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Third Annual Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program

Introduction:  

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.

Above:(left to right) Simone Williams, Ella Bjurman, SAPAC President Maqbool Halepota, Dustin Ruhe, and Executive Director Fati Gul have lunch to prepare for the Sindhi American  Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program.
Above:(left to right) Simone Williams, Ella Bjurman, SAPAC President Maqbool Halepota, Dustin Ruhe, and Executive Director Fati Gul have lunch to prepare for the Sindhi American  Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program.

Participants:    

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.

Above: (left to right) participant Leena Rijihwani, Executive Director Fati Gul, Dustin  Ruhe, Ella Bjurman, and Simone Williams take a picture in front of Cannon House Office Building before attending meetings on Wednesday, July 12th.    
Above: (left to right) participant Leena Rijihwani, Executive Director Fati Gul, Dustin
 Ruhe, Ella Bjurman, and Simone Williams take a picture in front of Cannon House Office Building before attending meetings on Wednesday, July 12th.
 
Above: (left to right) participants Dr. Aziz Soomro, Zulfiqar Soomro, Executive Director Fati Gul, Ella Bjurman, and Simone Williams take a picture inside of  Hart  Senate Office Building  before attending meetings on Thursday, July 13th.    
Above: (left to right) participants Dr. Aziz Soomro, Zulfiqar Soomro, Executive Director Fati Gul, Ella Bjurman, and Simone Williams take a picture inside of  Hart
 Senate Office Building
 before attending meetings on Thursday, July 13th.

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.

Above: the SAPAC team takes a picture following their productive meeting with Rep. Adam Schiff (center) inside his office  in Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday, July 13th.
Above: the SAPAC team takes a picture following their productive meeting with Rep. Adam Schiff (center) inside his office  in Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday, July 13th.

 

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.
Our  Goals:  
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.
Reflections:  
Dustin  Ruhe:  

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.

Ella  Bjurman:    

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.

 

Simone  Williams:    

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.

Conclusion:  
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.

Above: the SAPAC  team concludes  the Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program by taking a tour of theU.S.  Capitol  
Above: the SAPAC  team concludes  the Sindhi American Youth Advocacy and Leadership Program by taking a tour of the U.S.  Capitol

 

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