Vote for BLISS!

Something must have really moved or inspired me to come out of my blog-writing hibernation. A friend of mine shared an email about an amazing initiative BLISS started by a young Pakistani woman, Saba Gul, that aims to get working girls back into school. Reading about Saba’s project and the innovative ways in which she’s promoting it has really inspired me as I also share the dream of starting something of my own that makes a difference to people’s lives.

Saba (middle) with two talented girls whose handiwork has been converted into beautiful handbags to be sold in the market

BLISS is running a pilot in Attock with 25 Afghan refugee girls who were previously forced to work for up to 14 hours a day at carpet looms to economically support their families. BLISS enables these girls to attend school while gaining important income-generating skills, such as embroidery lessons, and earning a daily wage at the same time. Their handiwork is then professionally converted into trendy handbags that will be sold on the market. This approach encapsulates the BLISS mantra of “Education. Entrepreneurship. Empowerment”.  BLISS will launch its first range of 60 handbags in March 2011.

Girls attending school

Saba started the initiative while she was working in the US, where she graduated from MIT in Computer Science and Economics. Her project has already gained recognition in the US through various competitions and was recently invited by Secretary Hillary Clinton to a US State Department iftaar dinner. She is now moving to Pakistan to work full time on her dream project and make BLISS into a sustainable and viable social enterprise. That’s real commitment!

Saba’s project has been selected as 1 of 45 finalists from all over the world by the Unreasonable Institute for a competition. The winners of the competition will get a chance to attend a 6-week program to take their initiatives to the next level through rigorous skills training, guidance from expert mentors, access to seed capital and a chance to pitch to investors in Silicon Valley. The 25 lucky winners are chosen by popular voting. Here’s the catch though: in order to vote for an entrepreneur, you have to put your money where your mouth is and donate a very small amount towards their initiative. In fact the maximum donation allowed is only $10. So in fact at least 800 people would have to sponsor your project in the quickest possible time in order for it to win, demonstrating it’s popular appeal.

Take out a few minutes of your time and vote for this truly innovative and inspiring initiative!

Our interview in CHUP

Asim and I were interviewed about our Kili trek by Kalsoom Lakhani, editor of the blog CHUP, CHanging Up Pakistan. Below we’ve copied the text of the interview.

The Citizens Foundation (TCF) is a not-for-profit organization that provides education opportunities for underpriveleged families in Pakistan. As of 2009, TCF hasestablished 600 purpose-built school units nationwide with an enrollment of 80,000 students. TCF also encourages female enrollment and boasts a 50% female ratio on almost every campus. From October 16-25, 2009, Friends of The Citizens Foundation, a UK-based organization that fundraises for TCF schools in Pakistan, organized a trek of Mount Kilimanjaro, in which participants raised money and awareness about the organization’s work in Pakistan. The team as a whole raised nearly £80,000 – enough money to run nine TCF schools in Pakistan for a year, educating approximately 1350 underprivileged children. Below, CHUP talks toTamreez Inam and Asim Khan [click to see their blog], a married couple who completed the trek in October and raised nearly £6000 for TCF:

Q: The Kilimanjaro Trek was such a unique fundraising idea developed by Friends of The Citizens Foundation (FTCF), and participants ended up raising nearly £80,000 for TCF schools in Pakistan. How did you get involved with the project and what inspired you to do it?

Tamreez: I had gotten in touch with FTCF because I was interested in finding out more about TCF’s work in Pakistan. As a side conversation, the trek came up. I thought it was such an exciting opportunity and for such a great cause, so I thought “why not?” I decided I would probably only do it if Asim would be willing. To my surprise, it hardly took any convincing before he jumped in as well! It was later we realized what we had gotten ourselves into when we had to start fundraising and training! But it was the adventure of a lifetime and I’m so glad we did it.

