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