A boy named Arsalan

Published: January 10, 2012

The writer works at 4INFO, a San Franciso-based mobile advertising start-up and has previously worked at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. She is an honour’s graduate of Stanford University

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.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Reader
    Jan 10, 2012 - 1:03AM

    You can write. InshaAllah we will soon live in a Pakistan in which Arsalan has the luxury of chasing his dreams.Recommend

  • Falcon
    Jan 10, 2012 - 1:16AM

    An inspiring and insightful story. I think there is an Arsalan in all of us. On that note, it would have been good to see your thoughts on what could be done to help him. Will getting him a break with one of the music bands do?

    Recommend

  • hazrat wali kakar
    Jan 10, 2012 - 1:17AM

    daer anna , it is source of excitement and inspiration for all us to serve the humanity free of cast.there you are talking about only Arslan that you know only but her our society is having many hundreds same story.in the last if we work as team for humanity devotedly insha allah we will get ride from it soon.best of luck.Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Jan 10, 2012 - 1:25AM

    I too volunteered at SOS village along with a couple of friends. While I may add, I may also have done it for the wrong reasons i.e. To socialize with the opposite sex and to get the certificate for my university admissions, it introduced to me a whole new dimension. Infact, it has instilled in me a passion to help the unfortunate.

    Recommend

  • wat da ef
    Jan 10, 2012 - 1:55AM

    Oh its so heart wrenching :( ….I wish I could do something for him..I m an undergraduate student from karachi…I would atleast talk to him or just hug him if I were in lahore…….

    loads of love and may God always protect him ….( amen)

    Recommend

  • 27
    Jan 10, 2012 - 5:14AM

    Beautifully written! Maybe after these elections Pakistan can become a platform for growing for people like Arsalan rather than a platform for corruption.

    Recommend

  • Jan 10, 2012 - 11:46AM

    Can’t we get this message across to the bands like strings or maybe Shehzad Roy, who might volunteer to get students from SOS village and train them in this field if they have interest. Once out of school they could work on their passion after work and might make some extra money. I am sure a lot could be done in this regard.

    Recommend

  • Anna Khan
    Jan 10, 2012 - 2:52PM

    If anyone has any interesting job opportunities for Arsalan, please get in touch with me. Also, if you have any links to the music industry I would love to give him some options. I was thinking a gig with coke studio would be a dream come true for him. Suggestions please!

    Recommend

  • Usman
    Jan 10, 2012 - 9:37PM

    There was nothing new point adressed in this stroy. Pakistan is FULL of such cases. Anna Khan and we all need to find solution of our problems because we all know problem but not solution.

    Recommend

  • Sane Voice
    Jan 10, 2012 - 10:13PM

    You have got the will; you have raised your voice; you have shown your concern; the only thing which is left is; let’s do it!!!

    Recommend

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