Engage. Educate. Empower.
The Sonia Shah Organization was founded by Chicago teenager before her untimely death in 2012. Sonia Shah’s dream was to educate the girls and women of her ancestral village of Kangra, Pakistan. Her own life experience had taught her the power of education; she knew just how different her life would have been without it. She wanted all girls to have the same opportunities.
After Sonia’s sudden death, “We couldn’t get our heads around this,” family friend Zafar Malik later recalled. “But I told Iram, ‘There’s something big here. I can feel it. You have to do it now or lose it forever.”
Bolstered by friends and extended family, Sonia’s parents, Iram and Mahmood, channeled their grief into something positive. “We lost a precious life, but Sonia’s death will not be in vain,” her mom said. “Her dream has become our mission.”
They renamed their daughter’s Kulsoom Foundation, calling it the 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 water 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-story Sonia Shah Memorial School was completed in 2014 – an amazing accomplishment in this conflict-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 inaugurated, but before classes started, the school 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 students 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 security and closed-circuit TV cameras.
“The community is extremely happy with the school,” said Mahnaz Ishaq, a SSO volunteer who regularly visits Kangra. “They very strongly feel the standard of education in our school is far superior to other schools in the area.”
SSO opened a women’s vocational center in 2016, teaching handicrafts and sewing skills to help women support 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.
“A scholarship is the kind of thing many, many girls here need,” said Malik, an educator who worked with Iram to start the scholarship program. “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.”
Sonia’s spirit lives on in all these programs. Students proudly declare: I am Sonia.
“I feel inspired by and hopeful for the young girls coming to school against all odds and changing their futures forever,” Iram said. “The road is long, but full of hope.”