Another article written a while ago – but the concepts are still as refreshing ad relevant even today….

Interview: Profile of Shireen Naqvi

Drive down the Defence Phase II Commercial Area in Karachi, and you come across a small yellow shop with Backerei written on it. It appears like any normal bakery but there is one difference. It is run and managed by hearing impaired youth. Shireen Naqvi, the brain behind this unique concept takes me to the baking quarters at the back. One batch of baking is ready and a shrill timer goes off. I wince as the noise hurts my ears but the young lads there go an as usual as they can’t hear. It is the flashing lights, installed specially for them that gets their attention. Silence, I humbly realize, is a way of life.

This bakery is one of the ventures facilitated by Shireen under the premier umbrella of Extra-Corp – an organization for physically and mentally challenged youth, to set up, own, manage and lead a conglomeration of enterprises to economically empower themselves. This bakery is owned and run by these young hearing impaired entrepreneurs. A qualified German bakery owner came to Pakistan to train these youth in specialized baking and cooking. These youth were also given attitudinal training.

Academically, she is a gold medalist from IBA. Her initial schooling was in Peshawar, coupled with extensive travelling, mostly by road and sea, from Europe to Pakistan. During her bachelors studies in Econometrics, at Kinnaird College, Lahore, she represented Pakistan in Japan on a youth exchange program in 1979.

Shireen also works as a Corporate Trainer, Senior Management Consultant and Facilitator at Navitus, a Training and Consulting Company that works toward developing the human factor. She has worked with a number of local and multinational corporations, NGO’s, and Educational Resource Centres across Pakistan. Her areas of focus are personal social development and visionary leadership.

In 2002, Shireen launched the Young Leaders’ Conference, a 6-day rigorous training program for Pakistani and foreign youth of ages 18 to 24. In 2003, she helped start the School of Leadership, which works to cultivate distinction in the education, social and public sectors. Being a trustee of the School of Leadership Foundation, and representing the Rome based, Intercultural Communication and Leadership School (ICLS), she facilitated inter-ethnic seminars in Bradford and Leicester, UK.

I am curious about this particular interest in youth in general and the hearing impaired youth/physically and mentally challenged youth in particular. “It’s an idea that’s been brewing for quite a few years”, she says. “ It started way back in 1988 when I was engaged in introducing computers in education in Pakistan. This gave me opportunities to teach heads of institutions, their faculty, students and relevant government officials; the use of computers as a tool of learning in education. I recall working with a team of British technologists to create and utilize computerized interfaces for people with various mental and physical disabilities to become normal performing and productive individuals”. Her eyes light up as she talks about that experience. “A little girl worked with this Programme. She took four hours to do a very simple task like placing pictures of objects in a bedroom. But finally she got it. This was a way out, a window as to what could be done for these youth.(something here about using touch screens and use of eyebrows and how entire factories could be run …)

“Try going through a day without speaking. Next day, stuff your ears with earplugs so you may not hear. Now see how you fare” she says “There are people in this world who cannot hear or speak, yet excel in life. They are able to apply their ‘other’ senses, the use of which makes them extraordinary. Those endowed with the ability to hear and speak are ignorant of these ‘other’ senses. They are unable to perceive matter or even space that lies between the lines, that can only be picked up by attunement of senses they are not even aware of and don’t ordinarily use. Developing their extraordinary skills, the training we give them aims to enhance their ability to lead. It is a historically known fact that the ethos of leaders is their capacity to apply their unusual abilities; their intuition or ‘other’ senses. This is the case with these young people. Though they may not be able to speak or hear, they are able to do so much more.”

Amongst her other programmes are ‘Pleasures’ which provides a platform to artists with disability to promote their work and lead an entrepreneurial venture. These youth stitch clothes and manufacture and market block printed and screen printed apparels and other small crafts for sale; and ‘Blaze’ another café cum Sports bar which also provides entrepreneurship opportunities for people with physical and mental disabilities. The staff are trained to provide hygienic fast food snacks and beverages at affordable prices. Although it’s very rewarding working with such youth, it’s also pretty challenging. One reason being that these youth are brought up to be ‘special’ which sometimes has an adverse effect on their personalities. Interestingly, rather than feeling downtrodden some of them may even feel elevated by their physical condition and not want to do tasks that they consider ‘beneath’ them. They also have trust issues and it’s a real task trying to inculcate a sense of ownership in them. But challenging or not, this is one daunting task that Shireen has taken upon herself.

What makes Shireen the way she is? What is her invisible modus operandi that makes her reach out and give back to the community in this way.

‘A lot of questioning,’ she says, for everything that you want in life, ask yourself ‘why’. Each time you get an answer, ask ’Why’ at least five more times , till you reach your intent. If your reasons are material and worldly, then don’t expect any help from God. But if there is an element of khidmat or ibadat then you will get all the help you need. Providence will move in. Not that the path will become any easier. But you will find the strength to transcend the hurt and the pain”

Meditation hasn’t worked for her…as yet. ‘I’m too impatient’, she says. The driving anxiety from within, the constant questioning and constant discontent as to why things are the way they are and more importantly what she can do to change it, somehow in her opinion doesn’t make her an ideal candidate for meditation. Contemplation and reflection are more her cup of tea. This is what helps her access the heart, the core within.

“It’s a materialistic world. We have what is an SMS culture. In my dictionary, that stands for Status, Money and Security. What you really need is a mission and a passion. Scrape the floor if you have to! I lose yourself in my mission and the SMS follows anyway”

Does she ever get depressed. “Oh Yes. It’s not like I’m totally immune to what is happening around me. All the misery and senseless killing certainly gets me down. But my solace is that I’m doing what I can to help. It is passiveness and indifference that creates apathy. And if you look around there is a lot of good work being done in the Private sector and some at the government level too. A lot of vocational institutes provide training for normal and handicapped people. Instead of cribbing, we should think of ways to deal with the situation. It is really very basic positive thinking”.

On a personal level she hit rock bottom when one of the worthwhile causes she was working just wouldn’t see the light of day. In a sheer fit she was almost ready to give up. But she was ‘saved’ by a text message one of her teachers sent her ‘ don’t tell God how big the problem is, tell the problem how big your God is’. So she values the presence of teachers in her life who have guided her on many occasions. But the passing years are creating a surge of independence from her teachers; “why do I need other people to decipher things for me. I feel a need to break free. My source of confidence is within me and all I have to do is tune in and listen, and all the answers are there”

 Lastly, we talk about my favorite ‘Blue Carpet’ topic with her. This topic has come up in many ways in the years I have known Shireen. She talks about transcending the ego and reaching a stage where you may hate the colour blue but because someone you love wants a blue carpet you still go ahead and get the blue carpet. This doesn’t come from a woe-is-me kind of mentality nor is it about ahsann or sacrifice. “Hogwash” she passionately says to all those parental stories about sacrificing for their children. “ It is hogwash that I sacrificed for my children or my husband” I did what I did and do what I do, because I choose to. Letting go, loving and transcending the ego is a choice we can all make. It is the kind of love that Sufis talk about  

I think I now finally get her Blue Carpet theory and feel that knowing Shireen all these years, this is one of the great characteristics that lets her do so much good in the World.   

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