MOORHEAD — While on a vacation to his home country of India in 2013, Riaz Aziz and his wife learned of the challenges many women face there every day — little to no access to running water, a lack of proper bathrooms, hygiene products or even electricity, tin ceilings with holes and one meal per day.

"As a teacher, and certainly as somebody who teaches students in their 20s, there are things in America we take for granted," Riaz Aziz says. "Everyone here drives a car or has a cellphone or a bicycle, but there we are talking about women who don't even have the ability to make some choices sometimes — let alone have running water or electricity in their homes."

Aziz says in developing countries, as soon as a young woman hits puberty, generally between the ages of 13 and 15, she is told to marry and begin having children. Without a proper education, these girls blindly follow what is "expected" of them without questioning it — taking away their ability to choose what life they want to have and taking away their innocence.

"The idea for our foundation's mission is based on what Nelson Mandela said: 'Education is the most powerful tool to end poverty,'" Aziz says. "Nothing ends poverty sooner than education. The statistics in India are overwhelming. If you're a woman with no education, there's a 20-22 percent chance you will educate your children. You haven't been exposed to it, so why would you?"

When a woman has gone through college and gained a "formal" education, he says the probability that she will educate her children rises to more than 90 percent.

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Daughter Kalpita Nayak (right) stands with her parents in Bhubaneswar, India. Many of the women helped by the Begunahi Foundation live in small homes without basic necessities like running water. Riaz Aziz / Special to The Forum
Daughter Kalpita Nayak (right) stands with her parents in Bhubaneswar, India. Many of the women helped by the Begunahi Foundation live in small homes without basic necessities like running water. Riaz Aziz / Special to The Forum

The Begunahi Foundation, which means "innocence" in Hindi, was established by Aziz and his wife, Delana Aziz, who live in Comstock, Minn., just south of Moorhead, to find those "diamonds in the rough" — women who grew up very poor but have defied the odds and obstacles to graduate high school and are trying to decide what's next.

"We go into the bowels of Indian poverty areas and we look for those women," Aziz says. "Those women who by any measure of the imagination should have given up a long time ago based on what they've had to struggle with, and we say to them, 'If you could go to college, pick any school in India, any major you want, where would you go?' and we cover 100 percent of their needs."

Since the foundation's beginnings in 2013, 18 young women have been lifted out of poverty and given a chance to shine, whether it's the opportunity to attend college or work in the foundation's sewing factory that gives them skills to stitch clothing and cloth as a trade. In addition to the 18 girls, the foundation provides sanitary napkins to over 100 young ladies in a north Indian village, giving them access to hygienic practices as they enter a new stage.

Making a difference

Supporting these women comes with a price, something Aziz definitely understands.

"Our foundation's mission, 100 percent of donations go to the girls," he says. "All administration costs to run the foundation is done by my family."

Beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 27, at Fargo's St. John Lutheran Church, the Begunahi Foundation will hold its second annual fundraising event to raise money for scholarships and materials. Ten percent of all tickets sold will be donated to the YWCA of Cass-Clay to help women and families right here in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Giving back gives Aziz a sense of community, and he encourages others to do the same.

"I have been blessed to have many jobs in my career," he says. "But the best is this one with this foundation."

For some women, their chances of attending college are severely limited when they are taken out of school at 13 or 14 years old. The Begunahi Foundation created a sewing center, like this one in Lucknow, India, to allow women to learn a trade to provide for their families. Riaz Aziz / Special to The Forum
For some women, their chances of attending college are severely limited when they are taken out of school at 13 or 14 years old. The Begunahi Foundation created a sewing center, like this one in Lucknow, India, to allow women to learn a trade to provide for their families. Riaz Aziz / Special to The Forum

If you go

What: Begunahi Foundation's second annual fundraiser

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 27

Where: St. John Lutheran Church, 1710 Fifth St. S., Fargo

Info: $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and younger; ticket prices include traditional Indian food, a silent auction and a performance of Indian dances. For more information, visit www.begunahi.org.