From July 11th to July 14th SAPAC hosted its Third Annual Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program. The program’s seven participants attended 77 meetings between July 12th and July 13th. In these meetings we discussed with the offices of Senators and Representatives about the most pressing issues occurring in Sindh, Pakistan. The goal of these meetings was to raise awareness of Sindh issues, and gain support for a dear colleague letter and the Congressional Sindh Caucus.
To attend all 77 meetings between two days we had to separate into four separate groups, led by Fati Gul, Dustin Ruhe, Ella Bjurman, and Simone Williams. On Wednesday July 12th, Leena Rijhwani, a Sindhi American student at Boston College, joined us. Leena expressed that she was excited to take part in this year’s program since she has always been passionate about Sindhi issues, as Sindhi was her first language. On Thursday July 13th, we were joined by Dr. Aziz Soomro and his son Zulfiqar Soomro, he will be starting at attending the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering this fall. During the meetings both Leena and Zulfiqar did a fantastic job and provided valuable, firsthand experience of life as a Sindhi American.
Who We Met With:
During the Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program, the participants met with the offices of over 77 Representatives and Senators. We focused on arranging meetings with members of Congress that sit on committees related to Pakistan and Human Rights, such as, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Additionally, we focused on meeting with members of the Sindh Caucus, as they are already sympathetic of the Sindhi cause. Often, we met with the foreign affairs aides who are a key part of deciding the foreign policy of these Senators and Representatives The members of Congress that we did meet with met with directly included Chairman of the Sindh Caucus Rep. Brad Sherman (D-‐CA), founding member of the Sindh Caucus Rep. Adam Schiff (D-‐CA), Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-‐IL), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-‐IL), Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-‐IL), and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-‐MD). We also met with the office of influential members of Congress, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-‐KY) and Sen. Johnny Isackson Chairman of the Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations, and Bilateral International Development.
What We Discussed:
During these meetings, we discussed with the Congressional offices the most pressing issues occurring in Sindh and the ways they are affecting their constituents who are Sindhi American. We stressed that many Sindhi Americans still have relatives in Sindh and hope to see their relatives live safely. Yet, oftentimes Americans’ tax dollars going to Pakistan is being misappropriated.
The focal point of this year’s Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program was the enforced disappearances of Sindhi activists, who speak for the freedom and rights of Sindhi people. These activists have been organizing marches and hunger strikes to bring attention to the forced conversions, religious extremism, and other human rights abuses occurring in Sindh. The risk these activists face is their enforced disappearances by the Pakistani establishment. The establishment kidnaps Sindhi activists without due cause, imprison and torture them and often brutally murder them. At present, a total of 437 victims of extrajudicial killings have been reported in Sindh. We provided each Congressional office that we met with a list of Sindhi activists who are the victims of enforced disappearances, so they could better understand the magnitude of the situation.
We also emphasized in our meetings the religious extremism occurring in the Sindh province. Religious extremism is a growing threat to Sindh, as the province is home to the largest population of religious minorities, such as Christians, Hindus and Sufis, in Pakistan. The reason for the large concentration of religious minorities in Sindh is because the region has historically been a place where people of all faiths were welcome. Yet, it is precisely this image that has motivated religious extremist groups to attack these religious minorities. For instance, in an attack on a Sufi shrine in February of 2017, a suicide bomber linked to the Islamic State killed more than 72 people and injured over 250 more. Even after these travesties, Pakistan has yet to take definitive action to stop these attacks from happening.
A particular form of this religious extremism that we discussed with Congress is the forced conversions in Sindh. According to reports by France 24, every year over 1,000 Sindhi girls of a minority religion face forced conversions. The procedure for these forced conversions is relatively standard. A Sindhi girl between 12 to 25 years of age is kidnapped, and taken to a law office where they are forced to sign a conversion certificate and marriage certificate at the same time under the threat of violence. After being married off, Sindhi girls live their life with their new husband where they face domestic abuse, rape, and possibly being sold into prostitution. Only a few girls escape each year. The Pakistani government has made very few efforts to solve this issue. One attempt to curtail this problem was to make it illegal for anyone to convert to another religion before the age of 18. However, this accomplished nothing, as the perpetrators of these forced conversions have circumvented this measure by falsifying birth certificates. The Pakistani government needs to pursue more legally binding action to protect these Sindhi girls.
Enforced disappearances, religious extremism, and forced conversions were the three main issues that we brought up in every meeting, however we also discussed other issues such as the electric outages and limited access to education and healthcare in Sindh. We chose to focus on a few key topics, to best utilize the time we had with the Congressional offices.
The main goal of the Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program is to educate the members of Congress about issues pertinent to the Sindhi people. Only about 10% of the people that we met with were aware of the problems occurring in Sindh. By starting a dialogue with Congress we can start making real policy changes to benefit Sindh, particularly through the Congressional Sindh Caucus.
