Foundation laying ceremony at the Asian University for Women

Speech delivered January 18, 2011, in Chittagong, Bangladesh

Mrs. Blair, Members of the AUW Support foundation, distinguished guests, students, faculty, staff and friends of the Asian University for Women.

I am deeply grateful to Mrs. Blair and AUW for affording me the opportunity to attend this historic event and for the privilege of addressing this distinguished gathering.

Let me begin by congratulating Mr. Kamal Ahmed for his vision and for his courage to pursue a dream that many would have considered impossible…  

A dream to build an institution of higher learning for women in Asia — women who will become Asia’s and the world’s future leaders.

I wish to commend the many volunteers from around the world—who themselves are global leaders in their own right—for sharing in Kamal’s vision and for supporting the Asian University for Women.

I also wish to congratulate Prime Minister Hasina, Foreign Minister Moni, and the Government of Bangladesh for their foresight in hosting and supporting the University.

On this momentous occasion a historic parallel comes to mind, which is the establishment of the Muhammedan Anglo Oriental College, predecessor to the famous Aligarh Muslim University founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in 1875. 

The British Viceroy Lord Lytton in laying the foundation stone of the College on January 8 1877 described it as “An epoch in the social progress of India.”

Similar to the cultural conflicts between the West and the Muslim world of today, there were also cultural differences and mutual suspicions between the British and the Indian Muslims in 1877.

Sir Syed had a vision that the College could act as a bridge between the old and the new—between the East and the West.

Today, 134 years later, it is no exaggeration to say that the foundation of the Asian University for Women is building a bridge for the social progress of women in Asia.

At a time when liberal values are under threat, particularly in this part of the world, the establishment of AUW’s campus is a triumph of hope over despair.
To set a broader context, let me paint a picture of the planet we call home.

During the last century, humanity has made progress on many fronts while we may have fallen behind in others.

Today, at the very same time that our world enjoys enormous potential, it also faces extraordinary challenges that threaten our very existence as a species.

These challenges include environmental degradation, scarcity of food, and want for safe drinking water—even in some of our communities in Canada.

The threats we face also include abject poverty, human rights violations, and discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, and gender.

This latter challenge, of course, tends to impact women in far more substantive and destructive ways than men.

And this is tragic for all humanity, because women represent the bedrock of our families and our communities.

In fact, it is clearly evident that for societies to be able to make progress, women must be given equal opportunity, and they must be allowed to play leadership roles.

It is very gratifying to see that the positions of Prime Minister and Foreign Minister are held by women here in Bangladesh—clear evidence of the progress this country has made.

However, much more needs to be done. We must strive towards making our world a better place for all of its citizens—including women—and we need more champions for the cause.

Within this context, there is no better tool than education to level the playing field for women and to bring about the kind of social change that will benefit all of humanity.

Making education accessible to women is absolutely essential to social progress, otherwise we limit the potential for developing the leaders our world so desperately needs to only half the population.

The Asian University for Women is doing just that… it is tapping into the full potential of all humanity by educating the future leaders who will transform our communities—our world—for the better.

Education has been critical throughout my life. Indeed, it has shaped who I am today.

Please allow me to share my personal story with you as an example of what education can do. I am sure that many students who are present here will share similar if not more powerful stories of their own.

Who would have thought that a boy from a tribe in the hills of South Eastern Bangladesh—facing challenges brought about by war and political conflict—would stand here before you as the President of a century-old Canadian institution?

Neither my parents nor I would have ever dreamt of this happening.

I was born into a hill tribe, the Chakma tribe, about 50 kilometres from here near the town of Rangamati in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

My ancestors were farmers who used to make their living on land in the river valleys of the river Karnafully surrounded by the hills. In the 50s the land was lost due to a hydroelectric project. This disrupted our livelihoods.

I was very fortunate to have parents who placed a great value in education. Rather than moving the family to the remote areas of the hills, as was the case with many, my parents decided to stay close to the town which allowed us access to schools.

My father was a meritorious student but could not attend university because his family could not afford it.

My mother did not have a university education either, but through her spirit and determination she became a primary school teacher.

My parents had very high aspirations for my siblings and me. My mother, the teacher, played a very special role in instilling in all of us important values, such as striving for excellence in education.

The story of my family is one of many examples of the strength of the human spirit. It is in an example of the transformative power of education.

It is also an example of what can be achieved through hard work, dedication and relentless pursuit of excellence in education.

Now let me return to the main purpose of our being here—the laying of the foundation for AUW.

Kamal and the AUW Foundation board laid the intellectual foundation for this visionary university some years back. Today we are laying the foundation of the physical entity. 

This empty land will soon be filled with spaces designed to inspire and nurture learning by the famous Moshe Shafdie.

And the halls and the corridors of the beautiful buildings will be populated by bright young women—Asia’s future leaders.

So let me turn to our students.

You are a very privileged group of bright young women who will be among the first graduates of this new institution.

You are receiving a very high-quality education in an environment that is designed to foster the spirit of service to the community and humanity.

You represent the hopes and aspirations of the entire region. I have no doubt that each one of you will emerge as leaders in whatever you chose to do, and I hope that you’ll dedicate your talents and energy to make our world a better place.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate and thank Moshe Safdie—a fellow Canadian—for his inspiring design of the AUW campus.

Like all Safdie projects, I have no doubt that it will be a masterpiece.

The maxim, “If you build it, they will come” will hold true for this campus, and together we are sewing the seeds for a field of dreams.
Students and scholars from Asia and other parts of the world will come to this campus to participate in this exciting project for years and generations to come. Those of us who are participating at this event today will be able to cherish the beautiful memory of this day also for years to come.

Thank you very much for this memorable opportunity, and I wish you all the very best for continued success.