Our greatest inspiration was the work of TCF in Pakistan. Their schools are run to the highest standards, competing with elite private schools. For example, the high school pass rate of TCF students is 99% compared to the national average of 60%! They hire only female teachers to ensure high ratios of female enrollment in their schools.Some of the schools have evening shifts for children who work during the day to supplement the family income. The organization maintains high levels of professionalism, transparency and financial accountability. So what really inspired me was their professionalism combined with their ethos that caters to the poorest segments of Pakistani society in very innovative ways.

Q: How did you prepare mentally and physically for the trek?

T: Mentally, I don’t think it really sunk in until we were in Africa, but we tried our best to read up as much as we could before we went. We spoke to people who had already done the trek. I read online blogs of people’s experiences and their tips for making it through the grueling six days of the trek.

Coincidentally, we also read Three Cups of Tea which is American mountaineer and humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s incredibly inspiring story of his commitment to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s remotest areas. That story really inspired both of us and it was an added coincidence that Greg climbed Kili at the age of 11 and spent the first 12 years of his life in the town of Moshi (our base camp for the trek)!

However, nothing could have prepared me for summit night (on the final day for the summit climb, we had to trek eight hours through the night in temperatures that went down to -22 C°). The last hour of the climb, I was crying from exhaustion and the biting cold. I was absolutely convinced that I had frostbite and when I returned, my fingers and toes would have to be chopped off! It’s surprising that I still didn’t give up and kept going. The fact that we were doing it in a big group and saw others who kept climbing, motivated us as well. Also, Asim and I kept pushing each other through the night and somehow when one of us would feel particularly weak or tired or cold, the other would get a surge of protective energy!

Physically, we trained for about three months prior to the trek. We would go to the gym a few times a week and also went on long walks. However, the main change was that we started living a more active lifestyle. Gradually, we saw our stamina improve. However, during the trek we realized we should have trained a lot more! For others who want to go on the trek, I would advise doing aerobics and definitely do a few climbs and treks in the months prior to Kilimanjaro.

Asim: Looking back, I wish we had done a lot more training than what we did. I personally felt mentally strong from the very beginning; the cause itself was a huge motivation and when the funds started flowing into our JustGiving page, we felt more and more into it.

Q: Given that you and Asim raised nearly £6000, how did you go about fundraising for the trek? What kinds of responses did you receive?

Asim & Tamreez: Most of our fundraising was online through our JustGiving page. We sent email reminders to friends and family who passed on the link to others. We also organized a bake sale and a Pakistani handicrafts sale, both of which got really good responses.

The month of Ramadan came during our fundraising as well and as we all know, we’re all particularly generous during that month, so that helped too! We made sure TCF was eligible for zakat and that we paid for all the costs of the travel and expenses ourselves. That assured people that their money would be going directly to the organization and not funding our trip in any way.

More than anything, we were impressed by the generosity of strangers or those who had just met us and found out about the cause. Friends we hadn’t spoken to in ages were some of the first people to donate. Friends of friends came forward and donated anonymously. Family members donated anonymously! It was quite touching. Honestly, the whole experience of fundraising from May to October really strengthened my belief in humanity.

Q: About 25 other people were also climbing for TCF – what was the dynamic like among the group and how did that evolve as the trek went on?

A & T: We were very lucky that we had an amazing group and that we all got along well. Everyone was really nice and friendly and they all believed in the cause. We would laugh and joke and motivate each other to keep going. The scenery was breathtaking throughout the trip and we would stop for photos which led to many memorable moments.

There were about 13 people who joined us from Singapore for the trek and there was a friendly rivalry that developed between the UK group and those from Singapore. As the trek went along, we all started looking out for each other and helping those who weren’t feeling well. It’s quite interesting that when taken away from your usual surroundings and sharing tents and camp toilets with people, you open up and trust each other a lot more than you normally would!

We had about 60 local porters and guides on the trek who were absolutely amazing. They would be singing and laughing and teaching us Swahili words and phrases.

