Despite tragedy, TEDx event in Karachi, Pakistan goes on

About a month ago, on an April morning just a day before their event, organizers of TEDxBahriaUKarachi in Karachi, Pakistan hurried to finish preparations for their big day. The only problem? The city was shut down.

Weeks earlier, a blast in the Abbas Town neighborhood of the city killed 45 people, while another in the Landhi neighborhood killed three. Pakistan’s parliamentary election, set to enact the country’s first transition from one civilian government to another in 66 years, was soon approaching, and the country was in crisis.

Just three days earlier, a bomb attack on the office of a Pakistani political party killed three people and injured 30. The city shut down in mourning. Co-organizers Furqan Hussain and Sana Nasir struggled to plan an event in a city shuttered.

Co-organizers Furqan Hussain and Sana Nasir

Undeterred, Furqan searched for a shop that was open to buy supplies to create a sign for the event, while Sana worked to print event materials. “Furqan had to paint and prepare the TEDx stencil on his own along with extensive travelling across the city just to find any shop that was open and was doing business,” said Sana. “We had to deliver as much as we had promised. Karachi has been under crisis for long and us being Karachiites have learnt to survive through such days.”

The TEDxBahriaUKarachi team

The most difficult part, said Sana, was creating an event that would live up to the talks from TED she had seen, and the TEDx events she’d read about. “Under the TEDx banner we had to glue everything together and create an entire TED environment, the one that enlightens the mind and lets everyone take home at least one idea that can change their lives after that,” she said. “Our theme ‘Ideas for Survival’ coincidentally proved to be right on.”

But as signs were painted and programs printed, tragedy struck and another blast occurred. Shops and homes were wrecked. 10 people were killed. 25 were injured. Sana and Furqan were inundated with text messages and phone calls from people asking if the event was still on.

“We were confused and really heartbroken because it felt that all our hard work was about to go down the drain,” Sana said. “However, we as a team didn’t lose hope; we managed to inform everyone that the event was still on.”

And on the event went. Five speakers gave talks to an audience gathered together to share ideas — even amidst tragedy. Speakers included Maria Memon, a journalist from Lahore, Pakistan who was named a CNN Journalism Fellow in 2011; young Karachian inventor and teacher Syed Adnan Sabzwari; and Dr. Sabir Michael, a professor of sociology at Bahria University’s Karachi campus, who was born blind, but refused to let it prevent him from obtaining higher education.

Audience members watch the event

“The one thing we wanted our audience to take back [with them] was hope,” Sana said. “‘Ideas for Survival,’ the theme, sowed the idea of surviving in situations when there’s less or no hope. Our event, in fact, survived through such a harsh situation when we lost hope ourselves, but the idea to bring a unique platform like TEDx was strong enough to help us through our hard times. That was what we wanted, that same string of hope for our audience to hold on to and our speakers to deliver.

"No one forgets when people come up to them and thank them for doing something good for them," she continued. “We cannot forget the time when our attendees came up to us and thanked us for short-listing them for the event. They now believed in the power of the ideas, in the power of X. Those were the best and the most unforgettable memories for the curators and the team. It felt as if all the running around and late hour work actually paid off.”

"TEDxBahriaUKarachi brought confidence to the people of Bahria and Karachi in general," Sana said. “They now believe in themselves that we as a community are capable of bringing change, capable of understanding things, to organize an event with an international reach. The confidence that the voices in their community will be heard by not only them but by the people who belong to different races, cultures, religions and even ethnicities. They got to know what strong ideas are and how those ideas are given the right direction.”

(Photos by Safa Imtiaz Ali and Syed Wajahat Ali)

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