No parent is prepared for the death of a child. It is not something to get over. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a path forward. For Dr. Zareen Roohi Ahmed, that journey meant taking on her daughter’s aspirations, hopes and dreams and seeing them to fruition. With this week’s opening of a college for girls in Wazirabad, Pakistan, Dr. Ahmed is fulfilling the dream of her daughter Halimah’s unfairly short but meaningful life, a life that ended tragically with her murder in the first few days of her own college experience. In a recent interview, Dr. Ahmed shared with Aspire Editor Gayle Jo Carter, her personal story of inspiring, surviving, thriving and realizing Halimah’s dreams.
Q. What is the focus of your life these days, your work as founder & CEO of Gift Wellness Ltd. or The Halimah Trust?
“It’s both. It’s always both because the two go hand in hand and it’s a very busy time on both fronts. [Gift Wellness produces natural sanitary care products. With a brand name ‘Gift,’ alongside sales, around 3 million sanitary pads have been donated to women in crisis through food banks, homeless charities, refugee camps and schools.]
The Halimah Trust, my daughter’s charity, well, the charity that was set up in memory of my daughter. It is my daughter’s charity. She’s in every breath of it. She inspires it in real terms, not just as a past inspiration, but as a present force. And she’s in everything that I do. She’s the voice in my head most of the time.”
Q. What is the current project for Halimah’s Trust?
“We’ve done various projects around the world in South Sudan, Syria and Nepal, wherever there’s been a disaster, we’ve always tried to do whatever we can. Our flagship project is the Halimah School of Excellence which is in Wazirabad, Pakistan. It’s for 400 girls who are either orphans or from very poor backgrounds, where they often have to work because their parents can’t afford to send them to school. The school has been going now for eight years. It was inaugurated in April 2011. Eight years almost to the day we inaugurated it, we are opening the college which is next door to school. We built a college for them because basically if we didn’t build them a college, then they wouldn’t be going to college. Who’s going to send them to college?”
Q. How have you financed this?
“That’s the difficult thing, really. We’ve been fundraising. We decided in 2017, so two years ago, that we needed to build a college because the first lot of girls who arrived at the school were now ready to go to college. The secondary girls who arrived, who were 10, 11 years-old. They’re all ready for college and want to go to University. They are so ambitious, so feisty. There’s such power and confidence in them. They know that they can do anything.”
Q. Do you see yourself in these ‘can do anything girls?’ Where did you grow up?
“I was born in Britain and Halimah was born here too. My parents are from that region in Pakistan. I had a great childhood. I’m one of six brothers and sisters. My parents worked very hard. They came from Pakistan and left their families to come to the U.K. They worked hard all their lives to make sure that we had everything we needed. I was trying to do the same for my kids as well, my son and daughter. Halimah and I had a kind of a pact from when she was very young. She always wanted to do charity work and we had an agreement that when she grew up, we would be working together and we would run a charity together. In fact, ten years before she passed away, after a trip to Pakistan, I had the opportunity to set up a charity. My cousin in Karachi in Pakistan had a spare apartment and I said, ‘Why don’t we set up a school in it for poor children from the area?’ When I came back from Pakistan, which was a business trip, I told my family about it and Halimah immediately said, ‘Oh, can you call it The Halimah Trust?’ And at that point we set up a bank account called The Halimah Trust. Now, because of political reasons and red tape in Pakistan, that project didn’t go ahead at that time but we had this dormant bank account called The Halimah Trust. Then after she passed away, because she had just started at University to study Third World Development, it was kind of an automatic decision that was clear to me, my son and husband that we should now activate The Halimah Trust.”
Q. You said Halimah always wanted to do that. What motivated her to feel this way?
“My career was mostly in the charity sector. I worked for charities, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and at the time that she passed away, I was a CEO of a charity which was all about countering violence and promoting peace. I was also two years into doing my PHD, which was about empowering women. So from a young age, she was always interested in what I was doing and these were the conversations we were having. From a young age, whenever there was an earthquake somewhere or some kind of natural disaster or refugee crisis, she would be fundraising, she would be making cupcakes and selling them in school and raising funds. Halimah got recognized by The Red Cross, Save the Children, and other charities while she was in school. She subscribed to UNICEF and in her statement when she applied for college, she said her ambition was to go to University to study Third World development so she could alleviate poverty around the world and in ten years’ time she wanted to be a UN ambassador for Peace. The plaque of this statement is on the wall in the Halimah School of Excellence. The girls of the school live by that statement. They say that Halimah is their sister. They treat her like their older sister and they call her Halimah baji, which is an endearing term for a big sister.”
