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Sarah Belal: Taking Stock Leads to Gaining Perspective

Bold Idea: Locked in a passionate struggle for prisoners’ human rights, pausing in her mission was the last thing Sarah Belal planned to do. But by taking the time to notice and learn from her mistakes, she gained not only confidence in how to move forward, but also an unexpected community of support.

Sarah Belal, a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow, created Justice Project Pakistan to provide investigative and legal services to those whose poverty or low social class puts them at a disadvantage in the Pakistani justice system. Fresh out of Oxford and back in her native land, Sarah was appointed the lawyer of prisoner Zulfigar Ali in 2009. He wasn’t the first Pakistani prisoner to suffer from a corrupt legal system, but filing his mercy petition was Sarah’s first foray into a calling that would soon consume her life—advocating for the human rights of Pakistan’s most vulnerable prisoners.

“Zulfiqar helped me realize what I wanted to do with my life,” she remembers. Her dedication attracted the notice of outside partners and investors, but Sarah found that advocating for financial support was almost as onerous as the pleading the cause of prisoners. The burden of proof was always on her.

“I hadn’t taken time to think through where I was going to be, where I wanted to be. My board had been asking me to think about these strategic issues, but I was so involved in the day-to-day work, I hadn’t taken that time out.”When an executive from London’s Reprieve, Justice Project Pakistan’s mentor organization, recommended that Sarah apply for an Echoing Green Fellowship, it was a revolutionary idea for her. She had never considered seeking out investors for herself as an individual, let alone approaching the United States for support.

The 2012 New Fellows’ retreat offered Sarah an opportunity that proved crucial to the health and growth of her organization—a chance to sit down. “It was the first time in three years I could really take stock of how hard it had been for me personally,” she remembers wryly. “I view it as an incredible opportunity to get back in touch with myself, to recharge my batteries, to get motivated and inspired by people who are trying to achieve similar things.”

Being surrounded by positive support, she said, allowed her to reflect honestly on the mistakes that had been made in the past three years of running JPP. She was used to taking a more aggressive, assured stance around funders, always having to be on her A-game and present things in the best possible light. But the environment of Echoing Green, among funders and fellows, was entirely different. “Here you could be very honest, share your fears as well as your successes.”

It wasn’t only cathartic, she says, it was also very helpful. Identifying the weaknesses of the past three years led to learning incredibly practical skills for making the organization stronger. “That’s training you never get!” she marvels.

One of the most helpful lessons was around morale building. Her dedication to the needs of Pakistani prisoners had not only made her neglect her own personal needs, but had also caused her to forget the importance of keeping a team motivated and hopeful. “It sounds really small, but in the kind of work that we do, it’s so important,” she says. In the face of Pakistan’s 8,000 prisoners, many of whom suffer severe mental trauma from protracted trials, and the numerous cases of inequitable treatment and extrajudicial action by the government, the importance of encouraging hope among advocates can’t be understated.

Sarah herself was immensely encouraged by the camaraderie among Echoing Green Fellows. “Although we had vastly different organizations, I was really pleasantly surprised by how similar our struggles were, personally and professionally. It was just incredible to be able to share that with people, and learn from their experiences. The people I’ve met, I feel closer to than people I’ve had in my life for the past six years. They understand you in a way that no one else in your life does. They feed my soul personally, but also professionally.”

As Justice Project Pakistan persists in the lengthy, complicated process of securing just litigation for Pakistani prisoners, along with cultivating international awareness and training the country’s litigators to improve the system from within, she hopes that her new connections remain strong. Despite the distance between the U.S. and Pakistan, allies with whom she can continue to reflect on where she’s falling short, as well as champion her successes, will keep her feeling motivated, balanced, and supported.

Think Big: Learn more about Sarah’s essential and complex legal work representing the most vulnerable prisoners in the justice system with the Justice Project Pakistan. While many Echoing Green Fellows hail from the business world, Sarah is one of the many who are lawyers—poised for significant social impact by coupling their unique skills and access to legal systems with a passion for human rights. Read our briefings on:

Priti Radhakrishnan and Tahir Amin, 2008 Fellows and founders of I-MAK, a public interest team of attorneys and scientists who ensure that patents do not obstruct access to affordable medicines for poor patients in developing countries.

2005 Fellow Rachel Micah Jones, a Spanish-speaking migrant legal services attorney who is committed to advocating for the rights of low-wage migrant workers from Mexico.

Rebecca Heller, a 2010 Echoing Green Fellow creating a system of legal representation for Iraqi refugees living in dangerous situations overseas in order to ensure their timely resettlement in a safe third country.

2002 Fellow Dylan Vade, working to connect transgender individuals and their families to technically sound and culturally competent legal services. In 2006, he started a small non-profit project that makes educational films that celebrate all bodies and expose absurd legal practices.

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