Sara Khalid wants to join the army and “do something” for her country. Malaikah Laditta wants to open a free clinic for poor people. Laiba Riaz wants to be a cardiologist because her uncle has heart problems. Minahil Khalid wants to be a doctor because her mother was never allowed to practice medicine, let alone work at all.
These seventh, eighth and ninth grade girls are currently enrolled in CARE Foundation’s Access To English Language programme. With eyes lit up and smiles wide, they exuded a burst of energy that left me feeling overwhelmed. In all my years of being a student, I’ve never come across children with such impeccable manners.
They stood up as soon as I walked into their classroom, said Assalam-o-alaikum, and sat down. They spoke to me in a respectful tone, and even shook my hand after I finished asking them questions. It’s ironic how many students attending expensive schools turn out to be insufferable louts — spoilt, self-absorbed and oblivious to the notion of common courtesy.
When I was in middle school, I did not have a specific career path in mind. I did not understand the value of going to school. I thought my career would eventually piece itself together. Now I look back and realise I didn’t have anything at stake. An education happened to fall into my lap. I had the appropriate groundwork to pursue my professional endeavours. I did not know how it felt to come from nothing — my education is something I was never deprived of.
There are currently 25 million children out of school in Pakistan. That’s 25 million young minds withering away. Imagine how many hidden gems are folding clothes in boutiques, wiping windshields at gas stations, performing hard labour, cleaning bathrooms and begging on the streets. These children deserve a chance to take control of their lives.
Since the public school system has failed Pakistan’s children up till now, people have independently taken it upon themselves to help educate the nation’s underprivileged youth. Consider CARE Foundation, founded by Seema Aziz, 28 years ago. One school in Sheikhupura evolved into a large-scale movement that spread throughout the country. Today, the organisation is managing 526 schools and educating more than 205,000 students. It only costs Rs700 to sponsor a student per month and Rs100,000 to sponsor an entire school. Nowadays, it’s safe to say that wedding joras cost more than a single CARE school.
Nothing feels more memorable or humbling than a visit to one of CARE’s numerous schools. These children came to CARE with empty pockets, scarce rations of food and limited prospects. Now they are speaking fluent English, discussing stories they’ve read and are aspiring to become professionals. They have been blessed with an opportunity to dream big and set their goals high.
Sara, Minahil, Malaikah and Laiba were born into poverty. Yet, they refuse to let their adversities confine them. They realise how precious their education is. Putting water on the table and food in their bellies is difficult enough — the idea of an education must have been unfathomable. The few underprivileged children who manage to attend government-run schools, on the other hand, fall victim to unqualified teachers and pathetic academic standards. The girls I spoke to know what they want to be, and where they want to be, because they are struggling to fight for a new life.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 5th, 2016.