How a Global Citizen Movement is Honoring Pakistan’s Fallen Children

by Amna Khawar

   141 Schools for Peace (141schools.org)

141 Schools for Peace (141schools.org)

When Zaki Patel learned about the deadly Peshawar school attack, like many people, he was outraged. The December 16 assault that claimed the lives of 141 people including 132 children was one of the most brutal attacks in Pakistan’s history. Six Taliban gunmen had stormed an Army Public School leaving in their wake bodies of dead students, blood-splattered walls and a country grappling to understand how children could be so ruthlessly massacred.

Patel, a 33-year old tech freelancer, was working in a Toronto coffee shop when he heard the news. Following the incident on Twitter, he tried to make sense of the cold-blooded killing of children in his homeland when he came across a tweet that would infuse him with a mission – build 141 schools, one in the name of each life lost.

“That really hit home,” says the Pakistani-Canadian. “It was the only thing that made sense.”

Inspired, he created a simple website, 141schools.org and promoted it via twitter with the hashtag #141schoolsforpeace, asking people to sign up and pledge support to building 141 schools in honor of the victims. His hope was to get 141 of his friends to join. By the first hour, more than twice that number had already signed up.

Not expecting such a rapid response, Patel immediately called his wife Syeda Zaki, who was out shopping and had no idea what her husband was up to, urging her to come home as he needed her help.

The husband and wife duo are now leading the 141schools.org web movement which has garnered over 16,000 pledges from residents of Pakistan, the United States, Canada, Singapore, India and Hong Kong among other countries.

“People didn’t even know who we were but they were pouring their hearts out to us saying, we need to do this with you, tell us what we can do,” explains Zaki.

The cascade of support and grief over the tragedy was initially overwhelming for the couple who had sprung into action knowing that something needed to be done but unsure of how to do it or if they were the right people to lead the effort.

“It was literally gut reaction,” describes Patel. “I was presented with an idea which I thought somebody should do. I didn’t even think about it.”

Both husband and wife grew up in Karachi but currently live in Canada. Patel studied computer science at McGill University and works in technology. Zaki has a finance background but switched to pursue her passion in social entrepreneurship and was most recently working at a Canadian impact investing startup.

Building over 100 schools is a daunting task even for the most experienced of educational professionals much less a young couple with busy lives in Canada. However, they are unfazed by the magnitude of their mission and have achieved their first major milestone by establishing a partnership with The Citizen’s Foundation (TCF), Pakistan’s leading educational nonprofit that builds schools for underprivileged children. TCF has committed to building all 141 schools and expects the first one to be operational in 2015 with the remaining schools completed in three years.

The cause has also resonated with prominent Pakistani artists. Recently, musician Ali Zafar has committed to supporting the initiative and donating all proceeds from his latest song Urain Ge to 141Schools.org. The star-studded video features a host of celebrities including Fawad Khan, Meesha Shafi, Ali Azmat and Aamina Sheikh.

Beyond the planned brick-and-mortar work, 141schools.org has already created a global community where concerned citizens can assist the project regardless of geography. The online platform provides an opportunity for Pakistani expats and other concerned folk from around the world to contribute to a cause that they can’t be on the ground for. While the immediate call is for monetary support to build the schools, the initiative is exploring other ways to leverage the community and its skills.

“The Pakistani diaspora is keenly concerned about the country’s challenges,” points out Madiha Qureshi, a development communications professional based in Washington DC and one of the movement’s early pledgers. “We might be removed in distance, but not in spirit.” She hopes her participation along with others from around the world will strengthen a growing civil society movement for fighting extremism with enlightenment in Pakistan.

For a nation bombarded with one bad news story after the other, it’s easy to get caught up in the country’s latest terrorist attack. One of the goals of the 141schools.org movement is to keep the memory alive and never forget.

“Storytelling is going to be a really important part of this where we can perpetuate positivity out of something quite horrific,” Zaki mentions.

By telling the story of the Peshawar tragedy and how the community promised to never forget, the couple hopes that one day the students that study at these new schools will remember why they were built and be inspired to become agents of change.

While the first school will be completed this year, for Patel, the 141schools.org initiative has larger symbolic value – that resilient communities can push back on the fear of terrorism.

“I’m doing this to show the people of Pakistan that you can do anything, if you just give up on all the fears,” Patel emphasizes. “I want people to know that they need to stand up and do what they think is the right thing without being afraid.”

As students returned to the Peshawar school last month to start the long but much-needed healing process, citizen initiatives like 141schools.org provide a glimmer of hope that motivated individuals can rise to the occasion without waiting to be called on.

This article originally appeared in The Friday Times on February 13, 2015.