Alumni News Regional Cooperation Thematic Conference

Climate Counts: Exchange Alumni Collaborate for Climate Action

Climate Counts: Exchange Alumni Collaborate for Climate Action

By Rimsha Ali Shah.

Fulbright alumnus Qobiljon Shokirov, along with his counterparts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, was studying trends and drivers of change of rangeland ecosystems as part of an international research on “Rangeland Resources and Uses in the Hindu-Kush Karakoram-Pamir Landscape”. When he found out about a climate change conference in Pakistan, he was excited at the prospect of visiting his neighboring country and exchanging climate action strategies.
Once in Pakistan, Shokirov attended four different workshop sessions, spoke in a regional panel, attended an outreach project, brainstormed ideas on climate action projects, and shared the Tajik culture with the group of South, East, and Central Asian participants.

“To be honest, I did not know much about Pakistan, but it has been an interesting exchange learning about this country and drawing comparisons to Tajikistan”

Continue Reading
Alumni News Regional Cooperation Thematic Conference

Innovation in Action: Education Outreach Visits Offer Practical Examples

Innovation in Action: Education Outreach Visits Offer Practical Examples

By Rimsha Ali Shah

The PUAN International Education Conference was held from July 22-24, 2016 in Islamabad with 200 exchange alumni from various U.S. State Department exchange programs from across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.  In addition to two days of intensive workshops and discussions on mapping education in the 21st century, the concluding day introduced alumni to innovative education projects in six leading institutes in Islamabad including, National University of Science and Technology (NUST), National University of Modern Languages (NUML) Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP), Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU), National Agriculture Research Centre (NARC) and a dialogue session between Madrassa students and the alumni. 

Continue Reading
Alumni News Regional Cooperation Thematic Conference

PUAN International Education Conference Empowers Educators from South Asia

PUAN International Education Conference Empowers Educators from South Asia

By Rimsha Ali Shah

The PUAN International Education Conference held from July 22-24, 2016 in Islamabad with 200 exchange alumni from various U.S. State Department exchange programs from across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka enabled alumni to learn through a series of skill-building and thematic sessions focused on key areas pertaining to education.  The alumni also had the opportunity to collaborate and pitch their projects as part of the collaborative idea challenge, that encouraged alumni to come together and design projects on an education-based issue they were passionate about.  Read on to learn more about the collaborative idea challenge, skill-building and thematic sessions designed to equip future leaders of education from across South Asia.

Channeling Collective Energies through Collaboration

 “You can never put an end to idea.  Never stop thinking.”

Panelists Discuss Strengths of the 35 Collaborative Ideas Presented

Panelists Discuss Strengths of the 35 Collaborative Ideas Presented

Nasir Shah, an alumnus of the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) was part of the panel for the Collaborative Ideas Challenge that featured 35 unique and diverse ideas centered on the theme of tackling today’s education challenges.  Alumni pitched their ideas before the participants and the panelists, after working on them for over 24 hours.  They can now apply for the PUAN Alumni Small Grants for funding to execute their projects. 

Continue Reading
Alumni News Regional Cooperation Thematic Conference

PUAN International Education Conference Celebrates the Power of Education

PUAN International Education Conference Celebrates the Power of Education

By Rimsha Ali Shah

Priyanka’s flight to Pakistan had been one marked with surprises, unfriendly weather, and a diverted and delayed flight coupled with the bustling traffic jams characteristic of city life.  But she took the delays in stride and termed the disruptions an “exploration” of a country that she had wanted to visit since 2015.

Her exchange program on International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) on “Women Countering Violent Extremism” in 2015 had been a welcome exchange that helped in countering stereotypes in the Pakistan-Bangladesh relationship.

When she learned about Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network (PUAN) International Education Conference through the American Center, she was ecstatic!  A lawyer by education and a lecturer by profession, her work at Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP) and Eastern University, Dhaka had increased her interest in education, and the conference couldn’t have come at a better time for her.

“I found that to reach common people and to nurture young minds nothing can be more influential than being an educator.”

