In our ongoing series to promote women doing good, especially in our own community, we are happy to have spoken with Zainab Zeb Khan. She is receiving the inaugural UNICEF Next Generation Chicago Humanitarian Award for her work as a visual artist, therapist and global human rights advocate at the UNICEF Chicago Humanitarian Awards Luncheon on September 23rd. She became an activist after experiences counseling survivors of domestic violence and organizing exhibitions for artists facing repression and is also the President of MALA: Muslim American Leadership Alliance. Still not impressed? She’s also putting together a scholarship program for students from war-torn or conflict areas who are hoping to rebuild their lives and pursue the American dream through the power of education. Here’s how we can help in her causes, and even start making our own difference…
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO RECEIVE THIS HONOR?
I am truly humbled to be receiving the inaugural UNICEF Chicago Next Generation Humanitarian Award. This isn’t a sole effort, nor is it one that I feel that I alone can take credit for. This recognition is shared with all of the incredible people in my life I have encountered that have embarked on the same journey for freedom and human rights for every single child.
It is how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us that says the most about our commitment to human rights and equality and justice for all people. This lesson was instilled in me by my father, who never experienced a childhood. He had neither a mother nor a father; he had nobody as a child. He had to learn how to carve out his own destiny by hand, and because of that, he instilled in me the value of gratitude and giving back. What he never had, he gave to his own children.
I would also like to thank my peers at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and UNICEF Next Generation for their incredible work in support of UNICEF’s programs to save and improve the lives of children around the world.
TELL US ABOUT THE CAUSES YOU WORK WITH.
Recently, MALA launched a series of nationwide screenings of the film “He Named Me Malala” to help garner advocacy and awareness for girls’ education. We are also collecting, preserving, and archiving a beautiful compilation of stories from Americans of Muslim heritage, in partnership with NPR’s StoryCorps and the Library of Congress. This project gives a glimpse into the lives of Americans from broad, unique, and diverse backgrounds, fosters a sense of pride in Muslim-American heritage and history, and helps to promote social cohesion in America.
I’m also passionate about the work that UNICEF is doing to put children first. Estimates report that there are more children on the run now than at any other time since World War II. UNICEF is working on the ground to children have the support and supplies they need while undergoing this difficult journey. And, they’re helping ensure that kids can still be kids, by providing safe play and rest spaces on refugee routes.
WITH YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES, HOW DO YOU FIND WORK/LIFE BALANCE?
Working as an activist can be emotionally draining. Bearing witness to these incredible women and children who have been through so much, I always feel like I should be doing more. At the same time, I know I need to keep a balanced lifestyle for my physical health and emotional well-being.
Running, painting, reading, laughing and trying new experiences with my friends, family, and loved ones help me keep my equilibrium. I can get lost in art museums for hours, and there’s something about old buildings that just capture my heart. I love traveling, so I always fit in a trip to nourish my soul. This year, I visited Munich and Paris – both cities with rich history, culture, arts, and diverse heritage.
HOW DO YOU MERGE ART AND PHILANTHROPY?
Art is a powerful tool to lobby for change and break stereotypes, while addressing prejudices that exist within us on a personal and social scale. Art has the power to show different sides to the same story, and helps provide transformative direction for people.
I have used my paintings, which often depict real stories and situations, to raise funds for various organizations working to improve the lives of women and children, including UNICEF, The Malala Fund, YWCA, Holiday Heroes Foundation, and women’s shelters in the UK and Scotland. If my work can help a child go to school, provide financial aid for a refugee family, or support a woman in starting her own business to achieve economic independence, then I truly feel that my art has become an action item.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART ABOUT YOUR WORK?
I feel very honored when someone tells me that they’ve been inspired or motivated by my work in some way, and that it has given them the courage and desire to start their own initiative. If my work can provide opportunities and resources for someone else, then that’s worth every ounce of sweat and energy that I’ve poured into a project.
AND THE TOUGHEST?
Change takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. I constantly remind myself that I am on a journey, and the ups, downs, challenges, and triumphs are all part of the process to create meaningful and lasting social change.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE RECEIVED?
Keep going. Look up. Head lifted, shoulders back, and eyes facing forwards. That’s what my father always used to tell me.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR YOUNG PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY WOMEN, TO WORK FOR CAUSES THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
We live in a society where we have the resources and freedom that is denied to millions of children on a daily basis. Yet, I have seen that violence and abuse do not discriminate. Regardless of where you are in this world, women and children remain the most disadvantaged groups. With the heightened violence and instability in midst of the global climate, it is easy for children to fall under the cracks and become a statistic, rather than nurturing and empowering them to thrive and strive.
We tend to think of children’s rights’ violations as an abstract concept, but for many children, the simple fact of having a childhood is a luxury. For example, survivors of female genital mutilation who underwent horrific physical and psychological trauma during childhood, child brides, children who witnessed their parents die due to extremism, child soldiers, refugee children who took on a new name to form a new identity, children who were denied an education because of their gender, children who were forced to work treacherous manual labor, children who were trafficked. I know people who went through each and every one of these situations. Their courage in sharing their stories of survival, resilience, and triumph over unimaginable adversity inspires me to do the work I do. By shining a light and putting a human face to these issues, we can bring about progress for all women and children.
WHAT ARE SMALL ACTIONS WE CAN TAKE TO HELP BETTER OUR WORLD?
Global change begins with local impact, which is why I emphasize that anyone and everyone can make a difference simply through acts of compassion and kindness.
What we want for ourselves we should want for every other person in the world – no matter their background, faith or beliefs. When we all walk in the same direction and join together in a spirit of respect and tolerance, we can move towards tangible change for all humanity.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE LOOKING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Everyone has a starting point. Your voice, your passion, and your activism can and do make a difference. Volunteer with a local organization, start a blog, write to your politicians, get involved in any way you can. Every ounce of activism makes its mark in the world.
AND FOR THOSE LOOKING TO START CREATING THEIR OWN ART?
Start the art! And encourage others to do the same. Art is beyond painting or drawing. It’s music, writing, story-telling… Arts are the humanities. Human emotions are universal. Whether we realize it or not, we are surrounded by art, in various forms and through a multitude of platforms.