Mission Accomplished: The Heroic Story of Babar and Haris Suleman’s Flight for Education
By Amjad Noorani
The heart-wrenching story begins with two intrepid pilots who set out to raise awareness – and $1 million – to educate Pakistani children by attempting to fly around the world in 30 days. Tragically, both lost their lives when their single-engine aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean on the final leg of the adventure, but there is no doubt that the mission was accomplished. Their courageous journey has so far collected more than $2.5 million to help some of the world’s poorest girls and boys.
With a heavy heart, we offer this story as a tribute to Babar Suleman and his teenage son, Haris.
Babar, 58, an engineer of Pakistani origin, had a passion for flying which had rubbed off on his son Haris, 17, a high school junior who got his private pilot license just a few months before embarking on their ambitious trip. To be pilot in command or PIC through the entire flight, ‘Captain’ Haris also completed special training for his instrument rating just days before taking off from their home base of Plainfield, Indiana. As their planning progressed, Babar spoke with his close friend Azher Khan, a director on the board of a well-recognized education non-profit – The Citizens Foundation, USA . Babar felt strongly about choosing TCF as the beneficiary of their mission and he set a goal to raise a million dollars for education. Much more on this a little later.
In preparing his Beech Bonanza single engine airplane for the long and highly demanding trip, Babar had added extra fuel tanks and high quality avionics. He also added the TCF green leaf logo to the fuselage to express support for education (picture). Like any teenager, Haris was just happy to be on an adventure of a lifetime—and a noble mission to give the flight an added purpose: a storybook adventure and mission that he hoped to tell his friends and family for years to come.
Haris was excited about seeing the world and couldn’t wait to get going. Finally, on June 19, 2014, as they rolled down the runway, the mission had taken wings. Next stop: the Canadian Forces Base at Goose Bay and on to Reykjavik, Iceland. With prudent planning, they hopped over the northern land masses to get across the Atlantic, reaching England on June 26. There was a stop in Rome and then across the Mediterranean to Egypt. (Haris blogged with glee about his trip to the Pyramids). After a brief stop in the United Arab Emirates, they landed in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, Pakistan, to a rousing welcome from elite officers of the air force along with TCF supporters, friends and family.
The flight continued to Sri Lanka, Kuala Lumpur and eastward to Bali, Australia and the Pacific Islands. Reading their blogs and emails, one could sense that Babar and Haris were excited to be on the home stretch of the Pacific and, leaving American Samoa, the plan was to head for Hawaii, on to California and then home to Indiana.
That’s when things went wrong on July 22 nd, just 23 miles off the American Samoa. The Beech Bonanza crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The shock to the family, friends and TCF supporters who had followed their adventure was beyond description. Yet, in many ways, it is what has happened since that terrible day that has illustrated how a silver lining can shine through even the darkest of clouds. In those difficult hours and days after the accident, as family and friends grieved the loss, they found solace in the knowledge that the young lives of Babar and Haris were not lost in vain.
During their flight, they visited some TCF schools in Pakistan and met the boys and girls benefiting from the mission to bring a quality education to some of the country’s most dilapidated urban slums and poor rural areas. They saw firsthand how the money they were raising would help these children. It was a message the family wanted underlined in the aftermath of the accident. But nobody could guess then just how much of a legacy the Sulemans would leave behind.
They had already raised a substantial amount for TCF in Indianapolis, and they were half way to their goal as they flew from country to country, telling well-wishers why support for education in Pakistan was so important. After the crash, the money has continued to pour in from old friends and from total strangers touched by their story.
Two successful entrepreneurs, both old school friends of Babar, have made substantial contributions. Ashar Aziz of Silicon Valley donated enough to make the Sulemans’ $1 million fund-raising goal a reality. Another vivid illustration of Babar and Haris’s impact is of Ejaz Shameem's renewed commitment to support TCF. Mr Shameem, a civil engineer and owner of an Illinois firm, attended school with Babar in Sargodha, Pakistan. The friendship was revived when both migrated to the US.
Ironically, Shameem first heard of TCF in 1997 while in South Korea on business, from a column by the well-known Karachi activist-philanthropist Ardeshir Cowasjee who was a major TCF supporter. (A flagship TCF school campus is the ‘Cowasjee Campus’ which houses seven school units). On Mr Cowasjee’s word, Shameem became a TCF donor and has followed its phenomenal growth. So, when Babar and Haris announced their plans, Shameem committed to funding a school - "in memory and gratitude for my parents and for my motherland.” In the wake of the accident, Shameem felt the urge to do much more and has committed to build a cluster of four TCF schools in Okara, Punjab, and to give lifetime support for the schools through TCF's 'Future Fund' endowment program. Local TCF chapters across the US have also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars at fund-raising galas dedicated to the lost pilots.
“Would I give up the funds and have them back? Yes, in a heartbeat,” said Azher Khan, Babar’s close friend and head of the TCF Indiana Chapter. “But their efforts put this into another sphere. They gave their lives to help educate children in Pakistan. There has been a huge outpouring of support, and that includes donors in Pakistan. Haris is a hero there. The TCF kids look up to him and many of them now dream of being pilots.”
Haris was the youngest of the Sulemans’ three children, all born in the US. “It was a huge shock and it remains so today,” said Haris’ brother, Cyrus, 29, who was studying in London at the time of the accident. “But they really inspired people to give. From the family’s perspective, one consistent message that we have been passing along is that even though it was a huge loss, we hope it affects peoples’ lives in a positive way.”
Sister Hiba, 24, says the support following the tragedy has been overwhelming. “Within hours of it happening, I got messages from all over the world – from Austria, Germany and England to Bangladesh and Australia, and even from American Samoa. My dad set the target at $1 million. We asked: why did he set it so high? It looked so hard to achieve.” Hiba said the family is proud that Haris will be posthumously awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, the nation's third-highest civilian honor, at a ceremony next March, adding that while her brother was very cognizant of his Pakistani upbringing, “Haris was an American boy. He was born in America and raised 100% American. His life is also a role model for American children. Heroes come in all shapes, colors and sizes.”
Mission accomplished . We salute Babar and Haris Suleman with the knowledge that they will live forever in the hearts of many Pakistani children. The country and people of Pakistan are grateful to our heroes. Their contribution to education is in the history books.
Read more on NBCNews.com .
THE CITIZENS FOUNDATION, USA supports the building of civil society in Pakistan and promotes gender equality by providing quality scientific and balanced education for underprivileged children.
TCF (Pakistan) Website: http://www.tcf.org.pk
For photographs and more information about The Citizens Foundation and Babar and Haris’s courageous journey please contact:
Amjad Noorani. Phone: +1 (650) 793 6364. Email: email@example.com