The PUAN International Education Conference held from July 22-24, 2016 in Islamabad was geared towards advancing the discussion on mapping education in the 21st century.  For three days, 200 exchange alumni from various U.S. State Department exchange programs from across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka took part in thought-provoking discussions on innovations in education, celebrated success stories from the region, enhanced their skills through workshop sessions, and learned about the technological advancements undertaken by leading universities in Pakistan.

Continue Reading
Alumni News Regional Cooperation Reunions Thematic Conference

Peace and Conflict Resolution: Building bridges of peace

Peace and Conflict Resolution: Building bridges of peace

By Rimsha Ali Shah.

A footballer, an interfaith harmony expert, an artist, a banker, a corporate trainer, an author and a blogger all sat together on a table.  While one was from Sindh, the other was from Dhaka.  One understood numbers and the other words.  Seemingly disparate in every manner, what pulled them together as a group?  Peace!

Exploring avenues of peace-building in all walks of life is what 160 participants from across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India and Bangladesh set out to do over the three-day Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network (PUAN) International Conference: Peace and Conflict Resolution held in Islamabad from November 27 – 29, 2015. 

Continue Reading
Alumni News Regional Cooperation

Indo-Pak Peace Session: Cultural Diplomacy for Peace Promotion

Indo-Pak Peace Session: Cultural Diplomacy for Peace Promotion

By: Rimsha Ali Shah

“Once we are outside the geographical boundaries of our countries, Pakistanis and Indians become each other’s support system.   This bond of friendship should not be constrained once we are back in our countries.”

These were the words of Sherzaman, a Community College Initiative Program alumnus from Pakistan, who shared his experience of having connected most with his Indian counterpart, Ankit while on his exchange program to the United States.

Thirty alumni from Pakistan and India echoed Sherzaman’s thoughts during an online peace dialogue organized by the Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network and U.S. Embassy New Delhi. The event brought together a diverse group of youth activists, journalists, musicians, development practitioners and communications specialists who used a live video connection to not only discuss stereotypes and prejudices, but to have an action-oriented dialogue that focused on dispelling myths, bridging gaps, and promoting friendship between the two neighbors.

 

The two-hour discussion provided the young minds with a safe space to candidly discuss stereotypes on both sides …

Continue Reading
First Person Regional Cooperation Thematic Conference

First Person: Pakistan through the Eyes of a Kashmiri

First Person: Pakistan through the Eyes of a Kashmiri

By Ashwaq Masoodi, Kashmiri Fulbright Alumna

Fulbright Alumna Ashwaq Masoodi at PUAN’s International Women Empowerment Conference

Fulbright Alumna Ashwaq Masoodi at PUAN’s International Women Empowerment Conference

When I told a friend I was going to Pakistan, he laughed & said “Why Pakistan?” I told him I was going to attend a conference on women empowerment & that happens to be my field of interest. He laughed again and said, “So now Pakistan wants women empowerment? That sounds a little odd.” He also asked me to be careful and not get killed or kidnapped somewhere.

All these statements reminded me of how most of my friends in Delhi talk about Kashmir. Is it safe to go there? Does every Kashmiri hate Indians? Do Kashmiris identify themselves as Indians? Somehow because of the media, we create an image of a place in a way which is not necessarily what it is or even close to what it is.

Growing up in the Indian side of Kashmir, for me the idea of Pakistan was not just as a stake holder in the longstanding K-issue. It is a country which is referred as Jaa-e-Pak (Jaa=place in Persian, Pak= pure, sacred) by my people.

So, here I was listening to scary stories about agents following everyone holding an Indian passport and the pain of visiting police stations every day. I was very excited to go to Pakistan – because of the conference, because I wanted to buy pretty lawn suits and because it was Pakistan after all. Even though I kept waiting for the day I’d land there, inside my head I had a pile of worries stacking more and more as the day of departure got closer. Everyone I spoke with had a piece of advice (mostly things that scared me).

