The Next Crisis

Op-ed writer: Bilal Mustikhan is a fourth year student studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University. He has interned as a sub-editor at the Dawn News business desk and is currently preparing for the civil services exam. He has a keen interest in international relations and world history.

Governments around the globe are struggling to strike a balance between saving lives and livelihoods. The Coronavirus has impeded routines, and is deepening both the health crisis and economic crisis. To add insult to injury, other crises are transpiring due to the status quo of the pandemic-stricken world. According to the World Food Programme, the virus, which has weakened healthcare systems and generated massive unemployment, may also lead to multiple famines.

Last year, approximately 135 million people faced food insecurity. The global pandemic could push approximately 265 million people to the brink of starvation. Massive political and social unrest will make it increasingly difficult to maintain fragile lockdowns imposed by developing countries. Protests have already erupted in parts of Africa and India, which are witnessing food shortages due to the disrupted global supply chain. An emerging swarm of locusts in global agriculture hubs has further exacerbated food security.

The onslaught of locusts can be traced to shifting weather patterns. An increasing frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Peninsula has dumped enough water to create an ideal breeding ground for locusts. Another cyclone hit northeastern Somalia and Ethiopia in December 2019, and set the stage for locust breeding grounds to flourish.

Grasshoppers and locusts come from the same family. However, grasshoppers prefer solitude and lack the ability to travel far. A certain species of grasshoppers transforms into locusts when they are brushed up together. This grouping allows serotonin to develop within grasshoppers, who then undergo certain behavioral changes, develop wings, turn yellow, and grow larger. Once they transform into locusts, they become egregious and eat everything in sight. They possess the ability to fly more than 100 kilometers while aided by wind, making them a dangerous migratory species. Their constant movement makes it logistically difficult to eradicate them.

Locust swarms have ravaged thousands of acres of land in parts of East Africa, seizing the spotlight from Coronavirus related distress as the risk of losing food poses a larger threat. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization fears that a  second wave is likely to occur in late June-July due to favorable breeding conditions throughout May. The second locust outbreak will likely be much worse, since it will further destabilize food security and destroy livelihoods.

Authorities have struggled to tackle this locust invasion due to trade disruption. Coronavirus linked lockdowns and world-wide travel restrictions have obstructed the delivery of pesticides. As a result, farmers in a village bordering Kenya are trying to combat locusts with traditional methods, such as banging metal pans, whistling and throwing stones. According to Ethiopia’s agriculture  ministry spokesman, a wave of locusts is emerging in new areas – the damage caused by locusts has driven Somalia to declare a national emergency.

While ravening locusts flutter through parts of Pakistan, the government is handing out rations and donations to address the plight of the pandemic-stricken poor. However, the provincial and federal governments have failed to organize a joint pandemic response, and continue to be distracted by internal politics. In Sindh, the public health crisis  has kept local officials pre-occupied as they grapple with the virus. As a result, the provincial govt has neglected the influx of locusts that are devouring standing crops in parts of Sukkur, Kandhkot-Kashmore, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, and Dadu. While the world is facing a grim recession, any damage incurred to agriculture, which accounts for approximately one quarter of  GDP, will be detrimental.

The UN’s trepidation over this locust phenomenon, along with the World Food Programme’s warnings, call for a prompt response. Pakistan’s provincial and federal governments should seriously address the locust issue in conjunction to avoid a future food crisis that will not only lead to social unrest, but also massive unemployment.

Thinking Big: Mahira Munir

Over the past few years, event management/wedding planning businesses in Pakistan have sky-rocketed. People hire event managers to organize lavish blow-outs for birthdays and weddings.

However, with the coronavirus, all that seems to be at a standstill. Big halls that draw crowds are still closed, which means weddings have been put on hold as well. Big parties at home are also being discouraged, since that gives the highly contagious virus ample opportunity to spread. 

