Why #GIRLWITHABOOK Matters

Recently, a friend and supporter of #GIRLWITHABOOK reminded me that although National Geographic is known for spectacular nature and wildlife photography, its most famous image is a portrait of a 12-year-old Afghan refugee girl named Sharbat Gula. Her photograph was taken at a refugee camp at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The photographer was Steve McCurry and he found her sitting in a tent, which served as a girls’ school.

Like millions of people, this portrait captured my heart almost the moment I first saw it. And now every time I look at it, I think of the mere 12% literacy rate for girls in Pakistan, I think of the 200,000 women in South Africa who are victims of violence every year, I think of the countless women in the US who are raped on college campuses.

This photograph reminds of girls and women who are denied their rights to this day. But it also reminds me of their courage and determination to be more than a statistic.

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For those who have been following this blog for awhile, you know all about the #GIRLWITHABOOK project that Olivia and I started two years ago. And now I have some updates regarding that. Last month, we applied for a National Geographic contest called Expedition Granted for the chance to win $50,000 to go and do any sort of project that we have always dreamed of.

Our expedition idea: Take #GIRLWITHABOOK to 12 countries in 12 months in order to highlight different individuals and organizations who are doing incredible work for girls’ education. This would mean filming interviews, taking photographs, and keeping our supporters updated through our social media channels on what we discover on the status of girls’ and women’s rights in those countries.

Our tentative list of countries includes: Egypt, Guatemala, Iceland, India, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, and Yemen.

Here’s the exciting part. National Geographic picked our project as a finalist out of approximately 700 projects! And now it’s up to us to get as many votes as we can.

So since today is the last day to vote, I thought I would lay out some facts as to why #GIRLWITHABOOK, and ultimately girls’ education, matters.

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It’s been thirty years since the portrait of Sharbat Gula was published in National Geographic’s June 1984 issue, and today there are 32 million girls who cannot even attend schools set up in tents. This is why education matters for girls and women. This is why I want our expedition to become a reality. This is why I’m still doing this project, two years after a terrorist tried to kill Malala Yousafzai. This is why #GIRLWITHABOOK matters. 

Stand with us and VOTE for our expedition:  http://expeditiongranted.nationalgeographic.com/project/girlwithabook/

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An Israeli Jewish Boy and A Muslim Girl Were Once Friends

Some of the letters, cards, and mementos I've kept from those years I lived in Ukraine

Some of the letters, cards, and mementos I’ve kept from those years I lived in Ukraine

I attended international schools until I was nine years old. My classmates were from Mexico, Yugoslavia, Korea, France, Germany, India, the US, and the list went on. In the summer that I turned seven years old, my family and I moved to Kiev, Ukraine where we lived for two years. I know. It’s a strange coincidence that this story/memory takes place in Ukraine, another country that’s been in the headlines quite a lot recently.

When I began attending school that fall, I became close friends with a Jewish boy from Israel who I’ll refer to as Gary. I was also friends with his twin brother, (who I’ll refer to as Ryan) but I remember being closer with Gary because I’m pretty sure I had a tiny crush on him back then. Gary was really clever and always cracking jokes. He and I, along with our other friends would play together at school during recess all the time. He and his brother invited me to their birthday party and I invited them to mine. I remember I had a beautiful piñata at my party that my mom spent weeks making for me. After my friends and I smashed it, ate the candy, and had some birthday cake, we all rushed over to the TV to watch Space Jam on VHS. Gary had never seen the movie and was dying to watch it. The 90s were awesome.

But when I think back to how and why Gary and I even became friends, I would probably have to give most of the credit to my teacher. She divided the entire class into pairs and assigned us all to do a research project on our partner’s country. It was actually a great way for kids to learn about the world by first learning about each other. Somehow Gary ended up being my partner. So I read everything I could about Israel and learned how to draw the Israeli flag like a pro. And in turn, Gary learned all about Pakistan. I’ll always remember that day when he came up to me in class, pointing excitedly to the encyclopedia he was clutching, and asked, “Whoa! Does it really get that hot in Pakistan?” I just laughed and nodded yes.

I can’t even remember anymore what I wrote/presented for my project, but I do remember me and Gary talking and asking each other tons of questions about the countries where our parents came from. I remember how amazed we were when we discovered that the first letter in the Urdu alphabet and Hebrew alphabet are the same: alif. Fun fact: It’s also the same in the Arabic alphabet.

Despite doing this supposedly well-researched project on Israel, I didn’t understand anything about the history between Israel and Palestine, and how toxic the entire conflict has become, until I was in high school. Although I remember learning so much from Gary about his language and culture, it never occurred to me that we were technically not supposed to be friends. As a Muslim, I wasn’t exactly supposed to be best friends with Jewish kid, especially not one from Israel. But we were. Nothing can change that.

Now I find myself thinking: Had I stayed at that school, had we stayed in touch, I wonder if Gary and I would be friends today. Would we still hang out and exchange stories about our countries, our religions? I can still remember playing tag with Gary during recess. I can still remember watching Space Jam with him and my friends at my birthday party.

I also remember another moment, one that took place at Gary and Ryan’s birthday party. We were all invited to their home and at the end of the party, my father came to pick me up. I never paid attention to their conversation, but in my mind I can still clearly see my father and Gary’s father talking near the front door as I was putting my coat on. They were both smiling, nodding, and chatting. About 15 years passed before I asked my dad about that conversation. I asked him what it was like to speak to the Israeli ambassador. I mean this man’s politics and views of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict probably couldn’t be any more different or opposite from my father’s. Was it awkward? Did you hate being there? My dad just said matter-of-factly, “No, not at all. We had a nice talk.”

I didn’t have to ask my dad anymore after that. I could tell from his tone that in that conversation all those years ago, both mine and Gary’s father were not interested in discussing politics. Their children went to school together and they were friends. And that made them happy, as it would for any parent. Looking back, I spent a lot of years in high school and college being angry at the world as I learned more about its problems. But I’m beginning to see past that black and white filter. I think I understand now that when it comes to their children, most people try to be better than the politics surrounding them. Sometimes it may not seem that way, but they do try.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen…welcome

Photographed by my friend, Zay Ray

Here’s to new beginnings and finally doing that one thing everyone tells you to do, from your therapist to your mom to the homeless guy in the park to all the inspirational Oscar-worthy movies in the world…..TAKING CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE.

Here’s to not being lazy anymore and finally achieving discipline, motivation and inspiration to do whatever needs to be done.

Here’s to finding that cause I believe more than myself. The ideal, my mission to find a mission.

Well here’s to hoping anyway.