The idea of quitting your job to dedicate yourself to a cause is often romanticised and easier said than done. Especially, when the job one is quitting comes with a six-figure salary and immense career growth. It becomes even harder when the cause requires you to leave a comfortable life in Islamabad and move to Misgar, a beautiful small town without any connection to life outside it, in Gilgit-Baltistan near the Afghanistan-Pakistan-China border.
Indeed, not everyone can do it but that is what’s inspiring about Marvi Soomro, a 26-year-old who actually quit her job as a software engineer and moved to Misgar to teach school children in the valley. Her goal was simple yet powerful; she wanted to empower children and communities at large. She also knew this will be a gradual process and so her first step was to collaborate with a local school to reform education and engage children and adolescents through education and art.
Things changed in the summer of 2016 when she got an opportunity to visit Misgar on a weeklong art residency. Misgar is a small valley with 150 houses where people live in homes made of mud and food is cooked on burning wood. Shepherds run the community and their lifestyle is simple and primitive. The valley has their own powerhouse and they generate their own electricity.
Soomro mentions how Misgar may have a primitive lifestyle but its people are warm and open. “I have never felt like an outsider and I never had to conform in any way. I continued wearing jeans and sweaters and felt as much at home and comfortable as I did in Islamabad,” she shares.
Misgar made Soomro fall in love with her surroundings so deeply that she extended her trip to two weeks. In all her travels up north, she had never seen a place that was so isolated. “When you get to live with such a small community, you integrate in their culture and stories beautifully. That is what Misgar became for me; a community of beautiful people and even more beautiful culture. I just felt like seven days were not enough and immediately started working on developing a program and recruiting volunteers,” Soomro recalls with excitement that shines through her eyes.
She returned to Islamabad and devised a programme called ‘Innovate. Educate. Inspire Pakistan’ (IEI Pakistan), built a curriculum and plan around the ideology of innovation, education and inspiration and recruited volunteers. Her program had two divisions – the art programme and the academic teacher programme and she recruited volunteers for them.
Looking for accommodation, she contacted Sehat Rahim – a member of the Misgar wildlife conservation society who ensured he would take care of the logistics when she reaches with her team. Upon her arrival with around eight volunteers, he showed them a small two-bedroom house with a gorgeous lawn with apricot and apple trees.
“I rented that hut for Rs2,500 a month, an amount that doesn’t get you a three piece suit in Islamabad. That is how simple and basic everything is in Misgar. We set up a kitchen tent in the lawn since the weather was still good and got all our stuff from Hunza,” she says.
The hut may be beautiful but it was a drastic change for Soomro. From being woken up by her mom and served breakfast on the table, she was now living miles away from home, waking up early to cook parathas and omelettes and heating buckets of water for her volunteers in an open kitchen. The transition was anything but smooth but one that brought a new challenge every day – something Soomro’s gypsy soul truly craved.
“There is a sensitive side to me that was really disappointed by things around. I had worked in the corporate sector for four years and I was earning good money and going up the ladder by the society’s standards. But in those four years, something constantly told me that this is not enough. Sure, I was earning good money but I was only helping the rich company become even richer. I also realised that if I wasn’t here, I could be replaced by someone and I wanted to be somewhere where my presence made a difference,” Soomro says.
Interestingly, Soomro also admits there were times when she felt like going back home. Especially when she would wash the dishes in cold water and her hands would freeze. She craved to be back in her warm and comfortable home with a heater at her disposal but by then she had fallen so much in love with children in Misgar that she knew, there was no reason for turning back any time soon.
One focus of Soomro’s work is to build appreciation and tolerance for diversity through arts and education. Her efforts may have begun in the small town of Misgar, which her program will continue to stay in touch with in some way or the other, she will also work on reaching out more children across the region.
The IEI Pakistan’s idea is to create a sense of inclusion through volunteer interaction, education, art for children from underdeveloped areas so they know they are as important a part of this country as any other child in the big city. The ultimate aim is to employ education as an interactive and engaging tool for long-term peace building, including creative and visual art as an effective medium for self-expression and empathy building.
For the children of Misgar, Soomro has opened a world of opportunities. She has taught them more than any book or curriculum ever could; she has shown them how to imagine and think; she has informed them about the world beyond Misgar. And by doing so, she has broadened their perspectives. Soomro may leave Misgar one day but her gift will live through the children she has touched.