Blog - Page 2 of 6 - Sonia Shah Organization


Help us provide scholarships for women in the US.

Help us provide scholarships for women in the US.

Help us provide scholarships for women in the US by supporting our fundraising campaign. We need to raise $10,000 to offer scholarships to 4 women by 2018. Do you believe that education can change everything? We do. Support the cause today by visiting this link.

We know that you believe education can change everything. And at Sonia Shah Organization, we’ve focused our efforts for years on changing the lives of the girls in Kangra, Pakistan. We hope to break the cycle for good, for good. For the good of the girls, for the good of their families, for the good of their families’ families. We aim to ease severe poverty, increase overall literacy, break the ignorance of isolation, and truly change the world, one girl at a time.

But last year, we decided that the desperate situation of higher education at home needs our attention, too.

Help us provide scholarships for women in the US

It’s no secret that college is more expensive than ever before. Student loans can encumber individuals for decades with high interest rates tacked onto years of inflated tuition, making college more and more unaffordable for all. So for those with no financial support, in no position to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt? For them, college too often becomes out of reach.

Yet a college education is more important than ever to the financial independence and social advancement of women. Specifically, a college education for a woman means:

  • increased wages,
  • lower levels of poverty and unemployment,
  • a decreased reliance on government resources,
  • lower maternal mortality rates,
  • lower infant mortality rates, lower fertility rates, lower smoking rates, significantly decreased chance of incarceration, higher rates of civic involvement, significantly decreased chance of divorce, longer life, better health, greater happiness.

A college-educated woman will likely make $1.5 million more than her high-school-educated counterpart. But the average student borrower from the class of 2016 took on over $37,000 in student loan debt. For an individual already struggling to make ends meet, this amount is too often the difference between chasing her dreams and passing on the chance.

Helping young women attend college and earn their degrees is a key part of SSO’s mission. No matter where a girl is in the world, higher education helps the student, her family and her community by empowering her with knowledge, increasing their earning potential, improving their health (and the health of their future families), and increasing the likelihood that they will be active participants in civic and community affairs. We believe that providing scholarships for women is a fundamental part of Sonia’s vision.

Before her untimely death, founder Sonia Shah wrote, “I want to make history, instead of just witnessing it.”

Well, let’s make history! To be able to provide college scholarships for women to 4 deserving, forgotten individuals, we need to meet our goal of $10,000. We cannot do this without you. Give to our campaign and help us witness real change in this world. We’re offering a catalog of perks at a range of amounts to thank you for your donation, and we think you’ll love proudly displaying Sonia’s quote on a v-neck t-shirt, attending our annual event in Chicago, or standing with SSO as a corporate sponsor. 

Donate Now



Meet our mother-daughter ambassadors to Women’s March on Washington

By Karin Ronnow, Sonia Shah Organization | 20 January, 2017

When Monica Rezman and her 14-year-old daughter Ruby Writer arrived at the National Mall in Washington D.C., Thursday, one day before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, they were taken aback by the disturbing language and visuals all around them.

“Tough day on the mall,” they wrote to Sonia Shah Organization (SSO) Thursday night. “Can’t wait for women to come and take over this city.”Scenes from the Women's March on Washington

They sent a photo of two men wearing red T-shirts with “Donald Trumps Hillary” on the front, and “The Witch is Dead” on the back.

They photographed trucks plastered with posters proclaiming “End Planned Parenthood: Endangered Species,” and “We Must Obey God Rather Than Men,” ironically juxtaposed with “Defy Tyrants” above a photo of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini (1900-1989), the deceased religious and political leader who made Iran an Islamic republic. 

Scenes from the Women's March on WashingtonScenes from the Women's March on Washington

“At a time so low and scary in our country and its government, I feel that you can’t just sit at home, lock your doors, and wait for the day that the sun comes back out, because that won’t happen unless we all do something,” Ruby said.

She and her mom, who live in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood and teamed up with SSO this past summer, volunteered to be SSO’s “ambassadors” to Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington.

