Meral Guneyman. (Photo by Frank Veronsky/frankveronsky.com)

Ten years ago, Zebu Jilani and her late husband, Arshad, were compelled to help women from their home country of Pakistan. Now, Jilani is celebrating a decade of service.

Coming to Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington on Saturday, Feb. 1 starting at 7:30 p.m. will be a charity concert featuring Pennington resident and international pianist, Meral Guneyman. The concert will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Jilani’s organization, the Swat Relief Initiative. SRI is strictly volunteer only, and Jilani says 100% of all proceeds will go towards the organization’s projects.

Founded in 2010 by Zebu Jilani and her late husband, Arshad Jilani, SRI aids disadvantaged women and children in the Swat Valley area of northern Pakistan. Both born in Pakistan, the Jilani’s felt they needed to help the area that was brutalized by Taliban and suffered a surge of refugees as well as a flood and earthquake.

SRI has a multi-faceted focus on Swat, with initiatives in community mobilization, promoting self-sufficiency, advocating for women and girls’ education, aiding refugees, healthcare, environmental awareness and empowering the economy.

“We try to do this holistic program because we feel that they’re all interrelated,” Zebu Jilani said. “All these sectors try to help human growth and development. If someone has education but they don’t have health, they cannot get educated.”

Jilani’s great grandfather and grandfather, who was the last ruler of Swat, completed work in establishing structured government and justice, school and hospital systems to the previously tribal area. These monumental initiatives in Swat Valley have now been picked up by Jilani.

The late Arshad Jilani and his wife Zebu Jilani (fourth and fifth from left, respectively), Pakistani American co-founders of the Pennington-based non-profit Swat Relief Initiative, officiate the dedication of an SRI-funded clean-water hand pump in the small village of Chail Shagai in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan in 2017.

“Her grandfather, who was the last ruler, was so socially forward and he was educated and was a real service oriented person and they’ve really carried his ideals through and they’ve used their family name and resources to turn it around to help this community in a way that no one else would have been able to,” SRI Outreach Manager Eileen Foti said.

Jilani’s husband, who passed in Nov. 2018, worked tirelessly for SRI’s mission and was the one who originally suggested they start a fund with their personal money to avoid overhead costs. This allows for the nonprofit’s continued promise of 100% of donations going into their work with disadvantaged people.

The idea behind the concert came from the passing of the SRI co-founder, prompting Guneyman to offer her service in honor of Arshad Jilani. The Turkish American artist will be featuring a selection from a diverse portfolio of composers and genres. Music from Bach and Beethoven to The Beatles and David Bowie have been placed together to balance the combined tastes of Guneyman and Jilani.

Guneyman’s extensive philanthropy and work as a cultural advisor to World Council of Peoples for the United Nations contribute to the award-winning Steinway artist’s positive, innovative view on the performance.

“This concert will not only raise funds for girls’ education in the Swat Valley and it’s not only going to honor the memory of a great man, it will also provide and promote cultural exchanges which is a big part of my profession,” Guneyman said.

The event will be co-hosted by two student organizations from Hopewell Valley Central High School. Culture Connections and Global Connections are representative of the youthful crowd that SRI would like to attract to this event. These organizations strive to promote cultural competency and awareness. The mission of SRI is one that young groups can connect to, as they strive to help young Pakistani girls who are at the same age.

“Our mission is to promote cultural competency and provide students and adults with the opportunity to learn about different cultures through interactive workshops and presentations,” President of Culture Connections Sachi Siyal said. “This is something that really aligns with the Swat Relief Initiative because we are raising money to help the women in the Swat region of Pakistan. We are all here to help each other and I think that this concert really emphasizes the unity.”

By reaching out to groups such as the Girl Scouts of America, Princeton Girlchoir and the Montgomery School System, SRI hopes to advertise the event to a younger audience to promote charity and their cause through the sale of concert tickets.

Jilani expressed how sharing individual stories of trial and triumph is one way to connect with the community. One shining example is of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and women’s education advocate, who is from Swat Valley. SRI has done some work with Yousafzai in hopes that her name will further connect the youth of the community to the needs of Swat Valley.

“That’s one way that we’ve been able to get teenagers to volunteer because they hear a story like Malala’s and it makes them really interested in what’s going on,” Foti said.

Yousafzai’s mission for women’s education not only aligns with that of SRI’s mission but is one that resonates with Guneyman. The pianist quoted Yousafzai, stating her view that education should be for everyone is “spot on” with SRI’s values.

“I think I could belong to any nationality or culture and I could still connect with the mission of SRI as an educator and just a fellow human being,” Guneyman said.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for senior citizens and $10 for students. Doors will open at 7 p.m. at Hopewell Valley Central High School.

“If every person in this world does their part in educating or helping at least one person I think we can change the world,” Jilani said.