Quintessential Karachiite: One woman fights against all odds to embrace the old, abandoned and excluded

Shagufta Saba ran a school for differently-abled and now provides shelter to homeless, elderly women

Kashif Hussain March 09, 2020
Shagufta Saba provides all basic facilities, including healthcare, to elderly women at her shelter, in addition to more important compassion and empathy. photo: Express

KARACHI: Her eyes were sunken, staring into oblivion. Her wrinkled skin told the tale of years of hardships and her trembling limbs, pepper hair and lanky frame were telltale of her long lost youth. Abandoned, forsaken and lonely - this was every other woman who would approach Shagufta Saba in search of shelter, acceptance and kindness.

And Saba would take them into ‘Aaghosh’ [Embrace] - the old age home she runs for elderly women, many of whom suffer from mental and physical disabilities - without a second thought.

“Women in Pakistan spend their entire lives sacrificing for their families and in doing so, do not save any resources for their own old age, when they are often disowned,” said Saba, reflecting on their misery.

Experience up close

Saba, the founder of Aaghosh Trust, has been a first-hand witness to the abandonment, exclusion, deprivation experienced by the differently-abled in Pakistan, with all her siblings suffering from disabilities. Hence, what many found not normal was a part of life for her since childhood.

From an early age, she shared her parents’ responsibility to take care of her siblings and equip them with skills and education, as best as she could. Back then, institutions offering quality education for differently-abled persons were few and rare and the task had to be taken up by the family members. Her parents wanted all of their children to become productive members of society and did all they could in this regard, with Saba supporting them in every step of the way.

She had been witness to the rejection and discrimination directed towards her siblings and believed that had any facilities to educate and train the differently-abled in various skills been easily available to her siblings, life might had been kinder to them.

Stepping stones

This belief of hers proved to be the driving force behind her setting up a school for differently-abled children, to teach them in making handicrafts and other skills.

The school that she established in a small rented house in Zehra Nagar, in 2001, soon turned out to be too small to accommodate the growing strength of students. And so, Saba shifted it to a bigger place in Gulistan-e-Jauhar, unaware that this was to initiate a new series of struggle.

Fighting the odds

The school then had to be shifted multiple times as most landlords were wary of giving rental space for non-residential purposes.

Saba had invested most of her resources into setting up the school and they were fast diminishing. Soon, she ran out of money and had to sell off handicrafts made by her students to keep the school running. However, platforms for selling these items were very few. Most exhibitions where the items could be put on display for sale were held at five-star hotels; Saba couldn’t afford the fee for setting up even a single stall at these events. Left with little choice, she ended up putting up a small stall by the roadside, which was when the Arts Council of Pakistan management took notice of her. They allowed her to set up a stall at one of the art exhibitions for free and later, let Saba participate in several similar events at a reduced fee, giving the school a new lease on life - so much so that 400 differently-abled children were trained at the institute over the next five years.

From young to old

However, Saba’s contribution to serving humanity was not to stop here.

By that time, many an old, differently-abled, homeless and estranged old women had been introduced to her. All of the women were looking for shelter and so, in 2012, she laid the foundation of an old-age home for women battered by hard times and rejected by their loved ones and society.

At present, the shelter house accommodates several women, between the age of 17 and 95, many of whom are differently-abled. Here, otherwise deprived women are provided all basic facilities including food and healthcare, in addition to the more important compassion and empathy.  “These are women whose children and families gave up on them, many were forced out of their homes following their husband’s death and others were simply deprived and dispossessed of their belongings because they were either too young to resist or suffered from a disability, lacking any support,” brooded Saba, expressing worry over the increasing number of homeless females. “Growing insensitivity and materialism is to be blamed for it.”

Running the shelter

However, Saba has been standing strong in the face of the challenge, trying her best to provide all necessary facilities to the women at the shelter home.  “The highest expense is that of medical facilities,” she said, adding that disease, mental and physical limitations and psychological conditions in some cases, were a part and parcel of the old age. She said that she had approached multiple hospitals for support in this regard but to no avail. “At the moment, we are somehow managing the expense of medical treatment but cannot afford to get these [women] treated at a hospital [for long-term if the need arises],” said Saba. Though she has sought assistance from psychiatrists, she points out that the cost of prescribed medicines was very high.

Still, some philanthropists have come to her aid and have been helping her in running the shelter.

This story is part of a weekly series that seeks to bring to light the unsung heroes of Karachi - the hawkers, traders, doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers and daily-wage labourers. It is they who make Karachi the city of lights.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2020.



Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