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Omar Hafiz: The changemaker

Post by on Sunday, November 28, 2021

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Omar Hafiz, a young development practitioner and founder of The STEARS (step towards educated and responsible society), does not view a lack of resources as a hurdle to work in society. Omar continues to work on serious issues that concern the youth, education, peace and communities, which won him many accolades from the social development field.
Specializing in conflict transformation and leadership, Omar has conducted more than 1000 workshops in the last decade covering the 21st-century core competencies, UN sustainable development goals, peacebuilding, disaster management, cognitive & communication functions, critical thinking, metacognition which according to him, people have little or no knowledge.
 
Hailing from South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, Omar had begun his journey in the social sector in the school itself, by distributing stationery items and books among the children of the slum dwellers in his neighborhood and fundraising for the Red Cross. And since then, there was no looking back.
 
“When I was growing up, I spent time exploring myself. Once I had identified my weakness and flaws, I remained in denial mode that often leads to the creation of a fake identity. Self-exploration and self-acceptance consume a lot of time. When we discover our weaknesses, we don’t easily accept them. Rather, we end up creating a false persona to hide our flaws,” Omar explained.
 
Elaborating on this grave issue among the youth, Omar points out the detrimental role played by social media in escalating the ego. “The digital space has consumed much of the youngsters’ time, attention and energy in an unproductive way. They edit their stories to make them appear successful & glamorous, masking their failures. The journey of most people thus involves the creation of a fake identity. One should rather focus on attaining their true selves through self-exploration and self-acceptance and acquiring skills. Having more skills will enable one to be employable and not crave for employment,” he said.
This year, Omar received the Indian Achievers Award for ‘Promising Start-Up’ by the Indian Achievers’ Forum for his contribution towards nation-building through his organization The STEARS that works on building adaptive leadership in youth for bringing social change and community transformation by reimagining education.
STEARS was initiated as an online global campaign in 2017, focusing on the stereotypes faced by women and transgenders. The aim of the campaign was to create safe spaces for women and transgenders so that they could express their challenges, fears, and concerns. The campaign witnessed participation of volunteers from 55 countries who shared their stories through their social media handles.
Omar had also conducted research on suicides in India which had shown that it was mostly women who attempted or died by suicide. It also showed that women faced multiple pressures and were always at the receiving end of violence at home or outside. He also observed how transgenders were neglected, marginalized and stereotyped leading to their humiliation and ostracization in society.
The project was executed in two phases. In the first phase, women and transgenders could ask questions or share their stories through videos with the #letmeaskyou on social media handles.
In the second phase, men would answer the posed questions.
“Traditionally, women have always been at the receiving end of questions but through this campaign, the tables were turned. Here, they were the ones asking questions. So far, men had just been observers but through this campaign, men played an active role in understanding and responding to the questions,” he said.
In 2018, Omar was conferred the title of a Global Goodwill Ambassador for his efforts towards social inclusion, conflict management and peacebuilding through this campaign.
In 2015-2016, he worked with the Rohingya refugees focusing on child education and health in many parts of India for UNHCR. He had a key role in enrolling 800 Rohingya rag-picking children in schools.
 
Since over a decade, he has worked with different organizations from being a participant to a facilitator, a data analyzer and a mentor.
He has actively been working with more than 100 organizations at a local, national, and international level, covering multiple sectors including women empowerment, skill enhancement, livelihood, mental health issues, disaster management, relief and rehabilitation, child rights, capacity building, youth leadership, rural development, etc. Also in 2014, he carried out the relief and rehabilitation project from Give India through CHINAR Kashmir when Kashmir was hit by devastating floods.
The desire to reach out to his community through social work and creative experiential modules had started off while he was studying in college itself. Recalling his college days, Omar comes from a socio-technical background with a Masters in Computer Applications and Social Work.  While pursuing MCA from Islamic University of Science and Technology, he used to organize youth festivals and simultaneously attended international workshops.
In 2016, at Annamalai University, he completed his Masters in Social Work and simultaneously worked with the UNHCR and worked on a lot of central government projects.
One of his significant projects that he gave to that year was shooting a documentary called ‘Screaming Canvases’ that was viewed more than a million times on YouTube.
Omar has also pursued a one-year course on Social Change and Social Reform from the University of Pennsylvania. While pursuing his studies, it gave him an opportunity to understand conflict and peacebuilding from a broader and global perspective. His future plan is to engage with the youth and intervene in the North-East states of India.
He said, “Peace is a bookish term. There is no existence of humanity without conflict. Conflict transformation implies the inability of a person to do something especially when he has the intention to do so as he is in denial mode. When we capacitate youth, we tell them to focus on smaller problems, identify them and try to solve them.”
Having conducted 1300 workshops across India, Omar has trained around 20,000 youth in different fields like conflict management, leadership and problem solving, communication, critical thinking, self-awareness and self-expression and so on.
Omar however believes that conducting workshops outside Kashmir is far easier than doing them locally. He explains, “Outside Kashmir, if we conduct a workshop for even three days, we would see more participation but here even if we create a friendly atmosphere, people will barely turn up. Add to that, there were cultural sensitivities that had to be adhered to. Outside, people are aware about workshops. In Kashmir, people don’t even know what a workshop is and how it adds value to a life,” he said.
Apart from youth, he has done much work for children as well. Through his organization, The STEARS, children were given game boxes in collaboration with Anthill Creations that encouraged the children to learn through games and DIY activities promoting holistic education.
“Children are usually glued to their mobile phones. So, we hit upon the concept of including games to make learning fun and not boring. Apart from playing, it will also cause cognitive, physical and socio-emotional development in children from 6 to 12 years of age. After engaging with the activities, we found that the children were now staying away from their mobile phones.” he said.
 
As the ongoing pandemic had halted the outdoor activities of children, his recent project with a team of engineers from IIT Kharagpur in collaboration with Anthill Creations, was to provide children a safe amusement park, with the support of CHINAR Kashmir Home, an orphanage in Budgam. This was part of STEARS’ Safe Spaces for Children Project in Kashmir.
The highlight of the park was that it involved local communities and was built with reusable items such as tyres and plastics, thus being environmentally sustainable as well. The children were part of the park-building experience where they painted their park, encouraging community involvement, leadership, critical thinking, decision making and problem-solving amongst the young ones.
The STEARS also worked in the field of women empowerment through a collaborative program with the BG Foundation where girls from marginalized sections were provided with smartphones and were imparted lessons on leadership, communication, self-expression and confidence, financial literacy, legal literacy, digital literacy and health and nutrition.
Omar said, “I think my biggest achievement is that I have been able to create a global network. If people ask me for help, I have a number of options to provide them. I have started introducing prestigious organizations to Kashmir to work on the development front.”
Omar is also working to inculcate the reading habit among people by setting up community libraries across the 10 districts of Kashmir.
Over the years, Omar has received huge support from his father, Abdul Hameed Hafiz, who has been his mentor and great support in his journey. After losing him this year, he said, “my father was a great influence for me to be a social changemaker.”
 
 

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