Ruby Writer and friend at the Women's March on WashingtonThey will be among the hundreds of thousands expected to participate in what the Guardian (UK) described as “an extraordinary display of dissent on the president’s first day in office”; a march of support for the preservation of human rights and social justice amid President Donald Trump’s discriminatory remarks and proclaimed policy agenda

“Over 200,000 known people will be attending and that is only the number that have signed up with the organization,” Ruby, an eighth grader at the Pulaski International School of Chicago, said before heading to Washington this week. “I feel it will be full of many different types of people: races, genders, religions.

“Overall, I expect a group of people of all different identities who accept each other. Which is exactly why I think this event is so important; to spread the acceptance of all different people,” she said.

“I feel that you can’t just sit at home, lock your doors, and wait for the day that the sun comes back out, because that won’t happen unless we all do something.”

The Women’s March on Washington is expected to be one of the largest demonstrations in American history. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech, has long held the record for the largest demonstration in the nation’s capital, according to PBS. Roughly 250,000 gathered that August day to protest “the injustice and inequalities black Americans faced because of the color of their skin.” 

This is not the first protest march for the mother-daughter duo. Monica, 58, a painter/sculptor whose abstract work addresses concepts of female identity, beauty and adornment, said Wednesday, “I protested when I was a child against the Vietnam War and throughout my adulthood for pro-choice issues [and] women’s rights, along with two marches supporting the Chicago Public School unions and teachers.”

Ruby, who was by her side at several of those events, said she sees this march a little differently.

Ruby Writer at a march supporting the Chicago Public School unions and teachers“I’ve been thinking a lot about this march in the days leading up to it, and I have come to a conclusion that I strongly disagree with some individuals saying that it is a ‘protest,’ because I feel that saying that gives even more attention to what’s wrong,” she said. “So instead of participating in this event to ‘protest,’ I am participating to support women and all minority groups in the nation, and in fact, the whole world.” 

Monica and Ruby contacted SSO late last summer, just before its annual fundraiser at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Ruby, deeply moved by the documentary “Girl Rising,” had “organized four showings at her school and spoke to the community about the importance of educating girls around the world,” he mom said. 

The teenage activist also raised $600 for girls’ education. When she heard Sonia’s mother, Iram Shah, on the radio, SSO’s story resonated with her own awakening to “how necessary and life changing [education is], for not only the one girl’s life, but for the entire world and its society,” Ruby said this week.

“Sonia’s story really resonates with me because I feel as if I can compare to her. We’re both young, driven, privileged girls, fighting for what I like to think we both feel as a fundamental right: education. Also, fighting for women’s rights in such a male-dominated world pushes me to feel even more passionate about this case, much like Sonia did.”

Saturday’s rally begins at the U.S. Capitol, followed by a march along an as-yet undisclosed route. The 10 a.m. start time coincides with the traditional National Prayer Service for the new president at the National Cathedral.

Stay tuned for more news from the Women’s March on Washington!

Sonia Shah Organization

Help Us End the Year Right: A Message from Iram

My daughter Sonia had a vision, a dream that she left us when she was taken from us all too soon. Her dream was simple: A world in which all girls have the same opportunities for education that she had. For them to have the opportunities to change their lives; to be anything they imagine; to break the cycle for good, for good.

Today, four years after her death, the Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra, Pakistan, is thriving. The school is a safe place for students and teachers to teach and learn, inspire and create. A place where girls dare to dream of their role in building a better, more peaceful world.  The school is, truly, Sonia’s dream manifest.

The school is, truly, Sonia’s dream manifest.

Sonia knew in her heart that when we educate girls, we do so much more than teach them to read and write.


  • empower them,
  • improve basic hygiene and health care,
  • decrease the chances of child marriage,
  • spark imagination, intellect and curiosity,
  • fight poverty,
  • and create future leaders.

We simply change the world — for the better!

The world we know today seems to pose more questions than answers. But if you stand with us, you make a positive impact… you provide hope.  The Sonia Shah Organization is at a critical juncture and we need your help.

Please, open your hearts and help us continue along this journey toward a brighter future. Stand with us.


Please, help us end the year right.Just click the donate button above and follow the simple steps. Give what you can to Sonia Shah Organization and help us change the world by empowering an entire future of girls. Don’t forget; there are only 15 days left in the year to make a tax-deductible contribution for 2016. We’re counting on you.


This Giving Tuesday, stand with us.