Ashwaq Masoodi at the Pakistan Monument

Ashwaq Masoodi at the Pakistan Monument

Finally, on March 6, I landed in Islamabad around 10:00 am. At the immigration, a fellow journalist and I went through the normal drill – signing one form after the other and answering a few questions. A woman at the immigration counter (in a lighter tone) said, “You know Indians are a little suspicious…so it takes time.” But we realized it was just a friendly banter. By 11:30 we stepped into the real Islamabad. It looked no different from India, (was definitely cleaner) – the people didn’t look any different (women were definitely prettier), hardly any stray dogs roamed around and there were no traffic snarls. It looked very peaceful and reminded me of Washington DC somehow – broad, straight roads, clean streets, tall trees on either side of the roads.

When we reached the hotel, it was time for the Friday prayers. So naturally the shops, restaurants were shut. A fast food place One Potato Two Potatoes was perhaps the only place open. The 3000 Pakistani rupees that I had converted in India, I was told, were no longer valid in Pakistan (BTW it was really difficult to get Indian rupees converted to the Pakistani currency). The guy at the restaurant declined to take it.

When my fellow journalist told him I was from Kashmir on the Indian side, he smiled. Very politely, he took the note back and said, “Get the others converted in a state bank. These don’t work anymore.” He also gave away free cheese dips. After that, free chappal (or chappli) kebabs, concessions at shopping, out of the world hospitability and extra smiles every time I mentioned where I am from, happened.

Ashwaq Masoodi asking a question during the Women Empowerment Conference

Ashwaq Masoodi asking a question during the Women Empowerment Conference

It was my first visit to Pakistan. I was a part of a group of 300 people from six countries who had come together for the International Women’s Empowerment Conference ‘Make It Happen’, organized by Pakistan US Alumni Network and the US Embassy in Islamabad.  The hall was full of people from different fields of life, from different countries and with extremely different lived experiences. But there was one thing I couldn’t not notice, everyone had a story waiting to be heard and written.

Be it the photojournalist from Quetta who at 25 has already received threat calls from Taliban, or the first Pakistani woman and the youngest Muslim woman in the world to climb Mount Everest, or the man leading the Pakistan Disability Movement. Or the female drama writers who make it a point to at least empower women on screen and try and break stereotypical roles women are expected to play in the male dominated societies. Everyone I spoke with, not just the six main speakers had a story.

Just the fact that we were all patiently listening to each other (without pulling each other’s hair as we in media news hour make it seem like) made me realize the importance of these informal conversations between common people.

The conflict resolution workshop that I attended as part of the conference stressed on the need to understand and empathize with “the other” and more importantly the need to have a dialogue. Not just India and Pakistan, I think it is extremely important for us to make our perceptions based on our lived experiences, and not heresy.

The conference was a means to bring people to share their stories of struggle towards empowerment, but what it really achieved was not just making us think of every story we heard as OUR own story, but breaking the myths, built-in stereotypes and predispositions about places and people that we all had.

(Ashwaq Masoodi is a journalist in a newspaper in New Delhi and a Fulbright alumnus)

Continue Reading
First Person Regional Cooperation Thematic Conference

First Person: An Indian’s Trip to Pakistan

First Person: An Indian’s Trip to Pakistan

By Aarefa Johari, Indian Journalist

Indian Journalist Aarefa Johari at PUAN’s International Women Empowerment Conference

Indian Journalist Aarefa Johari at PUAN’s International Women Empowerment Conference

When I got selected for the PUAN Women’s Empowerment Conference in Pakistan, I was excited about meeting so many like-minded professionals from across Asia who all believe in women’s rights and work towards it, I was looking forward to stimulating discussions and, of course, travelling to Pakistan itself, which holds so much meaning for an Indian.

In Islamabad, I got to experience all of that and so much more. The conference, for one, was a tremendous success. It was smoothly organized, well-balanced between intense discussions and lighter, cultural interactions.

Aarefa Johari at the Pakistan Monument on the last day of the Women Empowerment Conference

Aarefa Johari at the Pakistan Monument on the last day of the Women Empowerment Conference

And more than anything, it was the people who made it work – the panelists who shared their stories and their views were inspiring to say the least, and we were able to approach questions of women’s rights and challenges from so many different perspectives: the portrayal of women in the media, the glass ceiling at the workplace, women in conflict zones, women breaking stereotypes to make it in male-dominated fields, women in social work…the list is definitely long!

