When I was in seventh grade, volunteer work was the cool thing to do. All the male athletes and the pretty girls went to a local orphanage on Saturdays to ‘give back’ to those less fortunate. To be honest, it was a chance to socialise outside of school — to see our friends in a non-classroom setting during the weekend. I may have started volunteering for the wrong reasons, but it introduced me to some incredible young people who continue to shape the way I see Pakistan’s youth and value the importance of education.
Khadim, Khalid, Rizwan, Arsalan and Adnan were the most mischievous boys at the SOS Children’s Village in Lahore. Ninety per cent of the time they did not pay attention in class, so getting them to come to extra tutorial sessions on Saturday was like pulling teeth. They had no interest in work and were defiant in its ability to bring them any kind of social mobility. Arsalan and Adnan were twins; Adnan was the more serious one while Arsalan hopped from desk to desk, humming a tune, convincing me to let them all leave the classroom for a game of cricket. Nothing could shake his optimism or confidence — not a stern look, not a bad grade, not an angry word from his brother. Life was beautiful for Arsalan because he had music. He would keep me up to date about all the latest Bollywood songs (with dance moves intact). I would never laugh at his jokes in the middle of a math lesson, but there were times when he saw me hide laughter in the corner of the classroom. He knew he was my favourite.
I always spent at least 30 minutes after every session with the boys, while they wrestled with each other or forced the girls out of the playground. But sometimes, they showed me another side — a quieter one. One day Rizwan opened up to me about losing his parents. He asked me what it felt like to have a mother and a father. I was 15 at the time and had no idea how to answer the question.
Parents give you love and affection but more than anything else, they are our gauges for navigating the world, our protectors from the unknown. The SOS Children’s Village offered infrastructure in the lives of these young boys. It gave them a roof over their head, a family of other children, and an education, but it lacked the arm-chair conversations that we have with our parents when we have no idea what we are doing with our lives; when we are confused, head held in our hands, questioning our own strengths and abilities.
I volunteered every summer before I left for college and did my best to get the boys excited about their schoolwork. But soon I realised, anyone could teach them basic arithmetic or complicated grammar. They needed more. I talked to them about lessons they could learn in the classroom — why prayer was important, why humanity was the core of Islam, how to treat girls and most of all how to treat each other.
Soon seventh grade became twelfth grade and I was ready to leave Lahore for college. I could not spend as much time with them after high school. Trips in college were so short-lived and hurried — but I noticed Arsalan growing distant every time I visited. He would stare at his feet while the rest of the boys talked about their year — their exam grades, their transfer to the all-boys boarding school across the street. They had all grown up and understood that soon they would be out of the surveillance of SOS and forced to stand on their own two feet. The administration at SOS gave Arsalan many professional options after he resisted school and flunked out of class — a tailor, a mechanic, a driver — but all he wanted was to be a singer. He had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard. SOS complimented him on his talent but said it could be no more than a hobby because it would not support him. I agreed with them but it was always hard for me to say it to Arsalan’s face. Why couldn’t he dream big the way we could?
Today Arsalan has left SOS, according to his twin brother Adnan. He sleeps in a sheesha store because he grew tired of running the shwarma machine. He no longer believes in school or music. This shouldn’t be his life.
I have always been told that we should all do our part in giving back to Pakistan in the little way that we can. Changing the education system and removing corruption are all noble feats but if we can’t help the lives around us, what is the point? I cannot help Arsalan alone. I want to be able to give him options he can get excited about. I want to help him fulfill his dream of singing with a band. We can all put our minds together to help him out of the rubble. His story isn’t over; we can change it.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 10th, 2012.