The organizers from the tour operator, Action Challenge from the UK, who came with us were all really great people as well. They made sure we remained on schedule but still had fun. We had a representative from TCF, Hina Suleman, undertaking the trek with us. She was absolutely wonderful. Despite being as tired as the rest of us, she would still make sure everyone was doing well at the end of the day and even on days when she wasn’t feeling well herself, she would still be motivating and taking care of others!

Q: What was the most memorable experience about the trek itself?

T: I think the people we met made it very memorable for us. Honestly, if we hadn’t somehow all gelled, we might have been miserable through the ten days of the trip. Climbing and trekking isn’t easy and add to that altitude sickness, dehydration and hypothermia and you could have a potentially very miserable time ahead of you. But like I said, given we all got along so well, we really enjoyed ourselves and knowing that others were going through similar experiences, it really kept us motivated.

A: Each day of the trip was unique. We experienced almost all climatic zones, from tropical weather in Moshi to extremely cold conditions on the summit. We saw thousands of unique plants in the rainforest. It was amazing to see the tree line disappearing behind us. Reaching the summit was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But the most memorable experience for me was our daily conversations with the local porters. Each one of them had life story of his own to tell. It not only gave us great insight into the local language and culture, but we learned a lot about the plight of a porter. They have a very tough lifestyle and some are forced into it due to their circumstances. From their strife to earn a day to day living to their determination to achieve the best for themselves and their families; it was an eye opening reminder for me.

Q: Do you think creative initiatives like the Kilimanjaro Trek can help not just raise funds but raise awareness about the work of NGOs in Pakistan? How necessary are charities like FTCF in leveraging support for local NGOs?

T: Oh absolutely! Friends of The Citizens Foundation, a UK registered charity and independent from TCF, serves as TCF’s fundraising arm in the UK. Similarly, TCF-USA does the same for it in America. These organizations go a long way in building support for the TCF and creating awareness about the cause. They are one of the most transparent, professional and efficient organizations I have ever come across. Working with them is a pleasure. So in a sense, they restore your faith in Pakistani organizations and those working for Pakistan. Also, because they genuinely care and translate it into actual work on the ground, I think they serve as great ambassadors for not just the NGOs, but our country in general.

A: It’s definitely a great way to raise awareness and hence more funds. It worked in our case. So many people we approached never heard of this charity before and that included Pakistanis. FTCF organized a similar trek to K2 base camp a couple of years ago and that team raised a similar amount too. FTCF no doubt is doing great job in raising awareness in this region. It is one of the biggest fundraising wings of TCF.

If you would like to learn more about The Citizens Foundation, visit their website. If Asim and Tamreez’s story inspires you, you can donate via their JustGiving page, or if you’d like to donate directly to TCF, please visit their websiteTCF-USA, or FTCF.

A ray of hope!

“When it’s dark enough, you can see the stars” – Persian proverb

Finally… got some time to write a blog and a chance to share my experience of the ‘Three Cups of Tea Project’. I finished reading book #31 a couple of weeks ago and its now on its way to its next reader in The Netherlands (follow the progress of the books on the map). Tamreez just finished book #27 and will be sending her copy to the next reader in the next couple of days too.

I must say, the project is an excellent idea to share such an inspirational story. ‘Three Cups of Tea’ is a story of Greg Mortenson, an ex-mountaineer, a humanitarian, an extremely courageous, patient and determined human being who built schools in the remote villages of Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan under the toughest and most dangerous conditions.


Greg made a summit attempt to conquer K2, the second highest mountain in the world, to pay tribute to his late sister Christa. In trying to rescue a fellow climber, he himself got lost. He fought death for a couple of days in the worst possible conditions and finally stumbled across a village, unknown to the modern world, called ‘Korphe’. Impressed by the hospitality of the villagers, he promised the chief, Haji Ali, that he would build a school for them. For hundreds of years, the village never had a formal school.

