Address by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Recipient of the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Academy Award and the Emmy Award

Thank you Provost Moran. 

President Rasul, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and the graduating class of 2014. 

Congratulations on successfully graduating another class from the best medical, nursing and educational university in the country and thank you for bestowing this honour on me. 

Today we have a chance to celebrate your accomplishements and achievements but tomorrow in every sense, your real life begins. You have a chance to author your own destiny. 

What choices will you make? 

Will you follow your passion? Will you choose to be different? Will you, in the face of adversity, make the right decisions? And will you dare to take chances, dare to speak out and dare to be heard?

Today, I want to speak to you about these choices. 

I have always been stubborn about the choices I have made in life because I know the choices we make have a way of defining us. 

I began writing for newspapers when I was 14 years old but it wasn’t till I was 20 that I began writing investigative pieces. 

I remember one particular piece, it was Baqra Eid and I had written the cover story for Dawn newspaper’s Review magazine naming and shaming the teenagers who had access to ammunition and who routinely harassed and terrorized their peers by kidnapping them, shaving their heads and holding them hostage. 

It was early in the morning when my father went off to say his prayers. I was busy getting things organized as we all do on Eid, when I heard his booming voice echo through the house. My name had been spray painted across many neighborhoods in and around my house to shame my family. The boys I wrote about wanted to teach me a lesson. I was almost convinced that my father, who was a traditional man by many standards, would forbid me from ever shaking the status quo again. But instead he rounded up close friends and family and had the walls white washed. Then he looked at me and said, if you speak the truth I will stand with you and so will the world. 

Speaking out and asking difficult questions is never easy. This is the lesson I learnt but I walked away that day making an important choice:

To continue to speak out.

Growing up in Pakistan in the 1990’s I always searched for our roots. Who are we? Where do we come from? What were the choices our grandparents made that landed us here?

In 2007 I helped co-found the Citizens Archive of Pakistan. The aim of which is to record the memories of the very first Pakistanis: 

I would like you to hear the words of Zafar Hillali: 

“My father adored Jinnah in fact he came to Pakistan because of him, there was no need for him to come to Pakistan or his brother they were both Indian civil servants which was the cream of the cream. My father left his houses and his life in Bangalore in return for a small house in Karachi because he had a dream.”

He like most of our grandparents chose a life of service and adventure. They left their careers, their homes; the life they knew, for a new country. A country whose ideals they believed in and a country they knew they had to fight for. 

Please take a minute to reflect on the difference between that moment in time and now. 

Now, we leave this very country for greener pastures in search of security and material gain. I know the thought of leaving Pakistan has crossed some of your minds. While you must travel and learn about the world if you get the opportunity, remember that this country needs you – so do come back. 

As you graduate today, you will all have the same choice – to choose a life of ease, or a life of service? 

This is a choice none of us wish we had to make but circumstances require us to and before you must make that decision. When you do think about 2005 and 2010, two years I feel have defined Pakistan in the recent past; 2005 the year Pakistan was rocked by an earthquake and 2010 when a large portion of our country was submerged under water due to flooding. 

Do you remember how doctors from inside and outside this country left everything to save the lives of those who needed them the most – that feeling of rallying together, to do whatever one could. These doctors left the comfort of their homes and their families to live in tents and sleep on the side of roads – they did it because they believed in their mission. 

I have always wondered why we Pakistanis band together when natural calamities hit the country – if we were to treat every single day as a natural calamity and work on an emergency footing, where would we be today?

Make the choice that Zaffar Hillali’s family and the doctors in 2005 and 2010 did: 

To continue to serve against all odds.

In 2002, I became a documentary filmmaker after having studied economics and political science in college. I knew that was my calling. Pakistan only had one state owned television channel back then, so I wrote up a proposal for my film and sent it to 80 television channels and production houses around the world. 

I waited for them to respond. The brutal rejection letters followed. I fought back tears, disappointment and heart ache.

I couldn’t understand why anyone didn’t want to fund the first film of a 21 year old Pakistani woman who didn’t even know how to hold a camera and who had not studied film at all! Clearly people were more pragmatic than I gave them credit for. 

I persisted. One day, I wrote to the president of New York Times Television an unsolicited email along with my proposal. I received a response finally! I was invited to make my pitch in person! Soon afterwards I found myself in front of seasoned filmmakers and journalists making a presentation. My project was approved and I was given training to go off to make my film. 