We reached out to Mahira Munir, a successful event planner in Pakistan, to get her insights on what COVID-19 means for entrepreneurs who were driving lucrative and widely popular event planning businesses before the virus outbreak. Speaking about her own business, Mahira said she has four weddings and one corporate event on hold. She’s waiting for clear instructions from the government regarding protocols and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

According to Mahira, COVID-19 lockdowns have dramatically affected the event planning business. The biggest impact can be seen with vendors. Besides a small percentage of permanent employees, the event management industry largely depends on daily wagers. Flower growers, transporters, chefs, serving staff, and a variety of retailers also come together to assemble an event. Now that upcoming Spring events are canceled or postponed, several workers that provide event services don’t have jobs. These people rely on daily income and have little-to-no savings. They haven’t had any work for the past two months.

Implementing social distancing at weddings is hard since Pakistani weddings are very cramped and crowded. We are assuming there’s not much event managers can do to enforce social distancing. They can’t go up to every single guest and tell them to stay 6 ft away from each other. However, we asked Mahira what precautions she would have control over as an event manager. She summed up some key safety measures:

  • Encourage a fewer number of guests so there isn’t a packed congregation. This involves making use of large spaces per square foot.
  • Make sure props, equipment, decorations and layouts are thoroughly sanitized. 
  • Suggest customized masks for guests so they are more likely to wear them at the event.

Mahira thinks weddings are an inevitable and ongoing process. However, she predicts they will be more intimate with smaller gatherings going forward:

“The weddings may not be as lavish, but will still demand formality and customization,” she said. 

Weddings and big engagements are on hold at the moment. However, once halls open up for events, will people still be hesitant to attend functions, or will they welcome the chance to attend weddings again and make a beeline for the next event? Here is Mahira’s response:

“Generally, I feel that if there are no other social events, people will surely attend weddings as a means to socialize with relatives and friends after the lockdown.”

In conclusion, Mahira hopes the issues brought on by COVID-19 are resolved all over the world, and that humanity heals from the repercussions.

President Trump’s recent immigration restrictions; A blow to the U.S. and global pandemic response

Op-ed Writer: Amber Jamil is an international relations professional with a focus on South Asia. She is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. She has a Master of Arts in international relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

President Donald Trump’s recent executive order restricting immigration for 60 days is characterized as a short-term measure during the coronavirus crisis but may be a harbinger of tighter restrictions on future guest worker programs. The executive order applies to people seeking green cards for work, as well as spouses and children of legal permanent residents, and the parents, siblings, and adult children of U.S. citizens.There is concern the order will be extended indefinitely and become more restrictive.

Although Trump describes the order as temporary, it is an open-ended measure to remain in place until the administration determines the U.S. labor market has improved. A reevaluation in 60 days may extend restrictions as states reopen. This decision only accelerates the recession which is already all but a certainty.

There is overwhelming consensus by economists and the business community that immigrants fuel long-term economic growth. In fact, immigrants contributed to roughly two thirds of U.S. GDP expansion between 2011 and 2018. Nineteen percent of the nation’s 14.6 million self-employed workers are immigrants and responsible for a good share of the jobs created, hiring workers at virtually the same rate as the U.S. born.

A case study of Pakistani American physicians illuminates the critical role of immigrants in America and the reality of an intrinsic interconnectivity of social systems. The U.S. physician supply is strained in meeting the increasing health care demands of an ageing population. U.S. medical schools do not produce enough graduates to meet the needs of the country. Current forecasts expect a shortage between 40,800 and 104,900 of physicians by 2030. Without foreign doctors, the U.S. healthcare system would collapse, especially in rural communities.

About a quarter of all doctors in the U.S. are foreign-born and must secure a J-1 visa, a nonimmigrant exchange visa conditioned on an individuals return to their home country for two years at the conclusion of the program. Pakistan is one of the top sources of foreign doctors to the U.S, second only to India. There are approximately 17,000 physicians and health care professionals of Pakistani descent in the United States and Canada. Medical College of the University of Karachi Pakistan has one of the largest number of graduates actively licensed in the U.S.

Trump’s executive order restricting immigration will lead to a sharp increase in Pakistani visa denials and narrow the pipeline to citizenship. After completion of residencies, many international medical graduates seek Conrad 30 waivers from the requirement to return home for two years. In exchange, they are required to work for three years in underserved communities. Participation in the Conrad 30 program creates a pathway to citizenship and as a result, many foreign-born doctors launch their careers serving rural communities and economically disadvantaged populations.

