Inspiring Youth Change the World
Guest Written by Maria
Inspirational education programs like Asante Africa Foundation’s Leadership & Entrepreneurship Incubator (LEI) Program and the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program teach women and youth to self-advocate and make changes that improve their lives and the lives of others. These programs teach practical skills such as community leadership, problem solving and entrepreneurship. Maria is a young Pakistani woman whose life was changed by YES programs. Here is her story in her own words:
My name is Maria Taqdees.The Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program provided an unforgettable turning point to my life and helped me become who I am today. I am part of a hardcore conservative Pakistani tribal group with rigid cultural concepts about gender roles and discrimination. I grew up with considerable hardships in a challenging environment. In my community, women are not allowed to partake in sociocultural activities.
In 2004, I had the opportunity to participate in the YES program which gave me hope and a way to explore the world and change my narrative to one of women empowerment, diversity, peace and acceptance. During my exchange tenure, I was able to experience religions outside of Islam because my host family included a Jewish father and Christian mother. They inspired me to volunteer 20 hours in their community church, where I joined the youth club.
Upon my return to Pakistan, at age 17, I was married off and brought to one of the most underdeveloped areas of Pakistan. With zero financial and emotional support, I was left with just the skills that I acquired from YES. I learned that “when life throws lemons at you, you make lemonade.” This helped me survive during the worst days of life.
I always dreamed of empowering women and youth, who are the most vulnerable and easy targets of manipulation, abuse and violence. Upon completing my degree in education from University of Karachi, Pakistan, I got licensed in psychotherapy from British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and became a psychotherapist through Counseling and Psychotherapy Central Awarding Body (CPCAB), a UK based institute. I sold everything I owned to buy a computer to start educating women and youth. I founded HunarGhar Welfare Organization, a nonprofit organization that empowers women and youth. I invested in youth around the world to bridge communication and understanding, creating a global village and providing golden opportunities for their lives. Our programs help steer youth in a positive and fruitful direction, giving them a clear vision for their future and a peaceful world. HunarGhar also supports vulnerable and disadvantaged women with financial assistance, vocational training and livelihood support.
As a certified psychotherapist, trainer and youth mentorship officer, I have mentored more than 400 youth from diverse backgrounds on how to respond to violence, trauma, depression and anxiety — teaching them about social enterprise, campaigning and peacemaking.
In appreciation of opportunities I have been fortunate to receive, I paid it forward to my community by facilitating grocery and winter clothing drives for people in underprivileged areas of Pakistan. Last year, I started the Adopt-A-Family campaign that raised 2.7MPkr from international donors to support single mothers with 5000Pkr to 15000Pkr to pay their rent, buy medicine and pay their children’s school fees. We currently sponsor 50 families monthly and have helped 60 skilled women to start businesses through fundraising and small grant programs.
In 2019, I was awarded the Lincoln Corners Pakistan humanitarian award, given by the US embassy, for my service to the community. I was also presented with the Pride of Pakistan award.
Currently, I am working as lead trainer and mentorship officer for AzmeNaujawan, a USAID funded program. I train youth between age 14 to 25 in personal and professional development and entrepreneurship. My organization, HunarGhar, has been part of several legislation processes for women and transgenders. It is specifically working for the community of underprivileged areas of Karachi in Pakistan. We have helped around 1000 women and 400 youth with citizen journalism, entrepreneurship training, theatre, kitchen gardening and other training programs.
My experiences taught me that there is no religion greater than humanity and no act better than kindness. There is no better time than now to start what you aspire to do in your life. This is your time. This is your platform, and you can start making change right now, right where you are. Never give up hope. Keep living because there is so much to see in life. Keep searching and you will find what is best for you.
Learn more about how you can support youth around the globe through Asante Africa Foundation’s programs such as the LEI program, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on all we do in East Africa.