By KARIN RONNOW | for Sonia Shah Organization | 6 June 2016
HINSDALE, IL – Three female teachers and 52 students have begun the second year of school at the Sonia Shah Memorial School in the shadow of the continued extremist violence that plagues the region.
“We are getting girls – and some boys – who were not in school before and teaching them with a strong curriculum,” Iram Shah of the Sonia Shah Organization (SSO) told the invitation-only crowd gathered for a dinner fundraiser at the Pakistan consul general’s home in suburban Chicago June 2. “The teachers are educated girls who are living in the village. They speak good English. And they’re bold.”
Bold is necessary, especially in Kangra, Pakistan, a remote, impoverished, conservative village in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, near the volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan border. “Kangra is not far from Swat, where Malala was shot,” Iram said. Protecting students and teachers is imperative at the fledgling primary school.
“The idea of building a school, she [Sonia] would do that, she was that kind of kid.” – Jeff Coleman
“People say Pakistan is a tough neighborhood,” Consul General Faisal Niaz Tirmizi told the guests. “Well, Kangra is a very tough neighborhood.”
The idea of building a school in this difficult environment came from Iram’s daughter Sonia. At at age 16, Sonia visited her maternal grandparents in Kangra and was appalled at the gender disparity in the rural government schools. She knew the value of education in her own life and wanted the same for the girls in Kangra. Over the next two years she developed a plan to build a private girls’ school in the village.
Not every teenager could pull that off, said Jeff Coleman, father of Emma, one of Sonia’s dearest friends. “But the idea of building a school, she [Sonia] would do that, she was that kind of kid.”
Sonia started her project in 2011 and “convinced me to buy the land in the middle of the village,” Iram said. The project was moving apace in 2012 when Sonia died in a car accident just days before starting her freshman year at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The loss devastated her family.
“When the tragedy struck, we couldn’t get our heads around this,” said Zafar Malik, a member of SSO’s US-based management team. “That doesn’t leave you. After that it was so hard to imagine that their lives could be brighter. But I told Iram. ‘There’s something big here. I can feel it. You have to do it now or lose it forever.’ They picked up what Sonia wanted them to do.”
It wasn’t easy. Just months after the school was completed and inaugurated in 2014, it was bombed. No one was injured, but the blast destroyed several walls and windows of the school building and the new water-filtration plant was destroyed. Days later, 148 people were killed in an unrelated bomb blast at a school in nearby Peshawar.
Despite the setback, Iram said at the visit this site time: “We cannot give in to terrorists, and this devastation, along with the tragedy of Peshawar, shows us that now more than ever, our cause is critical.”.
SSO rebuilt the damaged two-story school and water plant just in time for the first day of school in April 2015.
“Now this is the second year,” Iram told guests during an hour-long presentation. “The school has three full-time teachers, a principal, and a social mobilizer. And we have good security; now in Pakistan there have been other bombs and schools are required to have security guards.
“The teachers are educated girls who are living in the village. They speak good English. And they’re bold.” – Iram Shah
“The water plant supplies clean drinking water to more than 700 families in the village and health is getting better. Some families still don’t send girls to school. But many of those girls do come to get water and the school principal stands outside encouraging them to attend,” she said.
The principal’s efforts are multiplied by that of a “social mobilizer,” who teaches conservative and often illiterate villagers about the importance of girls’ education in hopes of increasing enrollment at the school.
“We had a woman first. It didn’t work,” Iram said. “Now we have a man and he talks to the men in the village about sending their daughters to school.”
These efforts are key because – as Sonia knew –uneducated girls face a grim future. “Women live inferior lives” in Kangra, the narrator of a four-minute video shown at the fundraiser said. “A life with good education and equal opportunities [for women] is a wish still unfulfilled in this village.”
Although it is too late for many women to enroll in primary school, SSO has also set aside two rooms of the school for a women’s vocational center, scheduled to open at the end of June. Handicrafts and sewing skills will help women make a little bit of money to help support their families.
To ensure quality education, all 52 students enrolled this year received textbooks, uniforms and stationery. Solar panels will be installed on the roof this summer to provide electricity to the school for lights and computers. Also, a team of three doctors continues to visit Kangra every three months to provide basic vaccinations and wellness checks.
But all of this takes money, Iram told her guests. Operating costs for the school in 2016 are $139,185.
“The bigger charities don’t really need us, they already have so many supporters and resources. Iram needed me; the area she comes from is still very backward.” — Hamiya Tirmizi
Hamiya Tirmizi, who devoted hours preparing the house and the food for June 2 fundraiser, said, “Every year we are asked why we support one charity over another. Well, the bigger charities don’t really need us, they already have so many supporters and resources. Iram needed me; the area she comes from is still very backward.”
Her husband, Faisal Tirmizi, said, “I was born to a very powerful woman. I remember my mother always said the best way to transform society is to educate a girl. … Education is close to my heart.”
Emma’s parents, Jeff and Lucy Coleman, are also among SSO’s most devoted supporters.
“We’ve been to all the events, every one of them,” Jeff Coleman said “Our daughters were in high school together and hung out [with another student]. The three of them were a fun group. They were very smart, very engaged kids. I appreciated this group because they woke my daughter up a little. [Emma and Sonia] really loved each other.”
One of the highlights of the evening was the introduction of SSO’s first international scholarship student, Aimon Wadood. This poised young Pakistani woman is pursuing an associate degree at Truman College in Chicago.
“Aimon has only been here for four years, so she has some language problems, but she’s very hard working,” said Zephyr Malik, who has played a key role in getting the scholarship program started.
His work in education in the Chicagoland area has shown him that, “The underbelly of the Pakistani community here is neglected. People who are cabdrivers and shopkeepers, their children are not doing well and [a scholarship] is the kind of thing many many girls here need. But 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.”
The Sonia Shah Organization needs your help. Please donate on the website, www.soniashahorganization.com, or by mail (1280 Carol Lane, Deerfield, IL, 60015, USA).
SSO is a registered 501(c)(3). The tax number is 801262104.