Members of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) embody the best of pluralistic America, adding to the rich fabric of the country by serving in public, private and civic life in their home country, as well as mother country.

In recent weeks, APPNA chapters across the U.S. raised funds and implemented COVID-19 relief projects in local communities. APPNA distributed personal protective equipment to hospitals and clinics across NY, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Florida and Texas. Other activities include distributing food to those in need, meals for first responders, staffing counseling helplines, conducting community awareness seminars, providing COVID-19 testing and volunteering in overwhelmed hospitals. In addition, APPNA members are contributing to Pakistan’s COVID-19 relief efforts through technical assistance as well as fundraising. 

Across the country, American’s know Pakistani Americans as their doctors, employers and neighbors. Contrary to rhetoric on the topic, immigration contributes to economic growth and expansion of the labor market. Looking ahead, the current level of economic pain means the U.S. will emerge from the pandemic with millions of debt-saddled workers in need of work. All critical engines of growth will be needed for a stable public health and economic future.

Space is a privilege

Op-ed writer: Kazi Akber is a writer based out of Karachi. He studied writing and philosophy at the University of Toronto. He presents written and oratory commentary on social and political issues. He also hosts a podcast called Kiya Kahe Ga Kazi.

As of April 23, 2020, the novel Coronavirus has infected 10,927 people in Pakistan, and 230 of those people have died. In the face of public outcry, the government recently extended a lockdown that had been in effect for 17 days.

The lockdown will be extended till April 30th. At that point, the government will conduct another evaluation to determine if the situation can be safely normalized. Social distancing appears to be the best way to slow the virus’s spread. Extensive global media coverage has shown us the disastrous results of delayed lockdowns. We have already seen 17,671 people in New York City die from the virus over the past 30 days.

However, if the primary solution is to stay home, what seems to be the problem? A majority of urban working class people in Pakistan cannot afford to stay home, due in large part to concerns about mental sanctity and economic strife.

Numerous people who fall under Pakistan’s poverty line live in slums, which are located in megacities like Karachi. Karachi is known to be one of the densest cities in the world, with more than 16 million people. The 2016 world population review quotes a staggering 24,000 people per square kilometer. This figure is understood to be greater now.

Karachi’s residents mainly live in cramped locales that are only fit to be inhabited for a few hours. While I sit in my 500 square yard house and wonder why it’s so hard for people to follow stay-at-home orders, I have to remind myself that a large percentage of the population risks suffocation and lasting mental health damage if they stay indoors for an indefinite amount of time.

Psychological studies have pointed out that social isolation and confinement can lead to lasting mental deterioration. The studies were conducted on sample groups from first-world suburbs. This raises the following question: If social isolation in presumably comfortable living situations can cause mental deterioration, what kind of damage will the residents of Karachi’s slums, with their confined spaces and limited rations, incur during this lockdown?

Adding to the strife of the working class are concerns about employment. Approximately 72% of Pakistan’s population is employed in the informal sector. That means no contracts, no healthcare packages and certainly no prior notice when employers prioritize the bottom line over the worker.

A lockdown may feel exhausting to some people who are obeying guidelines. However, a large portion of the population can’t adhere to social distancing laws, for reasons that surpass mere exhaustion. Even the great equalizing power of a global pandemic only partially mitigates the evident economic disparity in cities like Karachi, where those with privilege possess commodities they don’t even understand the value of, such as the liberty to stay at home, or the space to do so.

Unprecedented world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns often shift the paradigm of reality in some fundamental way. In one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it has dawned on an exhausted police force and Karachi’s frantic wealthy minority that a multitude of people in the working class simply do not have the privilege to comply with lockdowns. Space is essential for social distancing. Space, much like everything else, is a commodity that is not available to the downtrodden.

Thinking Big: Aurat March

Thousands of women, men, transgender people, and children attended the nationwide Aurat March on March 8, 2020, which coincided with International Women’s Day. Organizers pulled through despite facing threats and petitions to stop the march.

Multan organized its first Aurat March. On March 7, women in Sukkur also held a torch rally. Assailants tied to a religious group threw stones and sticks at Aurat March participants in Islamabad, but that didn’t stop the marchers.