But besides the panelists, I found it so enriching just to be amidst so many alumni from across Pakistan – literally every corner – from regions I wasn’t aware of, speaking languages I hadn’t even heard of before. The diversity was so wonderful, and went a long way in giving me a wider glimpse of the whole nation even though I was just in one city.

A session that really stayed with me was the one on people with disabilities, held outside the Pakistan Monument. As so many women and men shared their stories of the obstacles that our societies throw at them, it reaffirmed my belief that the fight for women’s rights can never be for women alone – if equality is the goal of feminism, then by definition it must be a larger fight for the equality of ALL, including people discriminated against on the bases of abilities, class, caste, sexual orientation or anything else.

Aarefa Johari enjoying the sights and sounds of Islamabad at the Monal Restaurant

Aarefa Johari enjoying the sights and sounds of Islamabad at the Monal Restaurant

And finally, I cannot conclude without emphasizing how completely overwhelmed I was by Pakistani dildaari – everyone I met, both at the conference and outside, went out of their way to express their love for India and their warmth hospitality for me as an Indian. That was the icing on the cake which made the Islamabad visit truly special.

Continue Reading
Regional Cooperation Reunions Thematic Conference

Questions of Power: Women Empowerment Across Asia

Questions of Power: Women Empowerment Across Asia

By Hira Nafees Shah

Group Photograph of the participants with U.S Ambassador Richard Olson at the Women Empowerment Conference

Group Photograph of the participants with U.S Ambassador Richard Olson at the Women Empowerment Conference

A young Indian journalist raising her voice against an injustice that was committed against her. A Pakistani politician fighting the odds to change the system. A Bangladeshi working woman who dared to venture into an industry that few would risk. An Afghani woman making an impact on the ground. An American social activist bringing her music to prisoners, the disabled and infirm.

These are just some of the success stories that formed part of the keynote session when women from seven countries kicked off the International Women Empowerment Conference 2015 in Islamabad, organized by the Pakistan-U.S Alumni Network and U.S Embassy.

(From Left to Right) U.S Assistant Cultural Attaché Jameson Debose, Mary McBride, Sharada Jnawali, Tania Aria, Syeda Abida Hussain, Aarefa Johari and Selyna Peiris-speakers at Women Empowerment-Global Challenges, Opportunities and Success Stories panel with moderator Ayesha Fazlur Rahman

(From Left to Right) U.S Assistant Cultural Attaché Jameson Debose, Mary McBride, Sharada Jnawali, Tania Aria, Syeda Abida Hussain, Aarefa Johari and Selyna Peiris-speakers at Women Empowerment-Global Challenges, Opportunities and Success Stories panel with moderator Ayesha Fazlur Rahman

Syeda Abida Hussain, Mary McBride, Sharada Jnawali, Sarah Ali, Tania Aria, Aarefa Johari and Selyna Peiris’ personal accounts inspired more than 300 U.S sponsored exchange alumni who gathered in the capital city to make women’s empowerment a reality.

The theme for the conference was “Make it Happen,” which took place in conjunction with International Women’s Day. During the three day event, the participants received an opportunity to interact with speakers (the majority of whom were females) who had reached the top in fields such as media, politics, arts, science, and sport.

“There are various models in Pakistan to draw inspiration from,” said Khawar Mumtaz, Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) while delivering her speech at the event. “I feel that with commitment and strength of character Pakistani women can achieve anything.”

Her sentiments were echoed by the Chief Guest U.S Ambassador Richard Olson, who noted that about fifty percent of participants in all U.S sponsored exchange programs in Pakistan consisted of women.

The CEO of the 60 Second Film Festival, Ibrar-ul-Hassan, also paid a homage to the power of Pakistani women by presenting minute-long videos which shed light on the different issues facing females in the country including gender discrimination, economic marginalization and lack of education.

Conference participants also showed how women can counter these challenges.  Fulbright alumna Aisha Azhar described her Alumni Small Grant project that taught poverty-stricken women in Ghazi how to sew. She felt that the conference enabled her to network with other alumni doing similar projects and said she enjoyed the sessions. Panelists discussed success from a very personal side, covering issues related to gender discrimination, divorce, and even female genital mutilation.

