“My husband and I used to wonder how the country’s economic and social conditions would change if the majority of Pakistan’s children were deprived of quality education,” says Shabina Mustafa, founder of The Garage School. “But it was only after his death that I got around to dedicating myself to teaching children who would otherwise not get an opportunity to go to school.”
The foundation of The Garage School (TGS) was laid in 1999 when Shabina’s maid convinced her to teach her daughter, cleaning out the garage for the purpose, as it was the only place in her house which could be dedicated to giving lessons to the little girl. But Somia wasn’t Shabina’s only student — news that she would be giving lessons for free had spread quickly in the neighbourhood and on the first day of ‘school’ 14 bright faces eagerly turned towards Shabina as she stepped into that single-room school, ready to teach.
Those were the humble beginnings of The Garage School, as it came to be called, and from that point on there was no looking back. Children who could not gain admission in a regular school and students from the nearby slums of Neelum Colony and Shah Rasool Colony flocked in droves to Shabina’s home, keen to learn. In fact, the number of enthusiastic learners who would turn up outside Shabina’s door simply kept increasing by the day.
While multiplication tables and match-the-word exercises were very much a part of daily school lessons, it was more than just book knowledge that TGS aimed to impart. It had a more holistic view to education: making these children competitive, responsible, healthy, well behaved and successful. Shabina often reminds her students of the 4 T’s on which her system is based: Taleem (education), Tarbiat (upbringing), Taur (manners), Tariqay (behaviour) — which, she believes, lead to the fifth T, that is Taraqqi (success).
“This is our motto. I always tell my students that I can only help them in obtaining the first four tools, but achieving success depends upon their hard work and determination,” says Shabina.
At the same time, Shabina also feels she has the responsibility of grooming and coaching these children so that they can be accommodated in mainstream institutions. In 2002, she approached Nasra School and prepared the students for its entrance exam. “I want them to progress to a respectable career. It makes me feel really proud that 22 of my students were accepted at Nasra School and 16 by St Patrick’s Technical College,” she says.
She loves talking about all the success that her students have achieved since the school first started. “There was Anil who passed out of Nasra, then went to Bahria College and is now a manager at a multinational company. Another boy stood first in the Aga Khan Board exam while his brother is a straight ‘A’ student who wants to be a doctor. And from our first batch of English conversation and grooming classes, eight girls are working as beauticians at leading salons.”
“Joining this school was a turning point in my life,” says Mohammed Asad, who is currently studying at Aga Khan Secondary School and plans to join the Pakistan Air Force as an aeronautical engineer. “TGS is the reason that I am studying in a good college today,” he says proudly.
With the children coming from slums, health care often emerges as a serious concern. In 2002, Dr Khalid Bhamba offered his services. Now, whenever a new student is admitted, he is medically examined. Most students are found to be malnourished. “We cannot expect unhealthy bodies to have healthy minds. So with the help of pharmaceutical companies, we give them multivitamins and vaccines of hepatitis, typhoid and flu annually. Also, the school provides food, such as milk, eggs, fruits and juices, for all the children on a regular basis.”
Brimming with new ideas and eager to expand her philanthropic activities, Shabina started the adult literacy programme in 2008, with 25 women. So far 42 students have completed the adult literacy course. The Garage School is also offering sewing classes and Shabina envisions that these will one day become the basis for the Garage School Cottage Industry where women can earn money by stitching and selling clothes. TGS also underscores the habit of saving money so that these children learn to plan for the future from an early age. Initially, they were provided piggy banks, but now the piggy banks have been transformed into 32 separate bank accounts at Bank Al-Habib.
With enrolment increasing by the day, Shabina has had to expand her premises. “I need more space to accommodate all the projects but people are reluctant to help,” she laments. “We are in dire need of monetary help and are looking for teachers to volunteer their time too.”
While this may not be enough to solve the social and economic conditions of the country just yet, at least now Shabina knows that she is doing her bit.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 19th, 2012.