Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan
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Good health = good learning: SSMS medical checkup ‘camp’ diagnoses & treats students

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan

Dr. Ashfaq Utmanzay checks the heart and lungs of a Sonia Shah Memorial School student during a recent medical camp at the school.

By Karin Ronnow | Sonia Shah Organization | 11 Feb., 2017

KANGRA, Pakistan With promises of fewer stomachaches and more energy, the students at Sonia Shah Memorial School (SSMS) lifted the small plastic bottles of deworming medicine to their lips.

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan

A young student at Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra, Pakistan, swallows her dose of de-worming medicine.

Some of them took a first tiny sip, cautiously testing the white liquid. Others turned their faces toward the sky and bravely poured it into their mouths, their Adam’s apples jiggling as they swallowed.

Deworming was the first order of business at SSMS’ recent one-day “Medical Checkup, Screening and Supplementation Camp,” part of the Sonia Shah Organization’s (SSO) effort to augment the limited healthcare options for the poor in Kangra. 

“Many of our students are malnourished and anemic,” SSO chairwoman Iram Shah said. “We cannot turn our faces away. We have to take care of the children who come to our school.” 

Sadly, in Pakistan, a rapidly developing country of nearly 200 million people in an area half the size of Alaska, most indicators of the nation’s health “are either failing to improve or worsening,” according to the World Bank. For example:

The solutions to this reality are complex, but school-based medical visits play a significant role, said Dr. Ashfaq Utmanzay, who organized SSMS’ medical camp.

His most distressing, and urgent, discovery was that Ursula, a girl in class two, has a rare heart condition known as Tetrology of Fallot (TOF), “a serious congenital heart disease,” Utmanzay said.

TOF is caused by four heart defects present at birth that reduce the oxygen in the blood. Surgery is typically performed in the first year of life, so Ursula’s late diagnosis makes her situation even more urgent. “She needs surgery, cardiac repair for TOF,” Utmanzay said.

Good health = good learning

In the developing world, people primarily suffer from avoidable health problems simply because they are poor, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. Poverty is the cause of or a significant contributor to hunger and malnutrition, illiteracy, lack of clean water and a scarcity of qualified health workers.

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan

Every child is weighed and measured as part of the comprehensive checkups provided by Sonia Shah Organization.

Intestinal worms — hookworm, roundworm and whipworm exemplify the profound links between poverty and health. One of the most comment ailments among children in the developing world, worms are typically seen as a “disease of poverty, affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth.” Worm infections cause anemia and malnutrition, impair cognitive development and make children more susceptible to other infections and diseases. 

At Sonia Shah Memorial School, the medical team found “about all” of the children were anemic, most probably caused by malnutrition and worm infestations, Dr. Utmanzay wrote in his final report.

Each child was weighed and measured, had their blood drawn and tested, and received a physical exam. Other findings included:

  • About half of the children had seasonal allergies and/or respiratory-tract infections;
  • About half the children suffered from recurrent diarrhea;
  • Four of the children had P. ovale malaria;
  • And, in addition to Ursula, six students had chronic health problems that required hospital referrals for specialized treatment.

Although the results were not surprising, given the high rates of disease and ill health in Kangra and much of rural Pakistan, they merit immediate attention. After all, good health is directly linked to children’s ability to learn. 

That’s why bringing a medical team to the school, right to the children, makes all the difference,” Shah said. “We know that healthy students do better academically, are better behaved and have fewer absences. We want our students to have the best possible shot at a brighter future.”

Treatment & prevention

In addition to deworming, all students who tested positive for seasonal and endemic diseases received medications such as ibuprofen, cough medicine or rehydration formula for rotavirus (a highly contagious gastrointestinal disease with acute diarrhea). The medical team also provided a two-month supply of supplements — multivitamins, iron, calcium and vitamin D — for each child.

Sonia Shah Memorial School providing healthcare to children in Kangra, Pakistan

Vitamin and mineral supplements are now being distributed daily at the school.

“These medications and supplements are given to students every day at school,” said Mahnaz Qureshi-Ishaq, who oversees school operations as a member of the volunteer management team.

That decision was made jointly by SSMS Principal Serish Hussain, Qureshi-Ishaq and the doctor.

“If we give the everyday supplements at the school, there is less waste and kids learn how to take them,” Utmanzay said. “Also, there is concern that if we send medicine home to illiterate parents, they will not be able to read instructions. Or the whole family ends up drinking the cough medicine in one day. Or they just won’t give the medicines to their children; parents already believe, wrongly, [that] polio vaccine makes their children infertile.”

The medical camp is an integral part of SSMS’s approach to quality education, Qureshi-Ishaq said. The school also operates a water-treatment plant, providing potable water for the school and the village.

“Child malnutrition is also a serious problem so we are also working on providing lunch for all students this year,” she said. “All of these tools — deworming, vaccinations, vitamin supplements, clean water and improved nutrition — help children reach thrive physically and intellectually.”

The medical team prepared a report on each child’s health and delivered two copies, one for the school and one for parents. The doctors and principal are working to schedule vaccinations for hepatitis B and typhoid. And in late spring, the medical team will return and check for improvement.