Mortenson learnt his first and the most important lesson from Haji Ali that it’s all about relationships. “It takes three cups of tea,” he said. “The first cup you’re a stranger. The second up a friend. And the third cup you become family. And for family we’re prepared to do anything, even die”. But the process may take several years and you have to have that patience. Mortenson mastered the technique. He kept his promise and with the generosity of one of his donors, Jean Hoerni, the idea gave birth to the Central Asia Institute which has now built more than 130 schools.

On his quest he faced umpteen challenges, demoralising and sometimes even death-defying, including fatwas and death threats from crazy mullahs and even being kidnapped by Taliban sympathizers. His perseverance was the most impressive feature of his mission. It all failed to deter him from fulfilling his aim. He even sacrificed his family life making extended trips to these far far away lands.

The man believes in education being the only cure of extremism. He strongly advocates educating the girls. Contrary to boys who move out of the villages once educated, Mortenson believes that the educated girls tend to stay in their villages and pass on their knowledge to the next generations.

The story has many twists and turns and shows how his determination opened up avenues for him. Some might call it his luck but I think anyone else would have called it a day within the first few blows. From fundraising for the first school, to getting major donors on board, to getting paid staff for the institute and establishing key contacts all across the region Greg’s hard work is extremely laudable.

I highly recommend reading this book. There still are people among us who want to make this world a better place. I saw a ray of hope for Pakistan, and surprisingly the source was a ‘foreigner’ and shockingly an ‘American’. Greg was even awarded the highest civilian award Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan) by the Government of Pakistan and I would not hesitate to even nominate Greg Mortenson for the Nobel Peace Prize.

You can make a difference

£1682 more to meet the target. FTCF can educate two children from KG to Matric (11 years of education) in just £1692. Please help us raise this amount!

Donate Now –

Your donations can make a difference in the following ways:

Educate two children / month £12
Educate-a-child / year £77
Educate a child from KG to Matric (11 yrs) £846
Sponsor textbooks of a classroom (1 year) £77
Sponsor uniforms of a classroom (1 year) £77
Support a primary school (1 year) £8,800
Support a secondary school (1 year) £14,615


“O believers, never shall you attain to true piety unless you spend on others out of what you cherish yourselves; and whatever you spend – verily, God has full knowledge thereof”. – Quran (3:92)

“If a human dies, then his good deeds stop except for three: a Sadaqa Jariah (continuous charity), a beneficial knowledge, or a righteous child who prays for him”. – Muhammad PBUH

Three Cups of Tea

A few weeks ago we were contacted by Edgar (aka “The Kettle Rumbles”) telling us he was inspired by our Kilimanjaro Trek  and introduced to us his Three Cups of Tea Book Project. The idea was that we would read Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea and then hand it on to someone else. It was simple and inspiring and Tamreez had been wanting to read the book anyway, so we thought why not?

This morning our individual packs arrived in the mail: a copy of the book with an assigned book number (27 and 31 respectively); a reader’s log at the back for up to a 100 people; a beautiful bookmark promoting Arghand’s handmade Afghani soaps; a postcard and a copy of CAI’s magazine Journey of HOPE. As we excitedly took out all the contents of our packs and leafed through the book and magazine, we could not wait to get started. It is also quite exciting that instead of having to take turns to read a book, we can now read one together and then pass it on to someone!

– Publishers Weekly

“Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.”

Watch this space for our views on the book!

Thank you very much Edgar and we look forward to being a part of this project! It’s a wonderful idea and we’re sure it will inspire hundreds of people and will inshallah improve the lives of children in CAI’s schools! Good luck–we’re with you!

Kilimanjaro update

We wanted to give you some updates on our preparations for the Kilimanjaro trek as well as more details on the actual trek itself.

