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.

Second academic year under way at Sonia Shah School in Kangra

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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.

Sonia Shah Organization / Educating girls in PakistanNot 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.

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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.