Chasing her daughter’s dream to empower Pakistani women

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Chicago-based Iram Shah briefs audience about Sonia Shah Organization

Zubair Qureshi

When her daughter died in a car accident at the age of 17 in the US, she was left with two options: Either to sit in a corner and mourn and try to forget the loss OR to go through the grief. She chose the latter. Lis-tening to Iram Shah on Saturday at Hamid and Qaisera Alvi’s house turned out to be a soul searching experience. A close friend of Saira Alvi, daughter of Mrs Qaisera Aliv, Iram Shah was invited to speak to a handful of family friends of the Alvis, some neighbours, former Foreign Secretary Akram Zaki, former ED Lok Virsa Uxi Mufti, poet and former bureaucrat Shaukat Kazmi, noted businessman of the city Zafar Bakhtawari, son of Ahmed Faraz Saadi Faraz, Basharat Jazbi, a number of philanthropists, ex-principals and professors, colleagues of Prof Qaisera Alvi.
One simply had a reassuring feeling by listening to Iram Shah that God Almighty has set and predetermined eve-ryone’s role as well as the time period to spend in this world. Sonia Shah was lucky to live a complete life in a time period of 17 years only. She made plans to educate the girls of her native village in KP, Pakistan empower womenfolk and set an example for others to follow. She was spending her life comfortably in London, Zurich and Chicago wherever her parents went for job. She often asked her mother who was working with a multinational company (and still she is) if she could go back to Pakistan and visit her ancestral village near Kamra.
At last when she visited Pakistan and met people and distant relatives in her village, especially the girls she was taken aback to see their conditions. She at once concluded that they were living a pathetic life and her mother and grandmother were also from the same background. However, Sonia believed it was because of education that they changed their lives and moved to better places to settle in. Sonia who was still in her teens founded Kulsoom Foundation to educate girls of the locality. This was named after her grandmother.
Then she returned to the US to discuss her programme of empowering women with her mother, Irum Shah. How-ever, she died in 2012 in a car accident during the holy month of Ramazan.
Iram Shah told the audience that Sonia was fasting at the time of her death and was not on the driving seat even. Her death ripped apart all the schemes and plans of Iram Shah for her daughter’s future and it took her a couple of days to come to terms to her loss. However, they Iram and Mehmood decided to turn the grief into something posi-tive. They renamed their daughter’s Kulsoom Foundation with Sonia Shah Organization (SSO), and picked up where Sonia had left off.
Brick by brick, the school was built. Concern about the lack of clean drinking water, and the hours women and girls spent every day hauling it from the river, inspired them to also build a water-filtration plant adjacent to the school, supplying clean water for the entire village.
The two-storey Sonia Shah Memorial School was completed in 2014 – an amazing accomplishment in this con-flict-ridden region. Kangra is in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, not far from Swat, where Malala Yousafzai was shot for going to school. “People say Pakistan is a tough neighborhood,” Pakistan Consul General Faisal Niaz Tirmizi said. “Well, Kangra is a very tough neighborhood.” Just after the school was inaugu-rated, but before classes started, it was bombed. No one was injured, but the blast damaged the school’s walls and windows and destroyed the water plant. Sonia’s family stayed the course. “We cannot give in to terrorists, and this devastation,” Iram said, “shows us that now, more than ever, our cause is critical.” SSO rebuilt the school and water plant just in time for the first day of school in April 2015.
Today, three female teachers – two with master’s degrees and one with a bachelor’s degree – teach dozens of stu-dents in kindergarten through class five. All students receive textbooks, uniforms and stationery. A visiting doctor provides basic vaccinations and wellness checks. And security is top-notch, with high walls, round-the-clock secu-rity and closed-circuit TV cameras. SSO also opened a women’s vocational center in 2016, teaching handicrafts and sewing skills to help women sup-port their families. The center has proved wildly successful: all training programs have been full and the waiting list continues to grow.
In 2016, SSO also began a scholarship program in the United States, with two deserving young women receiving financial and other support to help them fulfill their dreams of higher education.
Today, four years after her death, the Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra, Pakistan, is thriving. The school is a safe place for students (near 70) and the teachers to teach and learn, inspire and create. It is 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.At the end, Akram Zaki on behalf of Qaisera Alvi commended Iram Shah’s spirits, her firmness and belief in her daughter’s dream. He also assured her they would spread her message of educating girls and do their little bit for the good cause.

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