It might be an understatement to say that things feel like they have been changing lately. We’ve witnessed the unexpected, the ugly, and the heartbreaking in quick succession. Some of us are even afraid to turn on the news or scroll our Facebook feeds, often anticipating violence, sadness, hatred, or devastation. There just seems to be so much happening, and so little that can be done. But there is a fire that has been ignited in us, hasn’t there? An urge, a need, to do something and to help. This Giving Tuesday, we want to harness that passion, because you can help.

sso-safetypin-logoWe wear the safety pin* to represent the actions we need you to take to stand up for what we believe in. And what do we believe in? We believe in the equality of all, in the power of education, and that girls’ and women’s rights are human rights. We believe that we can make a real difference, but that we need your help. We believe that education. can. change. everything.

This Giving Tuesday, we ask that you stand with us. Harness the fire that’s been ignited inside you and use it to stand for what we believe in. We can change this world, one girl at a time… We just can’t do it without you.

Visit or text SONIA to 31996 to donate. Thank you for taking a stand… and for standing with us. ❤️

With heartfelt gratitude,
All of us at Sonia Shah Organization

safety-pin-solidarity*”Safety pin solidarity” emerged after the Brexit vote and the increased prejudice and violence against minority groups that followed. By wearing a safety pin, an individual is identifying themselves as a friend to anyone feeling threatened because of who they are–no matter their religion, orientation, or color of their skin. The safety pin says, “I’m a friend. You can stand with me,” in a discreet way. 


We Are Grateful.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” – John F. Kennedy, Thanksgiving Day proclamation, 1963

We at Sonia Shah Organization are grateful every day for the opportunities and accomplishments that surround us: young girls and boys learning to read and write; girls who stay in school and pursue their dreams; women learning skills to support their families; access to precious clean water, nutritious food and good health.

We at Sonia Shah Organization are grateful every day for the opportunities and accomplishments that surround us.

No one does this work alone. Deitrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German Lutheran theologian who gave his life to fighting Nazism in Germany, once said: “It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.” 

We are grateful to you, for supporting Sonia’s mission to educate and empower girls and women.

Enjoy this Thanksgiving Day. Fill it with love, respect, tolerance, courage, gratitude, forgiveness, simplicity and peace. Make a difference in the world.

Thank you.

Harper College where Zuleyma, Sonia Shah Organization scholarship recipient, attends school

Opportunity to Achieve | Scholarship Update

Iram Shah and Zuleyma, Sonia Shah Organization scholarship recipientby Karin Ronnow

As part of its ongoing mission to support girls’ education, Sonia Shah Organization is helping two young women in the Chicago area (USA) achieve their dreams of a college education.

One of them recently shared this update on her progress:

“My name is Zuleyma and I am one of the Sonia Shah scholarship recipients. This past week I successfully finished my first set of business classes at Harper College. I thank the Sonia Shah Organization for the opportunity it has given me to go back to school and achieve what I believe is one of the most challenging and rewarding goals I have set for myself.”

Congratulations, Zuleyma! We are infinitely proud of you and your accomplishments thus far.

“I thank the Sonia Shah Organization for the opportunity it has given me to go back to school and achieve what I believe is one of the most challenging and rewarding goals I have set for myself.”

Harper College where Zuleyma, Sonia Shah Organization scholarship recipient, attends schoolZuleyma, 24, attends Harper College, a comprehensive community college in Palatine, Ill., a suburb northwest of Chicago. The college is named for Dr. William Rainey Harper, a pioneer in the junior college movement in the United States and the first president of the University of Chicago.

The school, which opened in 1967, prepares students for rewarding careers and/or for transfer to four-year universities. Today, it is one of the nation’s premier community colleges and one of the largest, serving more than 40,000 students annually.

Zuleyma studies accounting and business, and hopes to finish with a double major in those subjects.

SSO has established a small but growing scholarship fund to help underprivileged girls in Chicago afford an education. Please consider making a donation to help Zuleyma along her ambitious path!


SSO brings worlds together in Chicago to celebrate ‘revolution’ in girls’ education


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

Internationally renowned Fanna-Fi-Allah ensemble delights crowd with traditional Sufi qawwali music, performed with deep devotion, passion and ecstatic rhythm. Photo by Suresh Bodiwala.

