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Mashqura Fareedi | Creating impact and joy

Mashqura was quite young when she decided to devote her career to socially impactful endeavours. Read on to understand the person behind Eastern Himalayan Foundation: a kind, compassionate soul with clear political and ideological stances.

Mashqura Fareedi | Creating impact and joy

“How is the weather in Darjeeling?” I ask, after exchanging pleasantries.

“I wish I could show you,” replies a beaming Mashqura, her eyes darting away from our Skype meeting to the window opposite her, “It is foggy, I will send you a picture.” The wistful look she wore testified her love for Darjeeling - a love that is at the kernel of her personal and professional decisions.

Early 1990s. Loreto Convent School, Darjeeling. An Adult Education Program was being hosted for Nepali migrant potters. A nervous but eager woman sat staring at an open notebook. Never having had the opportunity to write before, she seized a pencil and drew a line with so much vigour that it tore the page and another four pages beneath it. She looked up, confused, and met the eyes of a stunned little Mashqura. It was in that instant that Mashqura recognised the gaping hole in our education system; learning was a luxury accessible only to a select few.

Mashqura increasingly exhibited dauntlessness in the pursuit of her calling. In 2002, at a time when it was unusual for young women to travel all the way from Darjeeling to Mumbai for studies, she applied to a Master’s program in Social Work at Mumbai University. In two years, the city of dreams witnessed the earnest girl’s transformation into a confident and ambitious woman.

Soon, the mountains called and Mashqura answered. Back in West Bengal, she managed projects within the organisation that mentored her as a student volunteer. In 2007, she lifted the thick blanket of hills and once again set out to a metro city - this time, it was Delhi. In the next five years, she served in two organisations. She was a Program Manager at the Association for Democratic Reforms, the organisation that filed a public interest litigation demanding that politicians make their backgrounds public. Working with Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, she helped make environmental legislation more accessible and actionable.

A decade later, the deadly pandemic set in, forming the mise-en-scene to a pivotal moment in Mashqura’s life. She had been working in Bengaluru with the Azim Premji Foundation since 2017, learning the dynamics of a donor organisation and assisting the Andhra Pradesh government in tribal welfare schemes. “Amidst the spread of COVID-19, I worked with migrant workers, an experience that amplified my restlessness. I did not understand how we could be okay with thousands of migrants walking unimaginable distances because they have been rendered stateless all of a sudden,” says Mashqura, her concern and indignation evident.

She found herself questioning her plans for the future and struggling to find a sturdy rock to stand on. Every week, she confronted herself, aided by her partner, attempting to figure out her thought process. Finally, one thing was clear: Darjeeling was beckoning to Mashqura. A homecoming was inevitable.

Meanwhile, a cousin of hers landed in Bengaluru seeking treatment for a mild headache and brimming with plans for Mashqura. Passionate talks about developmental projects ensued, thrilling ideas were pitched, and Mashqura decided to return to Darjeeling in five years. A lot can happen in five years, but the plan to return was non-negotiable for her. However, an unprecedented turn of events waited merely three days in the future. Her cousin’s headache turned out to be fatal, leaving Mashqura to ponder over the transience of life. “We do not know what will happen this evening, let alone in half a decade,” she says, “We have to understand death.” Before long, she turned in her resignation at Azim Premji Foundation.

"Each of us is an influential part of a larger whole, and all of us impacts all of us. Of course, the youth had to be made aware of this and mentored sufficiently," says Mashqura.

“Initially, I wanted to start a school, but I knew how humongous a task it was. My mother ran a school in a remote village in Darjeeling, you see. And after three years, she had it registered as a government school. I made a pilgrimage of sorts to the place on New Year’s Day in 2022, and a villager I met there told me, ‘Your mother introduced us to education,’” says Mashqura, before adding, “I get goosebumps thinking of it.”

She continues, “I yearned to address the situation in my hometown, which I realised in horror, had not changed significantly in the last 20 years. I saw the young adults of Darjeeling grappling with meager growth opportunities and sinking into apathy toward social change. Each of us is an influential part of a larger whole, and all of us impacts all of us. Of course, the youth had to be made aware of this and mentored sufficiently.”

It was a leap of faith, but Mashqura was raised amidst her father’s tales of Buddhist monks and Sufi saints, and faith was no alien to her. Thus began her most exciting journey. Once in Darjeeling, she gathered a team of committed young professionals united in their mission. And that was the core team of Eastern Himalayan Foundation. Intrigued by EHF's concept, Azim Premji Foundation extended support to establish the organisation and develop a model of youth engagement.

On any given day, EHF is a hub of ideas, discussions, and deliberations

Eastern Himalayan Foundation invites the youth of Darjeeling and Kalimpong to join 10-month-long fellowships. The students study social issues and formulate possible solutions. The Foundation inspires students to acquire an education that is relevant in the current century. Collaborating with the Labhya Foundation, they developed a 'Curriculum for Improved Self Efficacy.' The program champions mental health awareness and healthy relationship building. Students emerge from the fellowship with a readiness to take care of themselves, their community, and the planet. EHF has graced prestigious lists; in 2023, the foundation was selected for IIMB's NSRCEL Incubation.

Mashqura looks forward to exposing EHF fellows to Kerala through aikyam space. Having known Shemeer since her time at Azim Premji, Mashqura cherishes a close bond with aikyam. She says, “I admire aikyam space’s endeavour to make the otherwise tough and lonely journey of changemakers a collaborative experience. Through aikyam space, I hope to attain more visibility for EHF and connect with potential partners.” 

“If you could alter something in society, what would it be?” I ask my last question.

Mashqura recalls a Buddhist teaching, “There will come a time when right will seem wrong and wrong will seem right. I think that this dystopia has already befallen us, and I envision a world where we challenge this state of affairs. A world where knowledge is decentralised and everyone is charting their own path, unafraid to raise questions.”

Mashqura Fareedi is the CEO and Founder of Eastern Himalayan Foundation, a Darjeeling-based non-governmental organisation that inculcates leadership values in youth and mentors them through immersive fellowships. 

Haneen Naseer profile image Haneen Naseer
Literature, travelling, cats, old books with yellowing pages. When I'm not chattering uncontrollably or losing my way in a new town, I try to write.