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Building a Bridge of Lights

Mar 21, 2011

From the beginning, Sarah Omar and Satvika Ananth knew they wanted to work on an international project for their Gold Award. Sarah is half Pakistani and Satvika is Indian, so it made sense for them to focus their efforts on the region of Kashmir.

Kashmir is an area with disputed boundaries that lies between India and Pakistan. The two countries have a history of conflict, and a devastating earthquake further destabilized the area in 2005. Sarah and Satvika wanted to help.

“Part of the reason we decided to work in Kashmir is the symbolism of a Pakistani girl and an Indian girl working together. When you globalize the issue there is so much conflict involved. But when you work together as individuals the differences disappear,” said Satvika.

The girls had been best friends since first grade, and they shared many of the same interests.

“We shared a love for humanity. We’re both passionate about children’s education. We were able to find similarities where other people saw differences,” said Sarah.

It was the passion for children’s education that led them to their final project idea. The girls heard about a solar flashlight company that was facilitating donations to schools in Africa, and it occurred to them that flashlights could be helpful to schools in Kashmir.

“A lot of time in agricultural regions, kids can’t go to school during the day. If they don’t have electricity, they sometimes use kerosene lamps to study at night, but kerosene is expensive and flammable,” said Sarah.

The girls originally worked with The Citizen’s Foundation to supply 500 flashlights to school children in the Kashmir region. The logistics were daunting. The girls often had to do their work late at night, because of the time difference between Texas and Kashmir. The complications did not end there.

Satvika and Sarah with their presentation materials.

“At one point I was emailing someone who was forwarding the emails to the equivalent of the US Department of Transportation in Pakistan, and it made me feel so grown up that my emails were being forwarded to government officials,” said Satvika.

The girls were struggling with their project when they read the book Three Cups of Tea. It is the story of an organization building schools in Afghanistan, and it inspired the girls to redouble their efforts. When an anonymous donor agreed to match their donations, it allowed the girls to contact the organization in the book and donate an additional 500 flashlights to them.

“We never spoke to the children, but in my heart and in my mind I know we gave them more than light as a physical object,” said Satvika. “We also gave them the understanding that American kids care about kids in Kashmir. We’re not that different, and we what we want in our hearts is really similar.”