"You feel her around, you feel her kind of happy, giggly personality and her kindness. When I look at those girls, all of them, I see her in their faces. When I go there, they feel it as well."
Q. When you see the plaque and when you’re in the school, what does it do for you to know that your keeping Halimah’s goal and vision alive? What do you get out of the work?
“It’s her. I feel her in the school. The whole school is like walking into her room. You feel her around, you feel her kind of happy, giggly personality and her kindness. When I look at those girls, all of them, I see her in their faces. When I go there, they feel it as well. They feel the maternal kind of feeling towards me. When I walk into the school, they hold my hands, lock their arms with mine and they don’t want to let go and I don’t want to let go. I need to spend more time there. It’s very healing and energizing for them and for me.”
Q. Has it been hard to get this college off the ground? What do you have left to do?
“I have another £100,000 to raise but we’ve set the date for the inauguration. The building is up. They’re finishing off the construction and we need to equip the labs and get all the rooms furnished, decorated and get the floors finished. There’s a month left and they are going to move in because, at the moment, the girls who are going into the college are all squished into the school. The classes are overflowing because there’s not enough room as it was originally just a secondary school. It’s now from preschool all the way up to college.”
Q. Have the local families embraced you or has it been hard because so many of the people, especially the moms, might not have gone to school themselves?
“On the contrary, they are so grateful to us for building this school. When we built The Halimah School, we had tearful parents coming to hug us and say thank you. They were giving us gifts. There was a boys’ school before, but there was no girls’ school there. It’s quite a poor, rural area but the girls were so desperate for education as well. When they saw the boys progressing, the parents wanted the same for their girls as well. And they can see that this is going to change the future of their community. It’s going to progress them economically and in every way and they can see a brighter future because of our school.”
Q. We spend so much money, and I say we, meaning the U.S., the U.K., all the major countries spend so much money on war and weapons and fighting. Wouldn’t it be better to spend it on schools?
“A 110% yes. It’s undoubtedly that war is not the way. When has war ever been beneficial, apart from for those who come in after the destruction and make money from rebuilding and claiming the resources?”
Q. What would you say to some of these world leaders to get them to give you your funds to finish your school?
“I would bring it back to basics and remind them that they have children for whom they want a future as well. It’s pretty basic stuff. It’s difficult for people like us to understand the thinking behind war. It’s obviously all about money and egos and those sort of things that drive these people in power. People who have experienced tragedy – before Halimah passed away, I had a couple of friends who’d lost very close members of their family, children or siblings – there is a certain richness to them that I was kind of envious of because there was a wisdom about them I didn’t have. There was some lack of understanding in me that they had that I didn’t. I never said that to anyone before. Maybe some of these people in power haven’t had that jolt, they haven’t had that experience of being leveled to the ground that gives them that clarity that you need. When you’ve had that, you see the world in a very different way. All these peripheral things just get stripped away and you’re left with what’s important and you have a much stronger focus. I know Sam [Dr. Sam Collins, Aspire’s Founder and CEO] is one of those people because of what she’s experienced. She describes it in her book.
It’s a very similar thing. It’s that clarity, a kind of foresight and a much more lateral way of thinking that is more about focusing on others if you want to be successful. It’s a very simple formula. And I find that in my business because after The Halimah Trust, we started Gift Wellness.”
Q. You started the business, Gift Wellness Ltd. at the same time?
“After we inaugurated the school in April 2011, I was on my way back from Pakistan after opening this amazing school and meeting these girls for the first time and getting the school started. I was in the airport lounge, waiting for my flight back and I picked up a magazine and read an article. Around that time, I was thinking ‘Ok, we’ve reached this milestone’ and it felt like it was time for me to get back to work in some way and resume some sort of career. I knew I’d never work for anyone again because I was a different person now. I thought if I could find a product that I could bring to market that we could link to the charity in some way then that would be ideal. I was willing to sell any kind of widgets or anything to support the charity. I knew that’s what would motivate me. So, I was reading this article and it was about women in refugee camps who had to tear strips off the bottoms of their dresses, their abayas, to roll up and use as makeshift sanitary pads and all the other difficulties they face from being abused and having to exchange sexual favors in exchange for food for their kids. And on top of the horrific things that they had to face they’re going to have their period and when it’s going to come, it’s going to come and there’s nothing to stop it. What are they supposed to do? That immediately hit me. I was sitting in that airport lounge visualizing giving sanitary pads to those women myself and that’s where Gift Wellness, the business and the idea of giving sanitary pads products was born. When I came back, I started researching it. I knew it had to be one of those triple bottom line businesses that care about people, the planet and then is driven by profit. Those are the business that will succeed in the future. If they’re only profit focused, there’s no substance to keep them afloat.”
