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Pakistani Hospitality: A Report from Islamabad and Skardu
by: Oliver Glanville, Ascend Secretary and Board Member
The last 18 months have been a time of tremendous change at Ascend. Whilst we are extremely committed and proud of our evacuation efforts, the goal has always been to return to our programming and deliver our mission. Efforts to restart in Afghanistan are ongoing; however, in order to operate our full model Ascend had to assess new countries into which to expand.
After a long process of evaluation, Pakistan made it onto a short list. A combination of the potential for significant impact and strong feasibility (including incredible mountains!) meant it scored high. The next step was to visit the country, to explore potential partnerships and gain a sense for conditions on the ground.
Marina LeGree and I, Oliver Glanville - Ascend Founder/Executive Director and Ascend Board Secretary respectively - made the trip over the last two weeks. We were joined by Sofyan Yusufi - a friend and supporter with Pakistani ties who reached out to help. The itinerary for the trip included a jam-packed schedule, with back-to-back meetings in Islamabad, before flying up to Gilgit-Baltistan province in the mountainous northern areas of Pakistan.
After arriving in Islamabad at 1 am local time, our small team had no time to rest, with a full two days of meetings with government officials, nonprofits and civil society organizations. Productive meetings were held with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) , Right to Play, and Adventure Foundation Pakistan amongst others.
From Islamabad, we traveled to Gilgit-Baltistan province. Situated in northern Pakistan, the
area is dominated by two great mountain ranges - the Karakoram and western Himalayas. These ranges host a huge number of peaks over 6,000m+, including the infamous K2 and Nanga Parbat. Whilst in Gilgit-Baltistan, we resided in the small city of Skardu - a potential location for Ascend to establish programming.
During our flight to the area, we were fortunate to have the provincial Minister for Tourism flying on the same 30 seater plane. Upon hearing about Ascend’s mission and vision, the Minister was so excited he dedicated significant time in the ensuing days to facilitating meetings and offered support for Ascend going forward. Further very encouraging meetings were had with the Chief Minister for Gilgit-Balistan and the Commissioner and Associate Commissioner, amongst others.
At every meeting, the message was consistent. Huge enthusiasm was shown for Ascend’s mission, vision, and potential in the region. Warm encouragement at every discussion was offered - “what can we do to help you establish” was heard at every juncture.
Alongside government and local support, obvious desire from local girls was shown for Ascend’s establishment. Ascend Executive Director, Marina, was fortunate to be given the opportunity to deliver a lecture about our work to 200+ students at a local school, the subject of which was “Women as Agents of Change”. A large number of questions came from the girls that struck a chord with the Ascend team: “How do I start change within myself and gain confidence?”; “How can I become a leader?”; and “Can I become strong whilst those around me say I can’t”. It is these questions the Ascend program is designed to help provide girls with the tools to answer for themselves.
After a number of days in Skardu, meeting with government officials, local dignitaries, school children, up-and-coming female climbers, and others, we were able to explore the local area. A vast array of suitable hiking, climbing and backcountry trekking sports are within easy reach of Skardu, including Deosai National Park - the second highest plateau in the world (4,200m).
Returning to Islamabad, we wrapped up our stay with further meetings, establishing and solidifying a growing and generous network of supportive organizations and individuals.
The overarching message is clear. There is both a demonstrated need and also huge support
for Ascend in Pakistan. Ascend’s potential establishment comes at a critical moment in the country’s history, where significant political focus is being paid to women - both in education and more widely in equality.
Having returned home, Ascend is now evaluating potential next steps with regards to operations in Pakistan. Further due diligence will be undertaken by the Board and others (on a range of subjects including legal and security matters) before a decision is taken but we continue to press forward for the benefit of women everywhere. Stay tuned!
Your Investment Makes a Lasting Impact
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." ~Margaret Mead
For the past seven years, Ascend has been changing the lives of young women in Afghanistan. They have not only been exposed to climbing, mountaineering and the outdoors, but they have discovered their own self-worth, found the leaders that lived inside of them, were allowed to prioritize their own health and wellbeing, and came to understand the value of giving back to their community. While Ascend has been unable to provide our core programming this past year, we have witnessed these life skills play out as we watched our Ascend girls show courage, bravery, tenacity, and self-determination taking on new lives and new challenges in a new world.
Their triumphs were possible because of people like you. From the very beginning until today, you believed in them and their ability to conquer mountains. Help Ascend finish the job of resettling those who fled and join us in expanding the Ascend program to new countries where hundreds more girls can discover their full potential through Ascend.
Ascend Alumnae Association: Resettlement Efforts Continue
On August 15, Ascend and the world marked one year since the Taliban took control of the government in Afghanistan, sending the country into fear and chaos (Read: A Reflection on Afghanistan: One Year Later). Through the tireless efforts and incredible generosity of Ascend supporters as well as total strangers, Ascend was able to evacuate 134 Afghan citizens. Flung to all parts of the world, some were resettled quickly while others waited longer for visas to host countries. One year later, nearly every one of these people has been resettled.
In early June there were still over 40 Ascend girls living in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi, waiting for visas to either the US or Canada. In late July most of the girls received visas and plane tickets to Canada and over the next few weeks, nearly all arrived. One family remains in Abu Dhabi due to COVID and rescheduled flights; they are due to fly out mid-September. We are keeping the bottle of bubbly on ice until we receive word the wheels of their plane have touched down in North America.
Two more Ascend girls, who had been living temporarily in Pakistan for nearly a year, landed in Canada in August where they were welcomed to their new home. These resilient sisters are still adjusting to a new country but are quickly learning to navigate their new homes. For some, one of the first pieces of identification they acquired was their library card!
In August, four minor girls who had been at the camp in Abu Dhabi were given humanitarian parole to the USA. Due to their age, their resettlement process looks different from the other Ascend girls who settled in the US. Ascend is working with the agencies assigned to their cases, as well as with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to ensure they are safe, well-cared for, and have their needs met.
The Friends of Ascend Triangle (North Carolina) group came together in mid-August to celebrate the successes of the five Ascend alumnae they took under their wing beginning last October; providing homes, transportation, help navigating government programs, enrolling in schools, finding employment, applying to university, and assisting as some moved into an apartment of their own. An Afghan feast was prepared by Maria Thoenen and friends, and the Ascend girls were given the opportunity to share their stories of struggles and triumph with the group.
Two of the girls in the US have already begun their first year in University; others are working full and part time jobs, moving into their own apartments and working on letters of intent and college applications for next year.
Sakina and Masoma, Ascend Alumnae living in Chile, are talented artists who are using their skills as a way to heal from the past year. Some of their artwork is shared below.
Pakistan Left Devastated from Monsoon Flooding
No doubt you have heard about the devastating flooding in Pakistan due to unprecedented monsoon rains. Over 1,000 people have died in the last month, many of them children; 1/3 of the country has been flooded; and thousands have been left homeless, their livelihoods washed away. As the flood waters recede, the most urgent need becomes the distribution of food and safe drinking water, and helping to provide temporary shelter and medical attention. During Ascend's recent visit to Pakistan talk about the devastation from the floods was everywhere.
While there, Marina and Oliver met several Pakistan-based non-profits taking on flood related humanitarian tasks (and more) to ensure even most remote areas and those with the least access receive assistance. We hope you will consider supporting their efforts as well:
Montagnes Magazine: Ascending Afghanistan story
In late August Montagnes Magazine published an article following up on a story about Ascend, the evacuation, and resettlement efforts.
What You Can Do
Our mission remains unchanged. We need your support now more than ever as we prepare to launch in a new location. Help our girls climb to their personal best! Already a donor? Share our work by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn
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