As you know, we are doing this trek in support of Friends of the Citizens Foundation a UK registered charity that funds the education of underprivileged children in Pakistan. We are leaving London for Tanzania on 15th October 2009 inshallah. The duration of the trip is 10 days out of which we will be camping outdoors for 6 days and trekking 5-6 hours everyday. The final summit climb begins midnight of the 6th day and will be the hardest as we will be trekking all through the night to reach Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s highest point, at sunrise iA!

We have been physically training for the trek by working out at least 4-5 days a week for 30-60 mins (a combination of outdoor walks and gym treadmill on incline). Those of you who know me (Tamreez) know that I NEVER go to the gym, but for the last month I’ve been going regularly and you know what, I’m getting the hang of it! :D To be honest, it is very difficult to maintain the training schedule in Ramadan but we’ve been trying to work out the last hour before iftaar so we don’t collapse of dehydration! There are days when one of us is feeling particularly lazy or tired, but that’s when we’ve been (literally) pushing each other! I am proud to say we’ve both become excellent slave drivers!

Shopping for equipment and gear has been exciting. We’ve bought our rucksacks, boots, trekking poles, jackets and clothing. Left on the list are sleeping bags, head torches etc. We also began our vaccination program yesterday and my arm is aching from the needles poked into it. Typhoid, tetanus, hep A & B, diphtheria…ouch! Also got some advice on altitude sickness, malaria and yellow fever. Finally, we need to book our travel insurance– apparently, we need one that provides helicopter rescue in case of emergency on the mountain! Scary stuff!

On the fundraising front, we had set ourselves a combined target of £6500 out of which we are pleased to announce we’ve raised £4473.10 to date or 69% of the total.Fundraising at BP's Stockley Park office A big thank you to all our friends who made this possible! With just one month to go, we are very close to meeting our target but time is running out! We need your support to raise the amount. As an additional note, we wanted to let you know FTCF is eligible for Zakat funds and all the money donated on our justgiving page will go directly to the charity and NOT towards funding our trip in ANY WAY. We are paying the costs ourselves. So please open your hearts (and your purse strings!) in this blessed month of Ramadan and donate generously to support our cause!

Thanks for all your support!

Kilimanjaro Trek 2009!

From 16-25th October this year, we are climbing Kilimanjaro “The Roof of Africa” (the highest peak in the continent) to support education in Pakistan!

We believe that education is the key to solving many of the problems we face in Pakistan today ranging from economic development, women’s rights to intolerance and terrorism.

We will be fundraising for Friends of The Citizens Foundation (FTCF) which have built 600 schools in urban slums and rural areas of Pakistan providing quality education to undeprivileged children. TCF is the most organized, professional and dedicated education charity we have come across and we urge all our friends and family to help us in raising funds for their amazing cause!

Here are some facts about TCF that we found not only impressive but absolutely inspiring:

– Almost all children at TCF schools come from the poorest segements of society (urban slums and extremely poor rural communities).

– Some of these children actually work during the day to supplement the family income and are offered evening shifts.

– 50% of the children in their schools are girls! In a country with apalling rates of female literacy, this will have a major impact in eduating the next generation of women.

– Books, uniforms, meals and not to mention a quality education by trained teachers are provided at highly subsidized rates (the fees, sometimes as little as 0.1p per month, are charged just to encourage ownership and responsibility).

– The schools have extremely high retention rates and the pass rate of their high school students is 99% (compared to the national average of about 60%). Of these, 73% have gone on to college.

– FTCF has a College Placement program and provides college scholarships to their brightest students. Recently two young women have become their first students to be accepted to a Medical College and Karachi’s top Business College (IBA) with scholarships.

Donating through Justgiving is quick, easy and totally secure. It’s also the most efficient way to sponsor us. FTCF gets your money faster and, if you’re a UK taxpayer, Justgiving makes sure 25% in Gift Aid, plus a 3% supplement, are added to your donation.

So please sponsor us now and support this great initiative in Pakistan!


Asim and Tamreez