In honor of International Women’s Day, The NewsRun interviewed Aurat March (AM) organizers to learn more about their mission, impact, and future efforts.

The first Aurat March in 2018 followed closely after the global #MeToo movement began. In many ways, the Aurat March was a response to mounting cases of harassment, and the need to release years of pent-up anger. The march was also carried out in solidarity with non-men in Pakistan, and around the world. The key message they wanted to convey was “unity.” Each year, AM organizers release a manifesto that pushes for justice, accountability, and inclusion for women. This year, their manifesto also demanded an end to forced conversions. When asked where they have seen the most visible impact of their manifestos, organizers said:

“Open dialogue… it has fostered at home and in the media. It has brought contentious issues like transgender rights, forced marriages, marital rape, and bodily autonomy to the living room. TV programs across a range of networks have become increasingly willing to discuss formerly taboo topics regarding women’s rights, as well as key demands from our manifesto, such as economic justice and an end to violence against women. We’ve also seen a number of gender-inclusive safe spaces springing up online, which offer support and guidance to disempowered women and LGBTQIA+ people.”

The AM team also created Aurat Haq, a diverse intersectional political platform that focuses on women and gender minority issues in Pakistan. Since launching their movement, AM organizers are most proud of giving people a chance to be heard in the public sphere. The point is to promote dialogue, even if it’s contentious. They are also thrilled to see women and non-binary people take to the streets every year to raise their voices for themselves, and for others who are unable to make it. In their opinion, the biggest hurdles for women’s rights in Pakistan are:

“Hierarchies of caste and class that commoditize non-men in a gendered manner, violent barriers in the path of women’s right to education, economic justice, and safe public/private spaces.”

When asked what women can do outside of the march to protect their rights, empower themselves, and confront imposed gender roles, AM organizers suggested:

“…Women and non-binary folks should develop a strong network within themselves, one that supports and lifts them up. Reclaim public spaces and retain visibility. We will not recede once the March is over.”

There are also women in Pakistan who oppose the same Aurat March movement that is trying to give them a voice. While trying to wrap their heads around this backlash, organizers explained that:

“Women in Pakistan have often had no choice but to eke out what power and privilege they can within the patriarchy. In doing so, they’ve been persuaded that these are all the rights they are ‘allowed’ and deserving of. They worry about losing what they have if they were to protest. In a sense, they pick a vaguely defined honor over their fundamental human rights.”

When asked how they cope with ongoing threats and harassment, organizers said they have found great support systems in each other. Volunteers are also encouraged to take breaks if “it gets too much.”

AM organizers also started a dedicated support group to protect march participants in case they’re dealing with cyber harassment or other forms of abuse. Their social media team is “poised and ready” to help victims of online harassment. Plus, organizers advise participants to wear masks or cover their faces if they’re worried about being photographed.

“At the end of the day, we’re aware of the risks, and each of us is making informed decisions in their personal capacity about how to deal with them,” they said.

AM organizers will continue to confront opposition to their movement. They intend to keep the Aurat March relevant as long as there is oppression and harassment in Pakistan. In order to make the march an enduring institution, they will also work towards increasing legal and societal support.

Another long term goal is to make sure every marginalized person undergoing oppression has a space to air their demands.

Nashra Balagamwala’s Experimental Show of Peace and Solidarity

Op-ed writer: Ushah Kazi is a Pakistani culture buff and writer based in Canada. She has written for a number of Pakistani and Canadian publications. She has also published a book about Pakistani cinema titled, The Pop-Culture Junkie’s Guide to Pakistani Cinema, which is available on Amazon.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Nashra has found her creative niche by designing experimental and playfully political board games. No stranger to controversy, Nashra has in the past turned both Pakistan’s panache for arranged marriages, and the country’s political landscape into entertaining spectacles. In the wake of rising tensions, Nashra once again wanted to use her craft, while at the same time appreciating the sensitivity of the situation.