“The personal stories narrated at the panel discussion were really moving,” she said. “I am surprised that people are taking the initiative to discuss them so openly.”

Stimulating Sessions Draw Audience’s Applause

“I found Zeba Bakhtiar’s session to be the best because she said women have a personality and can also live without men,” said Saira Shams, an alumna of the Women with Disabilities exchange program.

Panelists Momina Duraid, Haseena Moeen, Zeba Bakhtair, Sarah Khan with moderator Anam Abbas at session on “Bringing Social Change through Film and TV”

Panelists Momina Duraid, Haseena Moeen, Zeba Bakhtair, Sarah Khan with moderator Anam Abbas at session on “Bringing Social Change through Film and TV”

Bakhtiar’s session, which was following with rapt attention by the audience, included legendary playwrights like Haseena Moeen, HUMTV Producer Momina Duraid and 16-year-old filmmaking prodigy Sarah Khan. There was a healthy debate among the panelists about how media should project women so as to bring about a positive change in society.

“I always made bold, self-determined girls and portrayed them as individuals,” said Haseena Moeen. “Media’s impact is slow but it’s durable and long-lasting.”

And from strong female characters on screen, the participants got a chance to interact with real-life role models like Parliamentarian Aasiya Nasir, National Forum of Women with Disabilities Chairperson Abia Akram, Young Rising Star Football Women Club Vice-Captain Faiza Mahmoud and Ex-PAF pilot Ifrah Aziz among others.

“I faced a lot of problems from men for standing up for the rights of minorities in Pakistan in the aftermath of Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder case,” said Nasir.

The other speakers also highlighted the struggles that they had to go through for working for the cause of disabled people, or showcasing the problems faced by Afghan refugees in getting citizenship in Pakistan or trying to promote sports among girls in the country.

(From Left to Right) Moderator Muniba Mazari with Samina Baig and Mirza Ali Baig-brother, sister duo who climbed Seven Summits in 2014

(From Left to Right) Moderator Muniba Mazari with Samina Baig and Mirza Ali Baig-brother, sister duo who climbed Seven Summits in 2014

Samina Baig and Mirza Ali Baig, the Pakistani brother-sister dynamic duo who scaled seven summits in eight months, received a standing ovation from the participants.

“I felt most inspired by Samina Baig’s session because it showed how men and women can cooperate with each other to build better relations,” said UGrad alumnus Syed Zia Hussain.

“We climb for purpose, for gender equality and for women’s empowerment,” said Mirza Baig while presenting an impassioned speech about treating women fairly and loving one’s country.

During the conference, the participants also had a choice between attending six breakout sessions under the umbrella theme of Knowing Your Rights such as Representation of Women in Mass Media, Women in Conflict Resolution Process, Political-Civic Rights and Status of Women’s Empowerment, Exploring Entrepreneurship Opportunities, Women and Health and Socio-Cultural Trends, Changes and Question of Women Empowerment.

The gatherings drew considerable interaction with audience, who jumped to provide their thoughts and explanations for the speakers’ questions.

“Why honor is only restricted to women?” asked Dr. Munazza Yaqoob from International Islamic University during her session on Socio-Cultural Trends.

Executive Director of Mehergarh-Center of Learning Maliha Hussain also hit out at cultural norms that placed undue restrictions on females.

“No law states that women cannot leave the house,” she said. “We also don’t allow ladies in our families to laugh out loud as we live in a patriarchal society.”

Meanwhile, during the meeting on Representation of Women in Mass Media, Rakhshinda Parveen and the participants mulled over the rising instances of rape in the country, the psychology of rapists, and the importance of standing up to workplace harassment.

The Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network also recognized the contributions of 12 distinguished female alumni across the country for rendering meritorious services in their communities. SUSI Alumnus Ahmed Qazi’s mother late Tahira Qazi brought the audience to their feet by her heroic act of standing up to terrorists and laying down her life during the Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar.

