Courage, a dream and a better life: The story of a fatherless girl from the high mountains of remote Pakistan.
Here is Shabnam’s story, in her own words.
My name is Shabnam. I am from Harkush, a small village located in the beautiful Phandar valley of District Ghizer, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. I live in the most spectacular valley of all Gilgit-Baltistan.
I grew up in poverty, in an environment where education was a rarity among women. My father, Panjarash Khan, served in the Pakistani army until his retirement at age 60. His monthly pension is the only source of income for our family of seven.
Many students in the Phandar valley move away to other cities for higher education, but due to social taboos, most females must stay home or marry instead of attending college. Despite our cultural and income challenges, my four siblings and I are all studying in schools and colleges.
I attended our local government-run primary school. But there was no middle school in my village, so I stayed home for one year without schooling. Eventually, my father allowed me to attend middle school in another village. Taking two hours each day, the trip to school and back was not easy, especially when harsh winter arrived and snowfall covered the valley. But even with these challenges, I passed my grade 10 exam.
By the grace of God, I was admitted to the college in Gilgit City. I stayed in a women’s hostel while I studied, but the fees were a burden for my family. At nearly seventy years old, my father worked hard to bear the expenses, to the detriment of his health. Unfortunately, due to cardiac arrest, my father died and left our family with pain and sorrow. After his death, we could no longer afford my schooling.
Despite my grief and adversity, I asked the hostel warden if I could work as an assistant cook. She was a kindly woman, and allowed me to work for my room and board so I could continue my education in Gilgit. I went to school in the morning for six hours, and cooked food for hostel guests for the eight hours after that. This schedule was tiring, yet it was my only option if I wanted to finish school. I remembered the saying of Thomas Edison: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” These words gave me hope. Eventually, I passed my grade 12 exam.
After completing my secondary education, I returned home. My mother needed me to help provide for our family, for my siblings, and especially to help my younger sister as she was studying for her own grade 10 exam. In the high mountain valleys of Pakistan, we young women must often make sacrifices to support our brothers and sisters.
As time went on, I felt a fiery passion to complete my own higher education. I prayed for a miracle. I pleaded and begged my mother to allow me to leave home and return to school, asking only for her permission, hoping to pay my own way by working. After much time and many heartfelt requests, she allowed me to go.
I contacted the kindly hostel warden for whom I worked in Gilgit City, sharing my whole story with her. She told me that in the hostel, there are students who receive scholarships from an NGO called Central Asia Institute Gilgit (CAIG). She said this NGO supports female students of the remote valleys of Gilgit and Chitral. This news gave me hope, as my own home valley of Phandar is especially remote, and perhaps this NGO would see fit to support me.
I made the five-hour journey to Gilgit with the permission and support of my mother and uncle, and 500 PK rupees ($4 USD) in my pocket. The hostel warden greeted me with a smile, and took me to the Central Asia Institute Gilgit office. There, we met with their finance manager, Karim Uddin, and CEO, Saidullah Baig. Saidullah said, “We are supporting hundreds of girls in their education here in these valleys. How is it you have not yet applied for a scholarship?” He asked about my story, listening to me with a kind and patient heart. And then CAIG agreed to support my education, with a scholarship covering my college and hostel fees.
This scholarship gives me strength, vision, and confidence. And it gives me the financial support I can no longer receive from my dear, late father. I no longer have to work while studying, and can focus on getting good grades in school.
I dream of becoming a teacher after graduating. Many schools in my area lack female teachers. It would be especially meaningful for me to serve in a CAIG school as a volunteer teacher. I am so thankful to everyone who supports me and other poor girls in our education. CAIG has opened schools in remote valleys where young women who live in poverty dream of education. They are bringing true change to the high mountains of Gilgit and Chitral. I learned that donors from the U.S. are supporting CAIG’s scholarship programs here in Pakistan. I owe many thanks to the kind donors who see the importance of educating the poor in Pakistan, including Gilgiti girls like me. I pray for the individual donors who support CAI: may God give you good health and happiness in your families. The slogan “Educate a Girl. Change the World.” means so much to me. No doubt if we educate all mothers and girls, we can bring change to the world.
I love poetry, and want to share with you a line written by the national poet of Pakistan, Allama Iqbal.
“You don’t get frightened of these furious, violent winds, Oh Eagle! These blow only to make you fly higher.”
I am sure Iqbal said this for the struggling people like me.
Thank you very much.
Where is Shabnam now?
Shabnam graduated from college! With the help of supporters like you and a scholarship from CAI Gilgit, Shabnam earned a bachelor’s degree earlier this year. And with your continued support, she is now pursuing a master’s degree in education.
Because of her example, her younger sister and brother are also attending college. Shabnam is a proud big sister!