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Ordinary people doing extraordinary things: This deserves a celebration!

A Night of Celebration and Joy
Saturday, 16 Sept., 2017 | 6 p.m.
Logan Square Auditorium | 2539 N. Kedzie Blvd, Chicago, 60647
$75 per person
For tickets, click here.

 

By Karin Ronnow | Sonia Shah Organization | 23 August, 2017

Prepare to be transported halfway around the world.

In just three short weeks, Sonia Shah Organization (SSO) will open the doors for A Night of Celebration and Joy in Chicago, and we hope you’ll be there, too.

Musicians, poets and DJs spinning multicultural dance music for all ages, will all be on hand as we celebrate our work educating girls and empowering women in Pakistan and right here in the United States.

We are especially proud to announce two guests, Pakistani-American poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi; and Saadi Faraz, who will read the work of his father, the acclaimed Pakistani poet Ahmad Faraz (1931-2008). Both have deep roots in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) region, home to Sonia Shah Memorial School.

 

“Sonia Shah Memorial School is in Kangra, in the northwest of Pakistan,” SSO President Iram Shah said. “It is quite a small village, close to the tribal areas. Both of these poets come from that area. They are Pashtun people. They understand the culture and the nuances.

“Just as Sonia, through her vision and determination, has brought the children of KP alive for us, Shadab will help to bring the place alive for everyone in the room. She will read some of her poetry, discuss her view of that place in the world and give everyone a glimpse of that region,” Iram said.

“Then through Faraz’ poetry and comments from his son we can better understand how the people of that area think, how they see the world. In essence, Faraz’ poetry brings the hopes and dreams of that place alive, and helps us to understand the connectivity that runs through all of us,” she said.

Ruby Writer, a Chicago teen and one of SSO’s growing team of Youth Ambassadors, will emcee the Sept. 16 event at Logan Square Auditorium on Chicago’s northside. Our Youth Ambassadors have all been inspired by Sonia’s story to make a difference in the world and we are excited to introduce them.

SHOES, SOLAR PANELS & SUCCESS

Sonia “could have started her mission here or in a bigger city in Pakistan and it would have been much, much easier,” Iram told Jerome McDonnell in an interview on Chicago public radio’s “Worldview,” program. “But she chose that [place] because she wanted to end the discrimination and suppression of women in that part of the world.”

SSO continues to make great strides in that direction, with 113 students enrolled, 60 percent of them girls, at the school, building renovations and a new solar-energy system providing round-the-clock electricity at the school. “The added electricity means, among other things, that some of the water treated in the filtration plant can run through a refrigeration system, providing cold, clean drinking water, which was especially popular during Ramadan, Iram said.

“This year we also gave sets of uniforms and a pair of shoes to our students — and our enrollment went up,” she said. “Some of these children in the village did not have clothes to wear to school, so the uniforms made all the difference. Students who were already enrolled are so proud of their new uniforms. It was like giving them an identity, a self-confidence, that they didn’t have before.

“We have also trained 100 women in our vocational center, really teaching them to become financially independent,” she said.

POETRY’S POWER

Two poets will help paint a picture of the place where all this good work happens. Why poetry? Because, as Claremont Graduate University’s Michael Kemp wrote, poetry serves as “a means to build empathy and bridge gaps of understanding between people who come from differing backgrounds,” and “a vehicle for messages of social justice.”   

Poet Ahmad Faraz (1931-2008) was born in Kohat, “a village about 70 kilometers from Sonia Shah School,” Iram said. “He went on to become one of the most well-known poets of Pakistan.”

He earned his master’s degrees from University of Peshawar, penned 13 books of poetry, and “enjoyed a near cult status in the pantheon of revolutionary poets,” according to his obituary in the New York Times. His first volume, Tanha Tanha, published while he was an undergraduate at Edwardes College in the late 1950s, was “a huge, instant hit.”

“A passionate voice for change and progress, Mr. Faraz was usually at his best when writing the poetry of love and protest,” the Times reported. “His romantic poetry made him particularly beloved by the young; the establishment was not so fond of his verses mocking and at times exposing the authorities. An advocate for the poor and downtrodden, Mr. Faraz raised his voice against capitalists, usurpers and dictators.”

He spent six years in self-imposed exile in the 1980s, protesting Pakistan president Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s military rule. In 2006, he returned an award given to him by then-president Gen. Musharraf, and said: “My conscience will not forgive me if I remain a silent spectator” as citizens’ rights were trampled.

Although he died of kidney failure in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, in 2008, the beloved poet’s words continue to inspire and comfort millions of people around the world.

“After Sonia’s death, a friend gave me a framed photograph of Sonia and me with this verse of Ahmad Faraz’ poetry: ‘I am alive after you are gone | See how resilient a defeated person can be.’ I look at it every day.”

Shadab Zeest Hashmi grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, then moved to the United States and earned her bachelors’ degree at Reed College in Oregon. In her work, she often reflects on “the postcolonial Pakistani identity,” and “the often-fraught political and cultural exchanges between the United States and the Middle East,” according to the Poetry Foundation.

She has published two award-winning books of poetry Baker of Tarifa (2010) and Kohl & Chalk (2013) and teaches at San Diego State University’s MFA program as a writer-in-residence.   

“Shadab will speak to her experience and read her poems, in English, connecting to girls’ empowerment,” Iram said.

Hashmi’s essays on poetic forms such as the ghazal and qasida have appeared widely, as have her essays on Arab American issues. Hashmi has edited the San Diego Magee Park Poets Anthology and MahMag World Literature, is a columnist for 3 Quarks Daily and represents Pakistan on the Universe: A United Nations of Poetry website.

AROUND THE WORLD & BACK

The evening will also celebrate SSO’s first scholarship student, Zuleyma Cordero, who is about to start her sophomore year at college in the Chicago suburbs. She’s pursuing a double major in business and accounting and continues to impress us with her intelligence and determination.

Live piano music and fantastic DJs spinning tunes will round out the event at Logan Square Auditorium, a renovated century-old landmark and popular Chicago venue.

“Chicago is where Sonia’s mission stated and where it will be nourished,” Iram said. “This grand and elegant century-old grand ballroom, with its top-notch sound system, is the perfect setting for our celebration.”

Bring your dancing shoes!

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.