A young braveheart from Kerala, Sifiya Haneef, was conferred with the Neerja Bhanot Award in a solemn ceremony here on Saturday.
The award was presented to her by Wendy Sue Knecht, who also worked with the Pan American World Airways in the '80s and had trained Neerja Bhanot in 1986. Knecht specially came here from Los Angeles for the award function. The award consists of Rs 1.50 lakh, a citation and a trophy.
The award was instituted in 1990 in memory of Neerja Bhanot, who saved hundreds of lives while sacrificing her own when a Pan Am flight from Mumbai to New York was hijacked at the Karachi airport on September 5, 1986.
A specially constituted jury comprising three Rotarians -- Sneh Popli, Manjit Kaur and Anu Dhingra -- selected Sifiya for the honour after she met the criteria laid down by the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, which stipulates that the awardee has to be an Indian woman who when faced with social injustice, overcomes it with guts and grit.
Akhil Bhanot, managing trustee at Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, said: "Sifiya got married when she was 16 and her studies were stopped. Unfortunately, her husband died when she was 20. She had two children by then. Sifiya wished to continue her studies, but did not get any support. Not willing to give up, she took on a part-time job and resumed her studies.
"After a lot of struggle and realising that life was very tough not only for her, but also for other widows as well, she started spending her salary on helping widows."
Sifiya started a Facebook page called 'Chithal' where she wrote about the issues facing widows.
She also met a lot of sick mothers, kids, elderly people and cancer patients, among others. She would update her page on the problems these people were facing and get public support to solve their issues.
Today, she is helping more than 300 families by providing them shelters, constructing toilets in colonies, distributing medicines and giving them pension, Bhanot said.
An emotional Knecht said: "Though a lifetime has passed, Neerja's generosity, her humanity and her sacrifice will never be forgotten."
"By fighting for justice, Neerja proved that you can re-write your story from being called a 'victim' to a 'hero'. The message that Neerja imparted upon the world was 'do the right thing, come what may'. This is what all of us must do. I too have been inspired to follow Neerja's path," she added.
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