Hannah Sher has her work cut out for her when she arrives home in Pakistan at the end of the month.

The 21-year-old University of Maine at Augusta student is traveling to her native country on behalf of The Nasreen & Alam Sher Foundation, a nonprofit organization her family started two years ago.

The organization’s aim is to promote education, health, humanities and peace in south Asian countries.

As the foundation’s youth president, Sher, of Chelsea, will assist doctors at medical clinics in improvised villages; check on education projects funded through the foundation, including a new school library; photograph and document her trip; and arrange for a mass-marriage ceremony.

The foundation is providing dowry items to 25 girls of poor backgrounds enabling them to get married.

Dr. Alam Sher, her father and founder of the foundation, said girls from poor families are staying unmarried simply because their parents don’t have the money to meet the dowry demands of the grooms’ families.

UNICEF has reported that women with bridal dowries deemed too small have been abused, beaten and even murdered by in-laws. Dowry deaths or disfigurement by burning or acid are reported in various south Asian countries including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Dowries are property a woman brings to her husband at marriage.

“Poor girls don’t have dowries, so we plan to give each couple a sewing machine so she can work at home making dresses for ladies and earn money,” Alam Sher said Tuesday. “We’ll give three outfits to the groom and bride along with kitchen utensils, bedding and a month’s worth of groceries so they don’t have to worry about food. Ninety-eight percent of the time, poor girls don’t get married (in Pakistan).”

He said the mass wedding will be conducted in one of the villages in early January.

Hannah Sher said Maine has a small south Asian population, but there are Pakistani and Indian families in central Maine who support the foundation. In the future, she said, the foundation will extend a hand to other south Asian countries as well.

“In Pakistan, the majority there are very, very poor… some people are rich, but there’s not a lot in the middle,” she said. “There’s a lot of poverty, and literacy rates aren’t very high, either. Education is another push for our foundation along with health and humanity.”

Her uncle is an eye surgeon in Pakistan and has done more than 300 surgeries at the foundation’s “eye camps.” A free medical checkup for children also is offered at those camps, she said, by local doctors the foundation recruited, along with volunteers.

The first donation by the foundation was to Alma Sher’s high school in Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan.

“My old high school celebrated its 150th anniversary last year,” he said. “It’s the school my grandfather and father went to, and where I graduated. While I was there, I said to the headmaster is there anything I can do. He said ‘You could buy chairs for the teachers.’ They didn’t have any. They had 18 or 20 classrooms without chairs for teachers to sit on, so we bought 21 chairs and that’s where the whole thing started.”

That year, Sher, a clinical pharmacist at Togus Veterans Medical Center, also donated computers and started up a scholarship program for students.

“We’re finishing the library at my alma mater,” he said. “It’s going to be called Sher’s Den. Our last name in our language means ‘lion.’ I get so humble and emotional just at the thought of it.”

The foundation also donated a swing set to an all-girls primary school. And this July, six high school students — three girls and three boys — will receive scholarships in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and, possibly, Bangladesh.

A student can attend a full year of college in Pakistan for $500.


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