Every year Agnes Scott College student Varsha Thebo ’17 travels to her hometown Sindh, a province in southern Pakistan, to visit her father and the place where she spent her childhood. In the predominantly Muslim country, Sindh has a large population of Hindus who settled in the province’s rural areas to seek refuge from increasing religious discrimination and violence in Pakistan’s major cities. Often during her trips home, Thebo would see Muslim and Hindu children playing happily together, not yet weighed down by the social implications of their differences. Until one day she returned home to discover a change.
Thebo asked the Muslim children how their friends were doing and was disheartened by their responses. They told her they were not friends with their Hindu playmates anymore, and they did not like them because Hindus do not say “Salaam” or do other Muslim practices. Greatly affected by the children’s religious intolerance, she recalls immediately having a simple yet powerful realization. “I thought, it is clear that they are learning to hate, and if they are learning to hate, then they can also learn to love,” says Thebo. A seed of an idea soon became planted in her mind that developed into a winning project proposal.
In June 2015, Thebo was announced as one of ten winners of the UNHATE Foundation and United Nations Academic Impact International (UNAI) Diversity Contest. The contest called for submissions of project proposals from faculty and students around the world, between the ages of 18 and 23, to develop and present a specific initiative at the local or community level that promotes the idea of tolerance, respect for diversity and harmony within and between peoples. Authors of the selected proposals were awarded 20,000 euros (approximately 21,500 U.S. dollars) to implement the project.
Inspired by the children in Sindh, Thebo’s project proposal is to promote interfaith harmony in the province. “I think the main problem is that they are not given a chance to come together to reflect upon and see that they are more similar than different,” she says.
Her project, which began in December 2015, has three main parts. The first is to design a syllabus that includes writings on Sufism, a mystical Islamic faith, as well passages from holy texts from other religions such as the Bible, Koran, and Bhagavad Gita highlighting common thematic threads of peace, love and brotherhood. Another is to conduct educational workshops in Umerkot, a district in Sindh, in which the children will participate in discussions, read together, and perform skits as another way for them to foster understanding and acceptance of different religious beliefs. The third is to celebrate Sufi night with live music played by bands. The project’s timeframe is 10 to 11 months, and 100 middle grade students from one private school and two public schools were selected by surveys to participate.
Thebo adds that it is not just the children she has to reach if her project is going to have an impact but also the parents. “As I was writing my proposal, I thought no matter what I do with the children, at the end of the day, they go back to their parents. If that is where they are learning it from, then there is no point,” she notes. To address this issue, Thebo plans to hold special sessions for the parents as well as get the involvement and support of school administrators, who she says are highly respected by parents in Sindh.
A Hubert Scholar and public health and business management major, Thebo travels to Pakistan on breaks from her studies to work on the interfaith harmony project and has formed partnerships with students with similar interests from other colleges to help support her efforts. Intelligent, compassionate and determined, Thebo is poised to become a one-to-watch global change agent, and she credits Agnes Scott in her development as a leader.
“Being here at Agnes Scott, I’m learning how to be a better leader and to help others reach their potential through both the practical and theoretical work, as well as through my interactions with other students who are equally passionate to change the world. I have also got the most amazing, supportive and accommodating professors like Christine Cozzens, Amy Patterson, Charlotte Artese and many others who always believe in my endeavors and encourage me to pursue for more,” she says.
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