Aside from thought-provoking panels, the event also featured an array of entertainment, including concerts by the Mary McBride Band and Pakistani pop sensation Zoe Viccaji.

A Bharatnatyam dance performance during the Women Empowerment Conference

A Bharatnatyam dance performance during the Women Empowerment Conference

The attendees danced to the rocking tunes by both the artists especially when Viccaji delivered classics by timeless pop goddess Nazia Hassan.  A dance performance of Bharatnatyam by the dance legend Indu Mitha and her students wrapped up the second day.

Alumni Focus on Social Uplift in Community Service Projects

With the scenic Pakistan Monument in the background, alumni huddled together as they listened to local heroes from the disabilities-rights program STEP. The special needs persons listed the problems that they faced accessing basic facilities like washrooms in Pakistan while the participants, which included many international guests, expressed concern and solidarity.

Other conference attendees made their way to Edhi Homes and spend time with Senior Citizens and children, played with them and told stories to them.

“I really like this activity because I received an opportunity to interact with a lady staying at Edhi Foundation,” said Sarah Khan, SUSI Alumna. “I also live in a hostel in Peshawar so I can relate to her feeling of being lonely and being away from home and I feel at home with them.”

Meanwhile, the orphans from Pakistan Sweet Home put on a performance for about 50 alumni who toured their facility. The participants also made a colorful poster on the conference’s theme Make it Happen.

“These community service projects encourage spirit of volunteerism among alumni,” said Maheen Salman, SUSI Alumna while speaking about the importance of the activities.

A football match was also held between alumni, Young Rising Star Women Football Club team-members and Mashal Model School students in which everyone had a ball.

As the conference came to an end, the participants pondered over the takeaways that they had received from the event.

“We can now build a network of strong women from the seven countries in order to work on future projects together,” said Fatima Jafferi, an Afghan participant.

“The male participation at this conference has been healthy . . . whatever guys learn here, they will implement it in their homes,” said Syed Samiullah Shah, a Legislative Fellowship Program Alumnus from Balochistan.

Perhaps the most important consequence of the program was the international linkages that were developed as a result of it.

“It is good to see international guests because it links the region and they also share a similar culture,” said Irsa Younas, IVLP Alumna. “The geo-political situation is almost identical in these countries, so we can get suggestions from them and replicate their success stories in Pakistan.”

“I had heard a lot of negative stories about Pakistan in the media,” said Indeewari Amuwatte, a Sri Lankan participant. “Instead I have seen a very modern group.”

“It has been an amazing experience in Pakistan,” said Aarefa Johari, the Indian speaker. “Everyone has been so warm and they went out of their way to make us feel welcome.”

To take a look at the photographs from the event, check out this link:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pakusalumni/sets/72157651291160331/

 

Continue Reading
Regional Cooperation Reunions

International YES Reunion Develops Activism Skills of Young Alumni

International YES Reunion Develops Activism Skills of Young Alumni

By Hira Nafees Shah

U.S. Ambassador Richard Olson with YES alumni from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Olson with YES alumni from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India.

When Airokhsh Faiz arrived in Islamabad June 26 with her fellow Afghani alumni, she didn’t know quite what to expect. But setting aside her busy university and community service commitments, she felt she could not pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the International YES Reunion in Pakistan.

“Reunions are very important especially now when Pakistan, Afghanistan and India have a very difficult political relationship,” Faiz said. “Building relationships today can have better outcomes for countries in the region in the future.”

“This reunion is a step in the right direction and more regional cooperation is needed,” added Kazi Tanjeed Nawaz, a Bangladeshi alumnus.

Stressing the importance of regional cooperation, peace-building and people-to-people contacts, the Pakistan-U.S Alumni Network (PUAN) organized the International Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Program (YES) Alumni Reunion June 26-28, 2014 in Islamabad. The YES program sends students between ages of 15 to 17 for one year of high school study in the United States.

U.S. Ambassador Olson addresses YES alumni, June 26, 2014.

U.S. Ambassador Olson addresses YES alumni, June 26, 2014.

