Iqra Fund brings health, education and scholarships to rural communities

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

In Arabic, Iqra means read.

It’s the first word of the Koran, and it has great power in the Muslim world.

When Genevieve Chabot was working as international program manager for the Bozeman-based Central Asia Institute in 2007, she visited Azad Kashmir, Pakistan in the aftermath of an earthquake that killed 80,000.

One of the first people she met was a 13-year-old girl named Iqra. The girl’s siblings and mother, a teacher, had all died when the earthquake collapsed their school. Iqra was outside when it hit, and she and her father were the family’s only survivors.

Iqra’s father told Genevieve that he and his wife named their daughter because they knew she was going to be the change the community needed. Her education was the way to create that change.

“He believed in that. He wanted to see her be able to go to school and come back and serve the community in whatever way she was meant to,” Genevieve said.

During her primary schooling, Iqra was a dedicated student. She dreamed of becoming a doctor for her community. When Genevieve started CAI’s scholarship program a year later, Iqra was one of its first recipients.

In a larger sense, the word Iqra means “everyone should have this education,” Genevieve says. “Everyone should be literate.”

Genevieve and her husband Doug have committed much of their lives to Pakistan beyond the three years they worked for CAI.

Through Montana State University, Genevieve completed her doctorate in Education, Curriculum and Instruction, focusing on international development, girls’ education, community development and rural school development in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She’s also an adjunct professor at MSU, teaching and developing courses in social justice and international development in remote mountainous countries.

Doug, a Forest Service avalanche forecaster in Bozeman, has taken six climbing expeditions into the Karakoram, Himalaya and Hindu Kush of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His expeditions hired local cooks, porters and liaison officers, and Doug found they were kind, generous people. And it became evident to him they needed help.

“Here we were in these stunning valleys with huge peaks, yet the population was destitute,” he said. “They have no agriculture, money or education, and they’re far from cities…Like anyone in the world, they wanted a better life for their kids.”

The Chabots saw that in school, kids learn to read, write and do math, but they also learn basic things like hygiene. Learning to wash your hands and not go to the bathroom in the water supply might seem basic, Doug says, but people have to learn them somewhere.

Basic literacy and math skills allow adult women to coordinate business deals in the market, read signs to find the medical clinic, read information on how to better care for crops and livestock, and help children with schoolwork. Plus, an educated mother is more apt to have her kids go to school.

“So many women want to know how to read and write their names,” Genevieve said. “So much pride comes with [that].”

Tphoto courtesy of Iqra Fund, Traditional Moroccan midwife surrounded by other women

When the Chabots left CAI in 2010, they didn’t want to leave behind the work. So, they founded the Iqra Fund in summer 2011. Incorporated as a nonprofit this August, it works with local associations in northern Pakistan and northern Morocco.

“The initiatives were what we felt strongly about, not the bricks and mortar,” Genevieve said of their previous work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Although building schools was positive, it was expensive. And when communities lacked health care workers or teachers who spoke the local dialect, the buildings sat empty.

“I look at a school that costs $80,000 to build, and think about the impact that money could have in programs,” Genevieve says.

In northern Pakistan, a scholarship to send a girl to high school is less than $1,000 a year. Rural midwife training, plus birthing kits, costs the same.

Iqra Fund invests in three areas of focus:

– Community health, through health workshops and training traditional midwives

– Community education, through tutoring programs for school children, adult
literacy, math and vocational training, and providing community libraries with
resources

– Scholarships

These were the most effective way the Chabots saw to invest in social change, to lower infant and maternal mortality, and to increase opportunity for women and girls.

“That’s what they’re going to pass on to the next generation,” Genevieve said.

photo courtesy of Iqra Fund, First grade girls in Pakistan

The two regions where Iqra Fund works are on separate continents, have different cultures and languages, and are more than 2,000 miles apart.

But they have parallels. They’re both home to tribal communities that are culturally, socially and geographically isolated from the rest of the nation. They also have high infant and maternal mortality rates, and almost no literacy.

And, Iqra Fund is already connected with local associations in both countries. To accomplish sustainable long-term development, you need to invest in the leadership, Genevieve said. That way, it can oversee and continue to invest in the community.

In Morocco, Iqra Fund has partnered with the Atlas Cultural Foundation, which is run by Cloe Erickson, a Montanan who splits her time between Livingston and Morocco. By partnering with Atlas and its local partners, Iqra can get programs in gear right away.

Altas has the capability to implement these programs, Erickson said, because it’s been on the ground for almost six years. “We already have the local contacts, the relationship with government agencies, and the trust of local people.”

“What Iqra is able to provide for [us] is their expertise in creating the programming in both the health and education programs,” Erickson said. “It’s perfect for us. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel on stuff they already know how to do.”

Funding and coordinating a midwife training in a Berber tribal area there this spring will be Iqra’s first project. It’s also committed to provide 10 scholarships for middle and high school girls there.

Also in Morocco this spring, Iqra Fund will work with an MSU study abroad program that Erickson helps organize, bringing community health nursing, pre-medical and education students to volunteer with health workshops and tutoring programs.

In Pakistan, Iqra Fund is working with a community group called the Hushe Welfare Development Organization. That group services the Hushe Valley, which is the gateway into the Karakorum Mountains, home to the world famous peak, K2. The area has no electricity and very few schools.

On a trip there this January, Genevieve will work with the association to identify the number of girls applying for scholarships for Pakistan in the coming year. She imagines it will likely be around 10.

Through these connections, Iqra Fund has the capacity to reach 15,000 people in Morocco, and 11,000 in Pakistan.

But it’ll need help paying for it. The goal is to raise $250,000 in 2012. So far, help has come from local donors, friends and colleagues around the country. Plus, Genevieve has family members working in venture capital and at Google who’ve offered support.

This fall, the Chabots worked in the U.S. to build Iqra into a “solid organization with a strong board of directors and a high level of transparency.”

Now they’re growing relationships and programs in the field. Genevieve plans to spend six months each year in Pakistan and Morocco. Doug will work three to four.

“It works well to develop close relationships with the communities to know how to best serve them,” said Genevieve, who will head to Pakistan in late January for three weeks. She said she’s thrilled to reconnect with friends she made during her tenure with CAI.

“I’m excited to see them, to help them solve problems, and provide them with resources that change their lives. It’s not [like] I’m going in and fixing things for them. We truly are friends.”