Halimah & Dr Zareen Roohi Ahmed | Photo Courtesy of Dr Zareen Roohi Ahmed
Halimah School of Excellence Being Built in Pakistan | Photo Courtesy The Halimah Trust YouTube
Q. Would you say that your life is completely different than you thought it would turn out since the loss of your daughter?
“My life is what it was supposed to be. The things I’m doing now are the things I imagined myself doing when I was a child, as I was growing up, when I was a student. The things I really wanted to do, those are things I’m doing now without the materialistic baggage that became habitual with leading a normal Western life, that comes with being brought up in Britain. What Halimah’s passing did was bring me back to basics and back to my true self.”
Q. How is the rest of your family: your son, your husband?
“They’re fantastic. My son has grown — he had to become a man very quickly – when Halimah passed away he was 17, she was 19 — he got it straight away. It was after that we really saw his realization of his faith and his belief in God. And he’s been our backbone. He’s the one that, when I do have down days, which I do, especially around special occasions and when I see her friends getting married and having children and I feel that I’ve missed out on things, he reminds me that ‘Mom, she’s the lucky one, because if she’d been here, she’d be struggling away in some job, slowly working her way up as one individual doing what she could. But look around, she has an army of people doing her work right now. Look at what she’s achieved, more than she could have ever dreamed of if she was here.’
Also, in our faith, we believe, and I believe it now more than ever, we’re not allowed to say martyrs are dead, because she was murdered – when your life is taken in that way, you basically go straight to heaven. You have a higher status in heaven and you are more powerful than you ever were as living person in the world. That’s very clear to us now because she is more powerful, more alive now than she ever was. He reminds me of these things. I’ve never seen Faizaan, everyone calls him Fez, I’ve never seen him angry. He’s a personal trainer, a kind of holistic personal trainer. He helps people to improve their health and their fitness. He’s so positive, everybody loves him. He’s now married with two children. We have a saying in our culture, ‘May your children be the coolness of your eyes,’ and he is the coolness of our eyes.”
Q. What would you say to others who have experienced tragedy and have not been able to find any light, who are still struggling?
“You have to find your true purpose. The best way is to focus on helping others and while you’re doing it, you’ll will find that place in yourself, you’ll find happiness and contentment. The best healing, the cure for anything is to help others, to do charity work. If you’re helping others, like Sam does, she helps women out of such turmoil and distress and pulls them into happiness. It’s such a blessing. You’ll find that if you focus on helping others, straight away, even if you do it in a way that you tell yourself it’s just a survival strategy… as it was for us. We told ourselves, ‘We will do this in memory of Halimah, we will do this for her, in her name. So they start off doing that and before they know it, it’s giving back to them, it’s energizing them and helping them to channel their negative energy, their sorrow, their sadness, their grief. If they channel all that negative energy and turn it into positive energy, they will be pouring that positive energy into others. They will find that richness that I was talking about, they will have it, there’s no way they can’t have it.”
Q. Tell me about the College’s grand opening?
“We’re going to open our doors on the 3rd of April. In Pakistan, the Chief Minister of Punjab is coming, the Education Minister and various other dignitaries and the parents of some of the girls. The first class of college girls will be around 300 because there are girls coming from other regions where there’s no college as well. We have some fantastic teachers, We’re very selective and they’re fully trained. But it’s not just about teaching. It’s about caring for these girls. When you visit our school, you can’t tell who is an orphan and who isn’t. They’re all the same. They’re like sisters and that’s reflected in the work we are doing with Gift Wellness as well. It’s the kind of atmosphere we are trying to create with the period poverty campaign. The aim is to eliminate period poverty in the U.K. in schools to begin with. We’ve now set it up as a Foundation, if you go to periodpoverty.uk you can actually donate towards the period poverty campaign as well because now I’m enabling others to get involved as well.”
Gift Wellness Ltd: https://giftwellness.co.uk
The Halimah Trust: https://www.halimahtrust.org.uk/
* Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
Zareen with Older Pupils | Photo Courtesy of Dr Zareen Roohi Ahmed
Dr Zareen Roohi Ahmed | Photo Courtesy of Dr Zareen Roohi Ahmed
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