Unlike their depiction in popular culture, heroes have no fixed templates. They may not always pop out at you with their billowing capes, larger-than-life personalities and overnight revolutions. Instead, you may have to look around carefully if you want to find these undiscovered visionaries.
They are the ones you should listen to attentively as their powerful dreams might often be cloaked in soft-spoken voices. You may rarely see them in the spotlight but the impact of their work is bound to catch your eye. This is a list of 26 such Pakistanis who have been quietly making the country proud but deserve to be in the limelight for their outstanding contributions.
Dr Umar Saif
Dr Umar Saif was named one of the top 35 innovators of the world who are radically transforming technology by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in August, 2011. Along with being known for his work on using Information and Communications Technology solutions for developing world problems, he is also a part of the faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, the founding vice chancellor of the Information Technology University Punjab and established one of the first start-up incubators in Pakistan.
Naila Alam and Yasmeen Durrani
These two Pakistani women have been honoured by the White House for their philanthropic venture called Express Care which focuses on providing daily essentials such as food and medicine to the under-privileged. Additionally, the Virginia-based organisation also trains low-income individuals, refugees and immigrants and helps them secure employment.
The sky was never the limit for 26-year-old Ayesha Farooq who created history by becoming the first woman assigned to one of Pakistan’s front line fighter squadrons. Hailing from Bahawalpur, she is one of the 19 women who have achieved the rank of pilot in the Pakistan Air Force over the last decade — there are five other female fighter pilots but they have yet to take the final tests to qualify for combat.
Faizan Buzdar’s visionary start up Convo.com even had the United States President, Barack Obama, marveling at his work and commenting on why people like Buzdar were the reason why immigration reform in the US was necessary. His innovative startup that provides a collaborative workspace for global organisations has led to five million dollars in funding from venture capitalists in the US, including Morgenthaler Ventures, which has significant holdings in tech giants such as Apple.
Dr Arjumand Hashmi
Being a Pakistani-born-Muslim, a Texan and a Republican may sound like an odd combination, but Dr Arjumand Rahim has managed to turn it into a winning formula. Along with being an accomplished surgeon, he is also the mayor of a town called Paris, in Texas, USA and is known for creating a community and inculcating a pro-Pakistani image in the southern state that has been a hotbed of anti-Pakistan sentiments, especially during the tenure of President George W Bush Jr.
Thirteen-year-old Mehak Gul is the youngest Pakistani to have qualified for the World Chess Olympiad. Gul, who started playing chess at the age of six, has also won several provincial and national chess championships.
Saba Gul is the founder and CEO of Popinjay, a social enterprise that provides education and employment to underprivileged girls in Pakistan. She was an MIT Public Service fellow in Sri Lanka, where she worked on low-cost solar lighting for post-Tsunami refugees and has also conducted workshops on entrepreneurship at universities in Africa.
Naiza Khan’s extensive artwork displaying the paradoxes of the Pakistani society, especially the social status of women earned her the 2013 Prince Claus award that celebrates individuals whose efforts have had a positive impact in their respective surroundings. She is the third Pakistani after Arif Hasan and Madeeha Gohar to have received this award.
Karamat Ali, the executive director of The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), was awarded the South Asia Peace and Justice Award in India for his role in leading peace and labor movements in Pakistan and linking them with their regional and global counterparts.
Ali Moeen Nawazish
Ali Moeen Nawazish did not slow down after he set a world record of acing 21 subjects in the Cambridge Advanced Level examinations in 2009. He went on to set up initiatives such as StepUP Pakistan, which trains teachers and works towards improving the academic curriculum in impoverished areas. His efforts towards uplifting the state of education in the country also earned him the honour of being one of the youngest recipients of the Pride of Performance award.
When young entrepreneur Waqas Ali saw experienced craftsmen from small towns in Pakistan losing business because they could not keep up with the changing times, he decided to step in. Ali launched Hometown Shoes, an online shoe store that has not only generated business but has also preserved a century-old craft that would have been lost otherwise.