More than 350 alumni from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India enthusiastically took part in the conference, which featured delegates like Faiz and Nawaz. The hashtag for the reunion #YAR14 topped the list of Twitter trends in Pakistan for several days.

“We admire you and your work, and we are grateful that you are willing to work hard to improve your communities throughout this country and the South Asian region,” said the chief guest U.S Ambassador Richard Olson, at the reunion’s opening ceremony.

Alumni from the four neighboring countries paid homage to this U.S exchange experience by sharing stories about how the YES program had changed their lives.

“My YES experience was a year of self-discovery and I was able to explore my own potential,” said Mohammad Umer Janjua, a recently returned Pakistani exchange participant. “I became open to more opinions and have become more willing to listen to people to arrive at a logical conclusion.”

“I learned the importance of giving back to the society through my YES exchange experience,” said Devaraj Nandini Vignesh, an Indian alum.

U.S Embassy’s Assistant Cultural Affairs Attaché Jennifer McAndrew shed light on the success stories of some YES alumni in Pakistan including that of Sher Bano in Peshawar who has led blogging workshops for local social media activists. “YES Alumni are the most vibrant and energetic in the country,” she said.

iEARN-Pakistan Executive Director Farah Kamal also paid homage to the community service work done by her students, while announcing the launch of a YES book about community service, titled “Reach Out.”

Pakistani Pop Singer Shehzad Roy serenading U.S Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Attaché Jennifer McAndrew and iEarn Pakistan Executive Director Farah Kamal

Pop Singer Shehzad Roy serenading U.S Embassy Cultural Affairs Attaché Jen McAndrew and iEarn Executive Director Farah Kamal.

During the three-day reunion, alumni participated in workshops on activism, entrepreneurship, leadership, and civil society development; enjoyed cultural and music performances; and brainstorm ideas for community service projects.

Famous Pakistani pop singer and humanitarian Shehzad Roy was the keynote speaker at a session on “Inspiring Today’s Youth to be Tomorrow’s Leaders” and detailed his journey on how he became a pioneer of education reform in the country.

“Until you try to break myths, you cannot move forward,” said Roy. “But I feel that Pakistan is changing and I see a bright future.”

Alumna Syeda Abeera Zainab was full of praise for the singer’s motivational words. “Shehzad Roy was amazing,” said Zainab. “I really like how he has used his celebrity to give back to the country.”

Max Becherer, a critically-acclaimed photographer presided over a jam-packed hall during a breakout session on “Social Change and Global Issues Photography.” He displayed photos from his coverage of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and stressed the importance of knowing one’s audience when taking snaps.

Meanwhile, noted journalist Fauzia Shaheen and Abrar Ul Hassan, founder of the 60 Second Film Festival explained how traditional and new media could be effectively used to highlight unknown stories about the country during two breakout workshops.

The Social Entrepreneurship Panel featuring (from left to right) Muniba Khurrum,Zeba Husain, Anusheh Navash, Humaira Bachal, Rakhshinda Parveen and Maimoona Sattar.

From right to left: Muniba Khurrum, Zeba Husain, Anusheh Navash, Humaira Bachal, Rakhshinda Parveen and Maimoona Sattar.

Many alumni pointed to a social entrepreneurship panel with six inspiring women leaders as their favorite session of the day. “The Social Entrepreneurship panel was the best session of the reunion,” said Rabiya Zahid Khan, a participant. “It really motivated me to do something valuable in life.”

The entrepreneurship panel included the following outstanding women: Humaira Bachal, founder of the Dream Schools project in Karachi, Muniba Khurram, a disabled artist and motivational speaker, Zeba Husain, the director of the Mashal Model School, Maimoona Saatar, CEO of Sattar Enterprises, Anusheh Ashraf, Community Engagement Manager for micro-finance organization Invest to Innovate (i2i), and Rakshinda Parveen, author and founding director of Creative Anger.

“If you have a positive intention and dream with a good heart, then your dreams will be fulfilled,” said Bachal, as she described the hardships that she had faced while setting up a girls school in her area and taking its enrollment from 10 to 350. Her project has recently been featured in a documentary film called “Dreamcatcher” by Oscar-winning director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy.