In a bid to represent this struggle, Nashra paired up with an Indian volunteer named Akansha Gupta, and staged a demonstration outside the consulates. Titled ‘disconnected’, it offered a creative expression for anyone on either side, who longs for peace. Both women wore red, showing their solidarity with Kashmir, and were connected in some way, for the duration of the process. They held hands, had their backs against each other, or were linked by a string. In their hands, they held flags of both India and Pakistan, fashioned into peace signs, to encourage, “an end to the brutality, and future conversations of reasonable peace.”

Despite her artistic vision, Nashra, like most young Pakistani’s witnessing the worsening situation, is not oblivious to its severity. She is particularly frustrated about the political circles that have turned their backs on discourse and diplomacy. “On the governmental level,” she says, “…I think there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. I think Imran Khan has made great moves towards this, but with the current Indian government, it seems unlikely in the near future.” A sentiment that, sadly, has been echoed by many. Regardless of the grim reality, which we all have to accept, an artist also has the capacity to encourage hope. And, Nashra hopes to continue doing this.

She is currently working on a game that will take inspiration from shared Pakistani and Indian pop-culture, and encourage camaraderie. As the young designer explains it, “this board game will allow players from both countries to come together, play, and laugh at the things they hold nearest and dearest to their hearts.” Apart from this, she is also planning to launch a non-profit organization called, ‘Make Chai Not War’, the proceeds for which will go towards relief efforts in Kashmir. In her own way, this vibrant young talent wants to encourage peaceful dialogue, as a means to move forward. And, if all of us take just one thing from her, it has to be the resolution to push forward.

When times are as grim as this, it is tempting to forsake hope itself. But, we owe it to those worst impacted by the tensions, and to our own humanity, to hold on to the promise of better days.

Thinking Big: Be The Change

In today’s Thinking Big Interview Series, The NewsRun talks to the founders of Be The Change to learn more about the organization’s mission, services, impact, and future plans. The founders also walk us through the steps they took to launch their charity. As an added bonus, the interview includes some helpful advice for aspiring nonprofit founders.

Launched in May 2018, Be The Change is a nonprofit organization that raises funds for low-income families and marginalized groups in Pakistan. The organization is based in Lahore. It was Ramzan when both founders decided to do some charity work. They started distributing bags of grocery rations to roadside labourers every Friday, and quickly realized these men are amongst the most needy – and most overlooked – part of society:

“…They have to work in the scorching heat, hazardous smog and freezing cold to earn a daily wage, and the days they don’t work, they can’t provide for their families. We were very moved by their stories and decided we wanted to continue this work even after Ramzan was over,” they said.

The founders started fundraising to buy and distribute a week’s worth of grocery rations for 50 families every week. They received a great response from family members and close friends. From there, they pursued small scale projects and drives while continuing to distribute rations. They eventually decided to formalize their work under an umbrella initiative called, Be The Change, which could give people outside their immediate circles a chance to donate and get involved.

The nonprofit aims to help labourers and alleviate their plight in whatever way it can, because:

“It’s their broken backs and calloused hands that have built the walls and roads of urban Lahore…they have no paid leave, no environmental protection, no health benefits or insurance, no retirement packages. They catch dengue, pneumonia, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid and a host of other diseases. So many of the labourers we have come across have lost an eye or a limb due to the nature of their work. They have no steady income or job stability, and have to take on whatever work comes their way, being paid a mere Rs. 700 for a 12 hour shift. Now, with inflation skyrocketing, it’s almost impossible for them to make ends meet,” they said.

The founders also pointed out that no real government bodies or civil society organizations take care of these men, it’s just the kindness of everyday Pakistanis they can rely on for a little relief.

So far, Be The Change has managed to fundraise for 50 labourer families every week for the past year and a half. They want to draw attention to labourers and marginalized groups that aren’t on everyone’s radar. Every Christmas and Easter, the organization will make care packages for hundreds of Christian families, which include grocery rations, warm blankets, sweaters and socks, school bags, toys, and even bicycles.

Last summer, Be The Change fundraised for Ganga Ram Hospital’s Pediatric Thalassemia Centre in lahore, a fantastic initiative that provides free care and medication for thalassemic children from low-income families. During Ramzan, the nonprofit also built eleven hand pumps in the drought stricken Thar desert, providing clean water to approximately 350 families. Their next endeavour is to buy ambulances and NICU units for a hospital outside of Karachi.