There are 535 members of Congress not including non-‐voting members, so we could not meet and inform them all. To extend the information to other members of Congress we decided to make a dear colleague letter to send to Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. A dear colleague letter is a letter that is sent through Congress and if a member of Congress agrees with what the letter states then they sign it. We are using this letter to provide information on the human rights violations in Sindh, so that the members of Congress who that receive it will become better informed, as well as the State Department, which helps set and carry out foreign policy. Chairman of the Sindh Caucus Brad Sherman’s office is helping SAPAC put this letter together and have expressed interest in circulating the letter throughout Congress. In our meetings, we discussed the dear colleague letter to start gaining support for it.
When we met with members of the House of Representatives we also discussed them joining the Congressional Sindh Caucus. The caucus’ goal is to raise awareness of issues related to Sindh in the House of Representatives. Chairman of the Sindh Caucus, Brad Sherman got the Voice of America Sindhi passed that requires Voice of America programming to be provided in Sindhi. The goal of this is to help preserve the Sindhi language and culture. The more members that join this caucus the more that it can accomplish.
Going into the Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program I was nervous to say the least. I had never been in a Congressional meeting, yet most of my meetings including the first one with Senator Warner’s office I had to do alone. My meetings still went well despite a lack of experience. These meetings I focused on religious extremism and forced conversions and how those lead to Sindhi activists speaking out and for that they are forced to disappear. The two best meetings I had during the program were with Senator Chris Coons office (D-‐DE) and Congressman Darren Soto (D-‐FL-‐9). I felt that these meetings the people I met with were interested in what I was saying, and they were looking forward to me sending them the dear colleague letter. I also had the pleasure of Leena Rijhwani’s assistance for half of my meetings on Wednesday the 12th. We had around 6 meetings together and they all went great. Before this internship I had thought of doing advocacy work as a career, and after the program I am almost positive that this is the type of work I want to do. Overall this program has given me a taste of what I hope to do in the future, greatly improved my ability to inform in a meeting setting, and it was certainly an enjoyable experience.
In the days leading up to the Youth Advocacy an Leadership Program I was feeling a bevy of different emotions. As my first foray into advocacy I felt nervous, especially since I was by myself for most of my meetings. Yet, I was also eager to raise awareness about the issues affecting Sindh. The meet and greet on Tuesday the 11th was a great way to kick-‐start our week of advocacy and served as a wonderful opportunity to get to know our amazing participants Leena Rijhjwani, Zulifqar Soomro and his father Dr. Aziz Soomro.
I was lucky enough that my first meeting on Wednesday the 12th was with Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-‐IL). My meeting with Congressman Krishnamoorthi was one of the highlights of my week, as he genuinely took an interest in what we had to say. In particular, the Congressman was eager to know more about SAPAC as a whole, and was specially interested in learning about the issue of forced conversions in Sindh, asking our Executive Director, Fati Gul very insightful questions. In fact, I feel that my most productive meetings were the ones where I was able to share in a meaningful dialogue with people about Sindh, such as when I met with the offices of Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-‐MI), Congressman Ami Bera (D-‐CA), and Senator Joe Manchin (D-‐WV). Overall, what I enjoyed about every meeting was the opportunity to educate our nation’s lawmakers about Sindh. This invaluable experience and my internship with SAPAC have further solidified my desire to pursue a career in advocacy.
I was nervous during my participation in the Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program. This was my first time participating in Congressional meetings, and I did quite a few of those meeting alone. My meetings went well despite my lack of experience and in these meetings, we discussed enforced disappearances, religious extremism, the forced conversions of Sindhi girls and the misallocation of USAID. A few of my favorite meetings I participated in during the program were with Congressman Jaimie Raskin (D-‐MD), Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office (D-‐CA), and Congressman Trent Franks’ office (R-‐AZ). I felt that in these meetings the people I met with were interested in what was being said, were looking forward to viewing the dear colleague letter, and a couple of them even expressed interest in the Congressional Sindh Caucus. I also had the pleasure of Dr. Aziz Soomro’s assistance in my meeting with Congressman Raskin on Thursday the 13th. Listening to Dr. Soomro speak with Congressman Raskin about the human rights issues occurring in Sindh was truly an awesome experience.
The Third Annual Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program was a success. With 77 meetings on the Hill we accomplished our goal of making congress more aware. Most of the participants of these meetings expressed interest in the dear colleague letter, and if the letter gets the support in Congress it will be great step forward. The impact of the program was not just felt in Congress, the participants left the program with this new positive experience that provided insight into how the government works and how we can make a difference in the government. Overall, the program was a win-‐win for the participants and the Sindhi Americans, as we helped further their issues in Congress. On a final note, we at SAPAC want to thank the participants, their families, President of SAPAC Dr. Maqbol Halepota, Executive Director of SAPAC Fati Gul, and everyone else that helped to make this program a success for the past three years.