Tahera Hasan is one of the most remarkable women I’ve met in my life. Her safe space for kids in Machhar Colony, called Khel, is an oasis of life for Karachi’s invisible children. Living in a one-bed room home, a typical family here has 9 children. Eighty-two per cent of people living in Machhar Colony, Karachi’s largest katchi abadi, are uneducated.
This is why I admire Tahera’s audacity so much. There are easier places, even in Karachi, to make an impact. Machhar Colony is defined by narrow streets (‘the streets have no name here,’ Tahera quips), heaps of garbage and seven lakh people living in very cramped living spaces. Streets are the only playground children grow up with here, until Tahera stirred a quiet revolution.
Hundred and fifty children come to live, learn and play at Khel. The experience transforms the way they view the world and their own lives. This is why I decided to feature Tahera as an extraordinary Pakistani, in a documentary called Khel: A playground for Karachi’s invisible children.
I’m inspired by Tahera because she is a dreamer and a doer. Her story, like every extraordinary Pakistani I’ve covered over the last five years, shines a spotlight on the heroes quietly making a difference in Pakistan. For every negative story that is amplified non-stop on TV, there are 10 positive stories that don’t get coverage which is frustrating and disappointing.
I’ve been surprised by how many unsung heroes are quietly holding this country together, even as I struggle to cover them with the nuance, panache and punch they deserve. ‘The last time I was at Khel,’ Tahera shared, in a particularly poignant moment in the documentary. ‘I was sitting on a carpet, when a child ran to fetch me a chair and said you sit here… I started crying. These are the same kids who stampeded over me a year ago. There is a behaviour change. How they view the world is transforming. This is the impact of Khel and it’s very emotional for me.’
Usually, I’m an emotional person who cries pretty easily. I was the kid who cried, when my mother would read out a sad chapter in a fairytale story. Surprisingly, after visiting Khel, I had no tears or emotions. Instead, there was a piercing sense of guilt and shame. These are the children, who would knock on my car’s window in Karachi to beg for money. I never bothered to ask their name, where they come from and what they need. In a city full of invisible children, I had become numb to the idea that they were kids, with dreams, ambitions and frustrations of their own.
Twenty-five million children in Pakistan don’t attend school today. Many of them work and earn a living. Most of them spend the majority of their time on the streets. We need to create more safe spaces like Khel to give these children a place to be themselves. Machhar Colony is just a microcosm of what children go through in Katchi Abadis around the country.
Most adults in Machhar Colony are employed by the fishing industry as shrimp peelers, fishermen, fish cleaners, or labourers in the ship-building industry. Only three clinics serve a population of over seven lakh people. Fifty-three per cent of the population here discards their garbage on the streets. Almost half the women give birth at home. The list goes on and on.
This is what makes Tahera’s work so powerful and why it needs our support. ‘The more I do…,’ she shares, ‘the more I realise how insignificant my contribution is.’ And while that may be true for anyone trying to solve Pakistan’s challenges, all of us must take the first step of starting somewhere.
For example, one of the most stunning pieces of feedback we’ve received on the documentary in the last twenty-four hours is how Khel is what our education or schooling system should look like. It’s about giving children the confidence and discipline to live their lives, versus the narrow confines of academic learning, which often defines our schooling experience. One lady has already reached out, wanting to create a similar safe space for children in Lahore.
Sharing the story behind positive role models like Khel & Tahera, lights a fire within our hearts, to go out of our way to help others. But the Extraordinary Pakistani team can’t do this alone. If you would like to help or donate to this cause, please visit launchgood.com/extraordinarypakistani. Our purpose is to serve as a social media platform, which shares extraordinary stories, connecting doers and donors in the process. If we don’t share these stories, no one else will.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2018.