Even though running a nonprofit is fulfilling work, the founders talk about one sinking realization they constantly grapple with:

“There’s always so much more required. It’s been very humbling and heartbreaking to come across so much poverty and need, but it’s been incredibly overwhelming to see the kindness and generosity with which people donate.”

Fundraising has been their greatest challenge and goal, because all of the work is donation based:

“We are both private people, so it’s been a bit tricky to step out of our comfort zone and ‘market’ our work, but we try and do so anonymously on our social media accounts, more as a means of ensuring we are as transparent as possible with our donors via photographs and informational updates,” they said.

When asked what advice they have for people who want to start their own charity, the founders said:

“If you want to help, just start. Roll up your sleeves and start today. Be consistent and make time. No cause is small enough.”

At this stage, Be The Change needs more people to help spread the word and accumulate funds so they can take on more projects. The nonprofit wants to continue helping as many people as possible. 

Thinking Big: Aatif Awan

As a part of our Thinking Big Interview Series, The NewsRun caught up with the Founder and Managing Director of Indus Valley Capital, Aatif Awan. We spoke with Aatif about Pakistan’s startup ecosystem. He also shared some tips on how to evaluate startup ideas and pitch to investors.

Indus Valley Capital is an early-stage stage VC fund that focuses on Pakistani startups. Aatif is also a Board Director for Atoms and Airlift. Previously, he was VP of Growth & International at LinkedIn, and grew the network by half a billion members. He led product integrations between LinkedIn and Microsoft after the $26 billion acquisition.

Aatif believes that backing Pakistani startups is the best way to realize the true potential of every Pakistani. He pointed out Airlift and Bykea as examples of Pakistani startups that are already increasing mobility for tens of thousands. While discussing the opportunities in Pakistan’s startup ecosystem, Aatif stated that:

“Pakistan, with its 220 million people and $257 billion in consumer spending, is the largest market still untapped by technology startups and investors. The largest companies in the US used to be Oil & Gas companies or banks. Now it’s technology companies that were once startups. Same will happen in Pakistan over the next decade.”

When Aatif started investing in Pakistani startups, he learned that a lot of investors in Pakistan will join a round once a startup has found a strong lead:

“…Very few have the conviction to lead an early-stage round. The investors who do, will set themselves apart, and will win the best opportunities,” he said.

Aatif thinks Pakistan’s market is quite early, so every large industry is waiting to be transformed through technology. He is especially excited about the following sectors: Logistics and transportation, travel and hospitality, and marketplaces. We were curious to know what startups should think about before reaching out to a VC. If you’re a startup founder asking the same question, then keep this advice in mind:

“Startup founders should have a clear vision for where they’re headed next, and what funding they require in order to accomplish that,” said Aatif.

Aatif also summed up the main criteria he considers while investing in startups. The three questions he asks when looking at startups are:

  • How big is their market?
  • Is the founding team strong and positioned well to win a large share of the market?
  • What’s the ‘why’ for the founders?

According to Aatif, here are some important tips to keep in mind while pitching an idea to investors:

  • Nail down a compelling narrative of your startup.
  • Keep the pitch deck crisp.
  • Show the investors how big the opportunity can be.
  • Know your market and competition really well.
  • Be open about things that you haven’t figured out.

When asked about where he sees Pakistan’s startup landscape in 3-5 years, Aatif described a pretty bullish outlook:

“Next 3-5 years are going to be really exciting. The three largest series A rounds have all happened in the last 8 months. We’ll see this trend continue and more capital will pour into Pakistan. We’ll also see a lot more ‘Wapistanis,’ Pakistanis returning from Silicon Valley and other global tech hubs.”

Thinking Big: Zoha Rahman

As a part of our Thinking Big Interview Series, The NewsRun caught up with actress and model, Zoha Rahman, to talk about her Pakistani background, her career journey, and her iconic role as Peter Parker’s Muslim classmate in Spider-Man: Far from HomeShe is known as the first “hijab wearing character” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who was more than just an extra.

