In northern Pakistan sits the Swat Valley, a remote and mountainous region consisting of thousands of men, women and children.
In 2008, this area of Pakistan was taken over by the Taliban, who placed restrictions on thousands that lived under their control.
Pakistan’s army would respond a year later to force the Taliban out. The conflict would end up displacing millions, as the army gained ground in 2009.
Pennington resident Zebunisa Jilani did not sit by.
She acted when people she knew in Swat Valley contacted her about the desperate situation with refugees. With the help of her late husband Arshad Jilani, they founded the Swat Relief Initiative (SRI) in 2010; a non-profit organization dedicated to aiding women and children in the Swat Valley.
“Even though I was already doing this on a personal basis. I felt like I needed to do something bigger for the people of the Swat Valley,” Jilani said. “Once the refugees were allowed to go back to Swat. There were a lot of nonprofits, but they were giving handouts. I said that we should do something different. We started a holistic program for women and children, because they were the most affected by Taliban rule.”
She added that the holistic approach would help people become self sufficient and do things for themselves.
“We have made a lot of progress and this is thanks to the local New jersey communities that have helped us and continue to do so. We started at a time when the Taliban took over the Swat Valley,” Jilani said. “We have achieved a lot since then.”
SRI is designed to provide educational programs fostering education, healthcare and development.
There are five areas and categories that SRI targets.
Social mobilization or community development, the organization has a democratic process in the villages that the organization works in that identifies all the activists in the area. With the help of the activists they start organizing the community.
“We form a block of 10 households, they come out and have meetings discussing any problems. Then they elect a representative advisor, each block of 10 houses,” Jilani said. “After another process of electing representative leadership, SRI helps with training on how to be viable organization.”
The rest of the areas include education, preventative healthcare, a program on economic independence for women; consisting of skills training centers to give them the basics on how to even start their own business, and have environmental programs focused on cleanliness and clean water.
SRI operates within 16 villages, with a total population of some 30,000 people, in the Swat Valley, according to Jilani.
The organization has also constructed 10 schools in Swat – six of them specifically for girls.
“Since our education program began in 2015, we have enrolled about 7,200 children into school. We concentrate on areas and communities that do not have schools,” Jilani said.
Jilani’s connection to the Swat Valley is not random, as she a granddaughter of royal descent to the last royal leader of the Swat Valley; Miangul Abdul Haq Jahanzeb – the Wali, or absolute monarch, of Swat.
The Swat would have its own sovereignty until 1969, as the area would hand over its sovereignty to the Pakistan government.
“He had free education and free health care. He created a road system and justice system in the Swat,” Jilani said. “This was a tribal area that had nothing. It was outside the realm of the government of Pakistan. My grandfather helped bring tribes together.”
Swat Valley also has a connection to Pakistani education activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. The activist at the age of 14 survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban after fighting for girls to be allowed to receive education.
SRI has an annual budget of $100,000, according to Jilani.
“100% goes to the programs for women and children,” Jilani said.
To help aid the organization’s efforts, a benefit concert is being held at Hopewell Valley Central High School called “Across the Universe.”
American pianist and Pennington resident Meral Guneyman will be performing on Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
“We hope people help us continue to educate and support the women and children in the Swat Valley,” Jilani said.
For more information on the concert or SRI, visit www.swatreliefinitiative.org.