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My decision to travel came as a surprise to many people. In 2012, after eight years as a social entrepreneur, I was headhunted for an important non-profit organisation in Ottawa, Canada. But I had already made my decision: 30 March would be the last day I would “go to work”.

Growing up, my father – an airline manager – was often sent on international postings; meaning every three years we would move to a new school in a new city and learn new cultures and languages. My parents spared no opportunity to go on family trips as well: I was just 11 the first time my friends and I camped with Bedouins in a Jordan desert. My nomadic childhood meant that my feet never stayed grounded in one place until my late teens. In an effort to become independent, I tried my hardest to have a stable, life. I went to university, I bought a car, I worked full time – but it always felt like a bit of a struggle.

I remember the day I decided to travel long term. During a two-week tour across Mexico I met a group of travellers who were heading through to Central America. I, on the other hand, had to return home. As I boarded my flight back to Ottawa, I wondered what kept me from going on, to Belize, Guatemala and further. Deep down that was what my heart desired, and once I realised that, something within me shifted.

I started imagining all the places I would go, the things I would be able to do with my new-found freedom. Less than three months after the Mexico trip, I headed to Costa Rica, this time taking a more off-the-beaten-track approach to test the limits of my comfort zone. That trip turned out to be one of the most remarkable experiences of my life and I realised that great things can happen when I let down my guard.

Since 30 March 2012, I have travelled from the tip of Cape Breton on Canada’s east coast to the source of the river Nile in Uganda. I have walked 850km across Spain on the Camino de Santiago and sand boarded the dunes of the Sahara. Travel has provided me with unexpected opportunities to grow and serve better as a social entrepreneur: inspired by the kindness of people in every corner of the world, I have helped find innovative solutions for communities in Europe, Africa and Asia.  

Mbale, Uganda Urooj Qureshi
Volunteering at a school in Mbale, Uganda. (Saul Ekusai)

After three months on the road, I realised I wanted my travel to have more meaning, so I started exploring local initiatives to build a deeper connection with the communities I was visiting. My first stop was volunteering on an organic farm in a small village outside of Timisoara, Romania, thanks to a tip from a traveller I had met in Spain a few months earlier. I was so inspired by this work that I reached out to my professional network, asking for leads to other grassroots volunteer programmes. The outcome of this single email was an invitation to Kenya and Uganda by two organisations, Elimu and the Canadian Friends of Pearl Children, who work to improve the lives of youth in some of the world’s most impoverished communities. I worked on the frontlines to understand their social objectives and assisted them in aligning their business and communications activities for greater impact. At Elimu, for example, we developed human interest stories to appeal to people back in Canada, using media, social networks and community programming strategies to deliver those stories with integrity and meaning. Working in the field, versus sitting in my office in Canada planning these activities, made a huge difference to what I delivered and how I felt about my work.

Word spread about my work with youth education, and I was invited to help create a programme in Pakistan to improve the quality of education at a school serving at-risk children from poor families. I raised seed funding to start The Lotus Project, and the 2013 pilot project has helped more than 1,000 children at a school in Karachi. At a distance now, I feel thrilled when one of the students signs up on Facebook and manages to locate me, when it was just a few months ago we started computer lessons at the school.  

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