My 81st attempt had been successful! The choice I had was simple give up or to be relentless in pursuit of my passion! 

You will find that the school of hard knocks which is also real life, has many twists and turns – there will be moments when giving up will seem like the right thing to do; when you may find your situation hopeless. 

Make the choice: be relentless. 

You will walk away from life without regrets if you do –

In 2008, I travelled across Swat, Bajaur and the tribal belt to explore how children were being brainwashed and coerced into become suicide bombers. This was a subject no one wanted to discuss. As a nation we shy away from certain topics and hope that somehow go away if we sweep them under the carpet. 

What i found astonished me. Children as young as 10, separated from their families, fed a steady diet of hate were being prepared literally to be human bombs for no fault of theirs. 

The film i ended up making opened the eyes of many but at the same time attracted the wrath of others, who didn’t want these issues explored. Sometimes the criticism was deafening – 

But then I had a choice:

Wane under the criticism or follow my conviction? 

You too will find yourself at a cross roads in life occasionally. Choose wisely and always have a thick skin. If you believe in what you do, the voices around you will dim. 

My film was later used by many to argue for the need to set up a rehabilitation school for these young people. 

Make the choice: follow your conviction.

In 2011, I was working in Moach Goth near Lyari, profiling the work of a bright young woman named Humaira Bachal. She and her friends were teaching 1,200 children in three rooms, in three shifts; dimly lit rooms where the roof leaked, the books were few and far between, but the smiles on their faces were infectious.

Humaira had a simple wish: she wanted to create a world class school in her slum. She had grown up looking at these children and realizing that they needed more opportunities than she had.  I watched her in awe as gangs and drugs infested her neighborhood. I documented her struggle and the way her community was cynical of her struggle and her belief which was: “education for all”. I watched as they rebuked her, called her family names and told her that her wish could not come true.

Humaira faced a choice: to be a cynic or to be a leader.

A few months ago, her three story state of the art school opened – as parents walked through the school in awe they smiled and commented: Humaira had made their wishes come true. The very same cynics had been converted into believers.

It’s almost too easy to be a cynic in Pakistan.

Make the choice humaira did: be a leader. 

Earlier this year, I began working on a series of short documentary films titled I Heart Karachi profiling the work of those Karachites who risk their lives every day to keep us all safe. 

One morning I found myself accompanying two dozen lady health workers in Landhi as they launched a polio drive in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. They had recently lost two of their colleagues who had been brutally gunned down but their in-charge, Naseem Akhtar was determined to vaccinate all the children in the neighborhood.

Flanked by dozens of armed policemen and rangers we set off on foot knocking on doors and filming the brave women as they convinced families that vaccinations were essential. 

Naseem Akhtar had left her own three children at home, they were all nervous about her job but supported her mission to make Pakistan a polio free country. Naseem risked her life, not for material gain for lady health workers make a mere 250 rupees a day but because she didn’t want to see a crippled Pakistan. 

“I have a choice she told me:  I can be compassionate and make people understand why they have to vaccinate or i can sit at home thinking my work is done because my children have been vaccinated.”

Naseem chose to risk her life to make other people’s lives better.

I hope that you will all choose the same path she did: to make other people’s lives better.

Unfortunately Naseem Akhtar was killed a few months ago. 

AKU is a microcosm of Pakistan. Here, like the country, everyone is probably guilty of stereotyping and holding grudges. Stereotypes about that girl from Lahore or that boy from Quetta, we judge people on what they wear, their accents, what community they belong to. But I sincerely hope that as you were at this University you were forced to form study groups, cram for exams and when you sat together you realized that you are all the same that the ethnic and religious difference that plague Pakistan melt away inside the wall of this University. 

You are all here for the very same reason. You want to make something of yourself. And for many, you want to make something of your country. 

Treat your future coworkers with the same kindness and respect that you treated your fellow students, and then someday your subordinates as you head your own organizations. 

Extend the commune that you share with your graduating class with the wider Pakistan. They need you.

As you leave today and embark on the rest of your lives I wish you the best of luck. You are the future of this country and the decisions you make will affect us all.

I hope that you will come back to your alma mater one day and reflect upon your life and what you have done with your talent and energy. I hope you will not rely on your professional accomplishments alone but also on the choices you have made in life. On how you have chosen to relentlessly speak out, serve against the odds, followed your conviction, impacted other people’s lives better and be the leader everyone hoped you would be. 

Thank you.

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