Alumni participating in an brainstorming energizer.

Alumni participating in an brainstorming energizer.

Community service work is an important component of the YES program, which was also a focus of the reunion.

“After coming back from YES, I have conducted a number of projects for underprivileged people,” said Mir Falak Sher, an alum from Quetta. “For example I conducted a project in Sanghar district in Sindh in which I donated backpacks, stationary and furniture to a school.”

Another alumnus also shared his story on how he is giving back to the society after doing similar work in the United States.

“I conducted a Tech Week in which I reached out to 200 poverty-stricken children including Access students in four cities in my region such as Peshawar, Abbottabad, Manshera and Nowshera,” said Shaiyan Sikander, an active member of PUAN’s KP/FATA chapter.

In order to take the community service work of the alumni to the next level, the reunion featured thought-provoking breakout sessions to give alumni the tools to put their ideas into action.

“In Community Engagement, don’t make promises that you cannot deliver,” said Bilal Khan, a prominent YES alumnus who recently represented Pakistan as a youth delegate to the United Nations. He led a workshop on how to mobilize your community around a cause.

14354271307_24a13de825_k

YES Alumni June 28, 2014 in Islamabad.

“I am thinking of doing a community service project about the lack of clean drinking water in Azad Kashmir,” said alumna Lubna Noreen after the workshop.

Humphrey alumnus Dr. Saqib Amjad offered words of wisdom for his workshop on fundraising, as he explained his motive for setting up the micro-finance organization Akhuwat, and the procedure for obtaining small loans.

President of Pakistan’s Global Entrepreneurship Week and IVLP alumnus Kashif Khan also lead a workshop on how to write a business plan for alums are are ready to translate their entrepreneurship ideas into reality.

The reunion also included energizer and team-building activities in which the participants networked with each other, brainstormed ideas for cross-border service projects, and shared their cultural heritage through song and dance. But some of them were already looking forward to the future.

“I found the USEFP panel session most informative because now I know how to apply for scholarships in the U.S,” said Mahrosh Shami.  The USEFP panel session included advisers from Education USA who spoke about different scholarship opportunities available to students in Pakistan and the procedure of getting into universities in the United States.

“The people reading applications at the universities are reading many at the same time so make yourself special and stand out,” advised Judith Ravin, U.S Embassy’s Deputy Cultural Affairs Officer during the discussion.

Khadija Mushtaq, principal of the Roots School System held a career counseling session at the reunion. She said young people should be passionate about the careers that they choose and pursue them patiently.

“Think about how you can contribute to society while applying to international universities,” she said.

‘Khumariyan’ giving a rocking performance on second day of International YES Alumni Reunion 2014, June 27, 2014.

‘Khumariyan’ giving a rocking performance on second day of International YES Alumni Reunion 2014, June 27, 2014.

A rocking performance by hyper-folk band from Peshawar Khumariyan closed the night on day two of the reunion. The alumni danced to the tunes of the traditional rabab and rhythm guitars and the halls repeatedly rang out with cheers of “once more.”

For the third and final day, the reunion culminated in a collaborative art project with local schoolchildren, which taught the alumni how to use art as a tool for community engagement.

YES alumni welcomed under-privileged kids from Mashal Model School with open arms for an innovative arts bazaar, energetically participating in face painting, origami, dance and art activities including collaborative murals and making Eid cards. In the spirit of Ramadan, YES alumni donated school bags to the children, as well as the resulting murals.

As participants from all over Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India parted at the closure of the event, they said the friendships they had developed and the stereotypes that had been challenged were the best takeaways from the reunion.

“I don’t have as many stereotypes about Pakistan as before and I felt very welcome here,” said Devaraj Nandini Vignesh, the Indian alum. “Platforms like this reunion highlight the importance of inter-dependence and stress that the only way we can live is by living together.”

For more photos from the YES Alumni Reunion 2014, check out this Flickr link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/109908453@N05/sets/72157645028634329/.

blog photo 7

Kids from the Mashal Model School wishing “Ramadan Mubarak” along with YES Alumni at the last day of the reunion.

Continue Reading