It all began when at the age of 17 I realized that the old woman sitting on the pavement going through remains of chickens outside a butcher shop in Pakistan was actually looking for something to feed her family with, that the old guard sitting outside a store shivering with cold on a January night was working hard to provide for his family, and that the nanny in a relative’s house was younger than the children she was looking after. At that time I did not know what to do about issues such as poverty, child labor, illiteracy and hunger or what to call the feelings that I had for people who are victims of poor planning and governance in Pakistan, I felt helpless because nobody else seemed to care. It was this feeling that was the catalyst which urged me to start a charitable group to raise funds for the underserved in my community. Once again, I was mostly alone because none of my peers understood why someone from a privileged background would be bothered about the underprivileged. Seven years after starting my charitable group, several projects, trainings and exchanges later, I know I am not the only ‘weird’ young person trying to make the world a better place. Even more importantly, that people do this voluntarily, without pay.
This fall, my desire to bring change to my community in Pakistan has brought me to a very special place; Washington, DC. As an Atlas Corps Fellow working at Meridian International Center, I have the distinct opportunity to work with other emerging leaders as they embark on exchange programs which will build their capacity to bring change in their communities. In my first project, we are working with the Emerging Leaders of Pakistan, a distinct group of Atlantic Council Fellows, who will experience leadership in politics, foreign policy and civil society through a month-long US training program. Through trainings and visits at international hubs such as New York, Washington, DC and San Francisco plus the opportunity to stay with American host families in Kansas City, these leaders will be exposed to American diversity and best practices to build their initiatives back home.
Like me, most of these participants are activists with their own causes and projects and have been recognized by different organizations for their efforts. For instance, Humaira Bachal from Karachi has been featured in Oscar winning Pakistani director Sharmeed Chinoy’s documentary “Humera: the Dreamcatcher” and was awarded the 2013 Women of Impact Award at the 4th Annual Women of the World Summit. At the age of 12, Humaira started classes for underprivileged children in her neighborhood, which later grew into the Dream Model Street School where 1,200 students are currently enrolled. Similarly, working on the issues of young people in Peshawar, Nadeh Mir launched Peshawar Youth Organization (PYO). The organization champions social causes, while harnessing the potential and development of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s youth. For his tireless work, he received the Provincial Youth Award (2009) from Governor Awais Ahmed Ghani, Active Youth Citizen Award (2011) from the US Consul General, and the Azm Award (2012) from Shaukat Tarin, former finance minister of Pakistan, and Mujeeb-Ur-Rehman Shami, a renowned Pakistani journalist.
While working on their causes in Pakistan these activists have overcome significant challenges such as lack of support from the government, hostility from the communities that they work in, and the biggest challenge of all; being a young leader. I have been an activist for around 5 years now, and during this time I have been told not to read too many books by a teacher, my ideas have been snubbed by government officials, and I have been told that I am silly for working for “free” by friends. It has been an interesting journey so far but young leaders like us continue to break stereotypes, learn from amazing people around the world and hopefully empowered others to stand up for what they believe in.
I am not the only activist or as they put it “young leader” in Pakistan or the surrounding region to go through these things, there are many others who are subjected to violence just because they know their rights and speak out for everyone. One shining example of this is Malala Yousafzai. In the face of violence, she continued to speak out and fight for education without fear. While young leaders such as Malala continue to face roadblocks in Pakistan, some things are changing and these are really exciting times for young leaders. Local non-profits working with international organizations have created opportunities for training in topics such as youth policy, social action planning and the importance of dialogue. Young people are being exposed to a new style of learning; a far cry from what they were taught in school. Unfortunately, the Pakistani government has yet to embrace this need for change and has yet to develop a policy for Pakistani youth; especially for those fighting to address the underserved and impoverished communities.
It will be exciting to see what skills the fellows of Emerging Leaders of Pakistan learn during their stay in the US and take back with them to implement in their communities in Pakistan! While Pakistan has a long way to go, a brighter future lies ahead based on the determination of our young people.
The Emerging Leaders of Pakistan Fellowship is developed through a partnership between the Atlantic Council, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the US Embassy in Islamabad and Meridian International Center. To follow the fellow’s journey through the US you can view the following social media platforms:
Twitter: @ELPPakForum #youngleaders