Amaar Rashid is a youth activist and an admissions assistant at the American College of Commerce and Technology in Washington, DC. Here, he recalls how his Pakistani mother’s unlikely higher education saved his family from a life of destitution. Witnessing the ways education empowered his mother sparked Amaar to fight for women’s rights.

Every chance for a new beginning starts with a trigger. It’s what you do with that trigger that truly defines who you are. This is the story of how I uprooted all that I knew and transformed adversity into destiny.

I grew up in Pakistan, in a Muslim family: father, mother, and two brothers. I remember that day as sunny, warm, and just about perfect: I went to my 9th grade classes that day, came home to Mom’s tasty spaghetti dinner, and spent the rest of the afternoon playing with my younger brothers. Later in the evening, my mother told us that Dad wasn’t feeling so well and we shrugged it off, dismissing it as the flu.

But it was not the flu, not even close. That night my father suffered a heart attack. He did not make it. It’s hard for me to describe that feeling, losing your father. I looked up to him in so many ways. He was a hard worker, dedicated family man and all around good person. How could he not be with us anymore? Who would teach me how to shave the bristles on my chin? How would my mother survive without him by her side? How would my family survive…?

Survive. That one word became my family’s primary focus. Not only did we have to find a way to survive the pain of loss, but we also had to survive financially: keep up with bills, afford food, and of course pay for the education of my brothers and I. Education had always been important in my family. My father was a Charted Accountant. Even my mother had earned two Masters Degrees, something not common for women of my country. In fact, roughly 2.7% of women attain a college degree in Pakistan. It makes me proud to know that her father strayed from the village mentality that women with knowledge made for bad wives. My grandfather supported my mother’s desire to seek higher education, and for that I will be forever grateful. The passion for equality in education is the blessing that turned my family’s sad fate into one of hope.

With her degrees my mother was able to find work to support our household. Despite my father’s relatives stripping away our family assets, we did not give up. We banded together, moved to a smaller home and carried on. Worldly possessions seemed less important—it wasn’t about what we owned, but what already we had: each other.

As the oldest brother, I was the first to make it through my studies. I eventually achieved my first degree from Oxford Brooks, but I couldn’t have done it without my mother’s support and unconditional love. Thanks to her higher education, she was able to assist me when I got stuck. It was in those moments that it hit me: all women should be educated. Here was my mother, taking care of the house, providing for my brothers and me—being educated wasn’t a hindrance or signs of a bad wife, but rather part of what made her a wonderful wife and a perfect mother.

When my father first passed, I thought all hope was lost. I had nightmares about begging on the streets just to get a cup of rice for my family to eat. It was my mother’s education that saved my family and what inspired me to make it my life’s mission to stand up for women’s education in my country. With the right exposure, hard work and dedication, I am proud to say I’ve spoken on gender equality, women’s education and rights throughout several television shows and radio networks in Pakistan. My views are forward thinking, progressive and not always accepted in the Pakistani culture. The negative feedback never bothers me, my spark cannot be contained.

My outspoken views in Pakistan eventually led me to America. I came to New York City to represent Pakistan at the  United Nations, where I joined the HeForShe campaign, pledging to be among the billions of men who believe equality for women is a basic human right that benefits us all. I committed myself to taking action against gender discrimination and violence in order to build a more just and equal world.

I’d give anything to have my father back, to see the light shine in my mother’s eyes again. He is gone, and InshAllah we will all reunite once more. But his death was a trigger, the spark that set our family down a new and strange path. We conquered the challenges, my mother stepped up to the plate, and I discovered a respect for my mother so deep that it has shaped my destiny.

Women carry us until our birth, teach us our first words and first steps, and hold us together as we grow into the adults we are destined to be. I believe empowering women will empower the world. I believe when you teach one woman, you teach a whole society. I believe in equality. I believe in women’s education.

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