of every NGO that might partner with her or have something to teach her.

Few doubted her tenacity would yield results. Jeff Coleman, father of one of Sonia’s high school friends, later said. “The idea of building a school, she [Sonia] would do that. She was that kind of kid.

When she went back to Kangra on her own, though, some friends and family worried. Iram recalled: “When she left, people called me and said either I was too brave or too stupid. My own family has not lived in that village [for years] and here a 17-year-old American-born girl was going to live for weeks. I didn’t stop her because I knew she had made up her mind.” She also knew Sonia’s “innate balance, ability to see both sides of any issue” would serve her well.

Sonia Shah Organization - Sonia and Iram ShahIn Kangra, Sonia lived with villagers in their rustic homes and spent time with the school-age girls. She noted that electricity and clean drinking water were in short supply. She identified a piece of land in the middle of the village and “convinced me to buy it,” Iram said. 

When she returned home to Chicago, she kept her determined pace. In addition to working on the school, Sonia pursued her interest in politics, landing a prized internship with President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. Her father, Mahmood, said she worked on the campaign “dawn to dusk” for months.

Tragically, late in the summer of 2012, just before leaving to start at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., Sonia was killed in a car accident in Chicago.

Everyone who knew her was devastated.

Obama wrote to the family: “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.

Sonia’s lasting gift to us all is that she truly made a difference in the world. She had said, “I want to leave this world knowing that I have changed it in some quantifiable, positive way.” And she did.


“I am Sonia”: History of the SONIA SHAH ORGANIZATION

Educate. Engage. Empower.

The Sonia Shah Organization was founded by Chicago teenager before her untimely death in 2012. Sonia Shah’s dream was to educate the girls and women of her ancestral village of Kangra, Pakistan. Her own life experience had taught her the power of education; she knew just how different her life would have been without it. She wanted all girls to have the same opportunities.

Sonia Shah Memorial SchoolAfter Sonia’s sudden death, “We couldn’t get our heads around this,” family friend Zephyr Malik later recalled. “But I told Iram,There’s something big here. I can feel it. You have to do it now or lose it forever.’”

Bolstered by friends and extended family, Sonia’s parents, Iram and Mahmood, channeled their grief into something positive. “We lost a precious life, but Sonia’s death will not be in vain,” her mom said. “Her dream has become our mission.”

They renamed their daughter’s Kulsoom Foundation, calling it the Sonia Shah Organization (SSO), and picked up where Sonia had left off. 

Brick by brick, the school was built. Concern about the lack of clean drinking water, and the hours women and girls spent every day hauling water from the river, inspired them to also build a water-filtration plant adjacent to the school, supplying clean water for the entire village.

The two-story Sonia Shah Memorial School was completed in 2014 – an amazing accomplishment in this conflict-ridden region. Kangra is in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, not far from Swat, where Malala Yousafzai was shot for going to school. “People say Pakistan is a tough neighborhood,” Pakistan Consul General Faisal Niaz Tirmizi said. “Well, Kangra is a very tough neighborhood.

Just after the school was inaugurated, but before classes started, the school was bombed. No one was injured, but the blast damaged the school’s walls and windows and destroyed the water plant. Sonia’s family stayed the course. “We cannot give in to terrorists, and this devastation,” Iram said, “shows us that now, more than ever, our cause is critical.” SSO rebuilt the school and water plant just in time for the first day of school in April 2015.

Today, three female teachers – two with master’s degrees and one with a bachelor’s degree – teach dozens of students in kindergarten through class five. All students receive textbooks, uniforms and stationery. A visiting doctor provides basic vaccinations and wellness checks. And security is top-notch, with high walls, round-the-clock security and closed-circuit TV cameras.

sonia-shah-org-progress-9The community is extremely happy with the school,” said Mahnaz Ishaq, a SSO volunteer who regularly visits Kangra. “They very strongly feel the standard of education in our school is far superior to other schools in the area.

SSO opened a women’s vocational center in 2016, teaching handicrafts and sewing skills to help women support their families. The center has proved wildly successful: all training programs have been full and the waiting list continues to grow.

In 2016, SSO also began a scholarship program in the United States, with two deserving young women receiving financial and other support to help them fulfill their dreams of higher education.   

A scholarship is the kind of thing many, many girls here need,” said Malik, an educator who worked with Iram to start the scholarship program. “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.”

Sonia’s spirit lives on in all these programs. Students proudly declare: I am Sonia.

I feel inspired by and hopeful for the young girls coming to school against all odds and changing their futures forever,” Iram said. “The road is long, but full of hope.

 

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.

MENU