Internationally renowned Fanna-Fi-Allah ensemble delights crowd with traditional Sufi qawwali music, performed with deep devotion and ecstatic rhythm. Photo by Suresh Bodiwala.

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.

A girl in Kangra, Pakistan, holds a photo of Sonia Shah, part of a slideshow of images from the village. Photo by Suresh Bodiwala.

A girl in Kangra, Pakistan, holds a photo of Sonia Shah, part of a slideshow of images from the village. Photo by Suresh Bodiwala.

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.


Good news on the long road 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.” – 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

To make a direct donation, please visit

“The road is long, but full of hope,” Iram Shah said.




Paying tribute to prominent qawwali singer killed in Karachi

By Karin Ronnow

Pakistani cyclists ride past a wall image of late Sufi musician Amjad Sabri in Karachi. | Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistani cyclists ride past a wall image of late Sufi musician Amjad Sabri in Karachi. | Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Amjad Sabri, beloved Pakistani Sufi qawwali singer, was killed by extremists in Karachi in late June. His death was mourned around the world and raised “new outcry over sectarian and extremist violence in Pakistan,” the New York Times reported June 22.

Sabri, 45, was driving to a TV studio to record a Ramadan show when two gunmen on motorcycles fired into his vehicle and then escaped, according to the Times report.

Qawwali is the “devotional music linked with Sufism, a mystical variant of Islam deeply entwined with the traditions of South Asia,” according to NPR.   

 “Amjad Sabri was one of the country’s finest qawwals, known for his soul-stirring renditions of mystic poetry,” Dawn (Pakistan) reported. “He enthralled music aficionados with his brand of spirituality, mysticism and ecstasy for years. He was not only well versed with the structure and aesthetics of qawwali, but also knew how to make it adaptive to the contemporary music, keeping its essence alive.”

The beloved and prominent qawwali singer Amjad Sabri (1976-2016) was killed by extremists in Pakistan in June. | Open source

The beloved and prominent qawwali singer Amjad Sabri (1976-2016) was killed by extremists in Pakistan in June. | Open source

Following Sabri’s death, Tahir Qawwal, leader of the American qawwali ensemble Fanna-Fi-Allah, created this tribute video and shared it with Sonia Shah Organization (SSO).

Fanna-Fi-Allah group will perform this song and many others at SSO’s benefit event on the evening of Sept. 17 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Chicago. For tickets, visit  

Celebrating Sonia’s dream on the Fourth of July

By Iram Shah

Sonia Shah Organization - Sonia and Iram ShahOn this day, the Fourth of July, we Americans celebrate our freedom with a sense of pride and much fanfare. We sometimes forget the abundant rights and privileges we have here: freedom of speech, education, equality and much more. Though far from perfect, America is still one of the places where you can live your dream. It is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Sonia was born in Chicago and lived a big part of her life in Europe, but was always grateful for the privileges she had as an American. She was also acutely conscious of the absence of these privileges in some parts of the world, especially in Pakistan.

Education is a great equalizer and a fundamental part of the American Dream, and Sonia wanted that for all girls. 

In her blog she wrote:

Sonia Shah Organization - Sonia and Iram Shah“I just wanted to take the time to talk a little bit about why I feel that supporting education for girls in Pakistan is such an integral part of Pakistan’s movement towards stability and development, especially at a time when both seem so unlikely. … 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. Poor mothers need their daughters to help them at home, and poor fathers can rarely afford to even feed and clothe their children properly, and so view a daughter’s tuition fees as an unnecessary expenditure. 

“These uneducated girls are then made dependent on their male relatives, perpetuating a cycle of destitution in a country [where] 24 percent of its 170 million people live below the poverty line. 

“Educating a girl can aid in the development and improvement of her entire family and even her entire community, and will stabilize a nation rocked by ignorance and hardship. It is now becoming even more important to continue to fund and support girls’ schools, as the Taliban has destroyed over 400 schools in the Swat Valley and tribal regions, and have targeted girls’ schools in particular. With tens of thousands of children left without a school and a government unable to rebuild schools quickly, I believe that it is essential to reach out to and educate as many girls as we can.”  

Sonia’s dream to change the world one girl at a time is alive and progressing. We should never give up on our daughters and the future they can create for us. 

Happy Fourth of July!