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SSO scholarships ‘have powerful effect’ on young women

Cost of higher education shows no sign of slowing

The costs of college education in the United States continue to rise every year, above the rate of inflation and well above lagging family incomes. According to the College Board, over the past decade:

The average cost for in-district students at public two-year colleges increased 18 percent between 2006-2011, and 11 percent from 2011 to the 2016-17 school year. As of this school year, the total cost at a two-year college (including tuition, fees, books, supplies and other expenses) averages $7,960 per year.

For in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities, costs increased 29 percent between 2006-2011, and 9 percent in the past five years. The average total cost for in-state students (with the addition of room and board) is now $24,420 per year.

The average cost of attending a private nonprofit four-year college increased 13 percent in those first six years, and 13 percent from 2011 to the 2016-17 school year. The average total cost at a private college is now $48,840 annually.

See more at     www.collegeboard.org

EXAMPLE: University of Illinois

Illinois resident:
Tuition & Fees $15,698-$20,702
Room & Board $11,308
Books & Supplies $1,200
Other Expenses $2500
Total: $30,706- $35,710

Non-Resident
Tuition & Fees $31,998-$36,992
Room & Board $11,308
Books & Supplies $1,200
Other Expenses $2,840
Total: $47,336-$52,340

Source: https://admissions.illinois.edu/Invest/tuition


By KARIN RONNOW | Sonia Shah Organization | 17 April, 2017

When Zuleyma Cordero was 19, she started college in Chicago’s western suburbs. Excited and determined, she knew a college degree was necessary for her to achieve her dreams of a business career.

“Education can have enormous personal benefits for those who acquire it, but it also has external benefits to the rest of society.” – The New York Times

Neither of her parents had gone to college. Her mom worked at a fast-food restaurant. Her dad juggled two part-time jobs at a restaurant and a retail store “so we can make ends meet,” Zuleyma said. Despite the family’s strained finances, both parents supported their daughter’s college ambitions, proud of her grit and academic success.

“Then my mom got really ill and she stopped working,” Zuleyma said. “Being the oldest of my siblings, I made the decision to stop going to school and work to help my dad out with bills at home. I did not want my younger siblings to stop their education and start working.”

Such a turn of events is all too common, especially given the soaring costs of higher education in the United States. More than half of students who leave college before graduating cite the “need to work and make money,” according to the Public Agenda organization. 

Four years later Zuleyma was still working. Her family’s financial situation had improved, but not by much. “I thought I could go back to school whenever I wanted, but it’s never as easy as it sounds, especially when we are paying off medical bills,” she said.Donate to College Scholarships for Women

Then she heard about Sonia Shah Organization’s (SSO) new scholarship program, which helps underprivileged young women in Chicago earn college degrees. She applied and was accepted into the program. Her prayers were answered.

Zuleyma, 24, is now in her second semester at Harper Community College in Palatine, Ill. Single and “with no children — yet,” she still works while studying accounting and business, but maintains a high grade-point average and hopes to finish with a double major.

If she had not received the scholarship, which covers tuition, fees and books, she said, “I would probably have had to keep working trying to save up for school.”

Equal opportunity to education

SSO’s scholarship program, like all of its endeavors, grew out of Sonia Shah’s dream of a world where all girls have the same access to education as she did.

Sonia, who died in car accident two days before beginning her freshman year at The College of William and Mary, embodied the “pay it forward” philosophy during her too-short life. In a college-application essay, she wrote: “It is only through the work of the women who came before me that I don’t live in ignorance and isolation.” Other girls deserve the same opportunities, she wrote.

SSO needs your help to fund college scholarships for Zuleyma and other needy young women. Our 2017 Scholarship Campaign goal is $10,000. All money raised will go to students.

[button link=”https://soniashahorganization.com/” bgcolor=”#ed1848″ textcolor=”#ffffff” size=”medium”]Every dollar helps. You can make a difference.[/button]

“Given the chance, there is no limit to what these girls can do,” Sonia said. Research shows that a college degree increases a woman’s earning potential, improves her health (and her family’s), empowers her with critical-thinking skills, and increases her self-esteem. But that’s not all.

“Given the chance, there is no limit to what these girls can do,” Sonia said.

“Education can have enormous personal benefits for those who acquire it, but it also has external benefits to the rest of society,” the New York Times reported. “Workers with more education are more productive, which makes companies more profitable and the overall economy grow faster.

“But the great national crisis” is that too many “young adults are not going to college or, if they do, don’t graduate, in large part because they can’t afford it,” the Times reported. 

After a decade of double-digit price increases, the average annual cost is now $8,000 at a two-year college and $49,000 at a private four-year college.
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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. 

[button link=”https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/providing-scholarships-to-our-forgotten-women/x/7586858″ bgcolor=”#ed1848″ textcolor=”#ffffff” size=”large” radius=”0px”]Donate Now[/button]

 

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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
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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.

We…

  • 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.

[button link=”https://soniashahorganization.com/donate” bgcolor=”#ed1848″ textcolor=”#ffffff” size=”normal”]Donate[/button]

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.

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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 givesso.com 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. 

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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
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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!

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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.

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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 http://bit.ly/2cXya6p

To make a direct donation, please visit www.soniashahorganization.com.

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

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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.