Zoha was born in a small town in Pakistan called Jhelum. She moved to the United Kingdom (UK) with her family when she was a teenager. Even though she has given numerous interviews with other publications, few have delved into her Pakistani origins. That’s why we made it a point to learn more about her life in Pakistan.

During her time in Pakistan, Zoha lived in a new city every two years since her father was in the army. She lived in Karachi the longest, loved Khanewal the most, and misses Islamabad a lot. While reflecting on her childhood in Pakistan, she said some of her favorite memories are:

“Summers spent with my cousins, we would get spicy corn from street vendors on our way up the winding streets to Nathia Gali. Spending chilly winter evenings having ice cream and brownies at Hot Spot. Eid…everyone getting up early for Namaz and Sawayyan, getting dressed up and getting Eidi from the elders. Spending time with my grandparents and listening to their stories.” 

Even though Zoha moved to the UK years ago, she still makes an effort to follow the news coming out of Pakistan. She mostly reads The NewsRun (woohoo!!) and ProperGaanda to keep up with Pakistani news. Zoha tries to visit Pakistan at least once a year for at least two weeks. Her schedule is currently jam packed, to the point where it’s hard for her to find three free days in a row!

It looks like Zoha’s career is keeping her really busy. Her long-time fascination with the arts and performing motivated her to pursue acting and modelling. However, like the beginning of any career, Zoha faced challenges as well. A lack of self assurance was her biggest obstacle. She decided to complete a professional course to remedy that. However, she still sees herself being limited by a lack of opportunities. After working in the West, she believes her external appearance and heritage will always be a primary casting requirement:

“I have spoken out a lot about how the only roles coming my way are basic and stereotypical. Being pigeon holed in the infancy of my career is an excruciating challenge,” she said.

Despite her challenges, Zoha managed to land a role in the Spider Man: Far from Home movie. When asked about her most memorable experience on the set of Spider Man, she said:

“…Every day on set brought on new challenges and new lessons, new games and new friends. I suppose one of the most memorable days was actually the first one. That’s when everyone met for the first time and we shot our first scene together. We gelled so well, we knew this project was more than just a film, and we became close very quickly.”

Zoha also admired her character in the movie:

“Zoha from Spider-Man (yes, they stole my actual name for the character), is a super intelligent teen having a great time with her friends on a school science trip, which was only open to the top students. The best thing about her is that her hijab is never seen as something that is ‘other’ or negative. She’s just a normal high schooler. So for me, her passion for science and hard work is impressive, and I suppose her eye rolls are admirable too,” she said.

Since Zoha starred in a superhero movie, it felt fitting to ask her who she thinks Pakistan’s real-life superheroes are. After reading Pakistan for Women by Maliha Abidi, Zoha realized there is no shortage of Pakistani superheroes. She also pointed out deceased social activist, Parveen Rehman, and described her as:

“…an incredible woman who discovered and subsequently worked tirelessly for the rights of working class communities in Karachi, particularly for access to water and land titles…her martyrdom in the course of justice makes her a true superhero for me.”

Zoha has some exciting projects coming up, like Kabir Khan’s film, ’83, which is based on the 1983 Cricket World Cup. She’s also looking forward to the release of Young Wallander on Netflix. Her episode will likely come out next year. Even though it’s a small role, it’s her first step into Netflix.

When asked about her biggest source of inspiration, Zoha said she tends to pick up specific traits from people she admires:

“Perseverance from my brother who is deaf, but never lets that get in the way of his living a normal live. Unconditional love from my Dadi, who moved to Pakistan from Austria when she was 20 years old in the 1950s for love and never looked back. Strength and confidence from my husband, who always encourages me to keep pushing and to never take no for an answer.”

Zoha has some valuable advice for aspiring Muslim actors. Here is what she said:

“We always let people guilt us out of things we are passionate about, whether it is parents or friends or far relations, they will try to tell you things are ‘un-islamic’ or ‘un-pakistani’. Just remind yourself that being a good, kind human being is the most important thing there is. I also wish young actors knew that they have an entire galaxy of talent within themselves and all they need to do is let the creative juices flow, no matter what it is, from the smallest of productions, to Youtube videos you can make at home, to creating something with a friend. If you love to act, then go and ACT. This modern world gives you so much power that can be harnessed into incredible things.”