It was Sabia Abbat’s curiousity to find out why women could not ride a bicycle that made her a national cycling champion in 2013. Hailing from a small village in Haripur, she would practise cycling on her grandfather’s bike, as women are not usually encouraged to pursue a sport in these areas. In the process, she fell many times and also sustained multiple injuries but finally found the answers she was seeking.
Parween Saeed is the mastermind behind Khaana Ghar, a small dhaba in Khuda ki Basti, Karachi that provides meals to low-income individuals for three rupees. Over time, it has become a lifeline for hundreds of poor men and women who are unable to make ends meet otherwise.
Rafiullah Kakkar is Balochistan’s first Rhodes scholar in 40 years. Hailing from one of the most volatile regions of Pakistan, Kakkar belongs to a humble background where no one has been to college before him. His journey from the boy who did not know Urdu until the seventh grade to securing one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world is remarkable.
Faisal Mirza is the recipient of the 2008 ECHO Awards that recognise the contribution of immigrants of non-western descent on the basis of their talent in higher education. Mirza received a scholarship for a summer course at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he chose to study English and Public Policy.
A swimming accident at the age of 15 left Sarmad Tariq paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. Today, he is a professional and personal success story and an inspiration for people with disabilities. He represented Pakistan in the ING New York City Marathon in 2005 and finished with a medal. His dream is to inculcate a positive attitude in people and help them lead a fulfilling life.
Namira Salim is the first Pakistani to travel into space and has been recognised as the first Pakistani astronaut by the government of Pakistan in 2006. She is also a peace activist and was awarded with the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz in 2011.
Dr Naweed I Syed
Dr Naweed I Syed is a globally acclaimed scientist of Pakistani origin and head of the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Canada. He is the first scientist to connect brain cells to a silicon chip which has paved way for progress in artificial intelligence computing.
Sameen Shahid is the first Pakistani to win the OFID scholarship in 2009 for a master’s degree in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Shahid was selected from a pool of 3,000 applicants from over 100 developing countries.
Maria Toorpakai Wazir
It is very difficult to nurture your love for a sport if you are born as a girl in South Waziristan. But Maria Toorpakai Wazir defied all odds by training and competing as a boy in Peshawar until she could not hide her gender any longer. Today she is Pakistan’s top female squash player and is ranked 54th in the world.
Professor Asim Khawaja
Asim Khwaja is the first professor of Pakistani descent who has been employed by the Harvard University’s prestigous John F Kennedy School of Government. His research centered on issues such as finance, education and political economy among other areas has been featured in prominent publications including The Economist, New York Times,Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, Al Jazeera, CNN and BBC.
Rosheen Khan is Pakistan’s first female master scuba diver and the only Nitrox diving instructor in Pakistan. Hailing from a poor farming background, Khan had to go through a great deal of struggle to acquire an education and a job.
Ali Rehan is the co-founder and CEO of Eyedeus Labs, a tech start-up by Pakistani students that developed an innovative mobile application which caught the eye of major tech giants such as Google, Samsung, Huawei and LG.
Mir Zafar Ali
Mir Zafar Ali is an Oscar-winning movie visual effects curator who has given life to characters such as Venom in Spider Man 3 as well as several other Hollywood flicks such as X-Men and The Mummy. He won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 2007 for his immaculate work in the movie The Golden Compass.
Syed Fahad Ali
Instead of complaining about everything that was wrong in the country, Syed Fahad Ali decided to make the best of his circumstances by setting up the Aghaz School that provides free education to children residing in the informal settlements of Karachi. The project was initially started in Karachi but has now spread to Islamabad, Lahore and Nawabshah.
Bilal Masood is a young change agent who has represented Pakistan on various global platforms and is raising awareness about key problems that the country faces. A student of Crossing Border Global Studies in Denmark, Masood is also a certified trainer at the School of Leadership in Karachi.
This is not the end of the trail. In fact, it is the beginning of celebrating the passion and unwavering commitment of countless other such unsung heroes. They are the ones who have kept hope alive for the nation in the darkest of hours. Margaret Mead sums it up best in the following words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The writer is a Karachi-based software developer who is also pursuing his MBA.
He tweets @rafayali
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 12th, 2014.