Thinking Big: Eman Bachani

Eman Bachani is the founder of Meraki Design House, a Canada-based e-commerce platform that sells artisan-made shoes and accessories. After graduating from the University of Toronto, she created a unique brand that combines Pakistani tradition with a contemporary flare. In addition to crafting one-of-a-kind designs, Meraki also works closely with skilled artisans to give them employment opportunities. As an entrepreneur, Eman is striking the perfect balance between building a fashion brand and supporting communities.

The NewsRun interviewed Eman to talk about how she took an idea that was brewing in the back of her mind and turned it into a business. We hope other budding e-commerce entrepreneurs can use this interview as a guiding tool for their own ventures.

Let’s start from the beginning. Eman always loved wearing Khussas, but the ones she grew up wearing had holes at the bottom by the time she broke into them. She had some ideas about potentially working with Khussas, but did not have a plan of action yet. Her idea started to take shape when she went away on a six-week trip, and almost everyone she came across asked about the Khussas she was wearing. She took that as a well-timed sign and booked a flight to Pakistan, where she could closely explore how Khussas are made. She also wanted to make the shoes more comfortable and durable so they could be “a practical staple in your closet, just like TOMS.”

Meraki has evolved into a premier South Asian inspired brand that not only speaks to mainstream consumers, but also a South Asian audience. Unlike their competitors, they also hit all three of these key areas: affordability, functionality, and design.

“There is nowhere else you’d be able to find handcrafted leather flats that you can wear from day to night, for as low as $69 CAD/ $52 USD,” said Eman.

In regards to teaming up with artisans, a couple of vendors Meraki works with are fair trade certified, but that’s not the case with all their vendors. Meraki still takes several steps to ensure certain standards, such as having a clean and safe working space, above market wages, and no returns or deductions for products with discrepancies.

Eman did not have any experience in e-commerce before launching her own business.

“I was naïve enough to think that if you build a great product, consumers just magically go from knowing to buying your product. I learnt along the way that consumers, especially for footwear, need several other touch points to actually convert,” she said.

There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to running an e-commerce business. Websites and social media pages are apparently not enough.

According to Eman, “you have to find a way to be everywhere your customer is…for starters, Shopify will be your saviour in most things e-commerce, if not all.”

Launching a business is step one. Step two is actually running the business. Eman shared her day-to-day responsibilities as a business owner. She designs three annual footwear collections, and develops products for the rest of Meraki’s categories. In addition, she handles partnerships and organizes events. She also deals with payroll and finances. With all these different tasks to juggle, Eman uses a weekly planner and to-do list to keep herself organized.

Even though being an entrepreneur is hard work, she enjoys meeting and hearing from customers. The best part is getting good reviews. At the same time, she also welcomes constructive criticism, because it reflects on how engaged and invested her customers are. Eman loves what she does, but also faces some challenges as an entrepreneur. She realized that entrepreneurs end up dealing with internal challenges more than anything else.

“Of course things don’t go as planned all the time, but it’s the constant battle in our minds of wanting more, wanting it a certain way, and then just attachment to certain ideas,” she said.

Eman has already reached a major milestone in her entrepreneurial journey. Last year, she was selected as a delegate to represent Canada at the G20 Youth Entrepreneurs Alliance in Argentina. In terms of future growth, Eman plans to expand her business organically.

“Over time, we’ve seen small things make a big difference, so we’re 100% receptive to trying different things even if they don’t always make sense,” she added.

The Meraki team already sets up events and pop-up exhibitions. Now, they’re shifting focus back to digital and growing their international audience.

When we asked Eman to share one piece of advice she has for an entrepreneur starting out, here is what she said: “Just start!!! If you wait too long to know all the things you should know, you would probably find a million things that may dissuade you from actually going through with it.” Eman also has her own definition of success, which just goes to show that success can be defined by what your personal goals are, and what you aspire to be. There isn’t a standard measure of success:

“I think one-part success is finding what fulfills you, and then having the freedom to pursue it, and the other is being able to have a meaningful relationship with yourself, and others.”