Yasmeen Nigar is just like any other housewife in Pakistan: she wakes up her three children early in the morning, sends them to school, cooks meals, cleans the house and looks after her family. Yet this busy mother is also a compassionate social worker who has found time in her life to work for the education of the underprivileged.
I wanted to see how she managed both her own and her ‘adopted’ children, and what better way to do that than to accompany her to her latest project? On the appointed day, Yasmeen appeared in the simplest of clothes and started narrating her story while driving me towards the flood relief camps on the Super Highway in a Suzuki Bolan. Making her way to the back of Karachi’s NED University along Abul Hasan Ispahani Road, she told me that she started her philanthropic work in 1981 when she established the Nasreen Education Society, a registered Trust in North Karachi.
There weren’t many schools in the vicinity, which was dominated by Pashtun and Punjabi families. “Mine was the first house in the lane and I not only opened the school but also went to those families, convincing them to send their daughters to school, assuring them that they would be safe with me,” she says.
Unfortunately, the violence that wracked the city in those days meant that her assurances fell on deaf ears.
“Parents were afraid to send their children to school” says Nigar. When her school itself was targeted and her husband attacked, she realised that she could no longer continue and closed down the school in 1992. Her fledgling project may have closed, but the dream lived on.
Seven years later, she decided it was time to try again. In 1999 she began teaching women in Baloch Colony how to read and write Urdu. What she saw shocked her...not only would many of these women take drugs and chew betel nut and gutka themselves, they also allowed their children to do the same. Determined to fight what she saw as destructive ignorance, she started looking for places to establish a school.
At that time, Gulistan-e-Jauhar was a growing locality with few schools and that’s where she established her School of Britanicca, later expanding it to the matric level.
In 2005, she found Surjani Town, a newly established locality with no schools. With her brother’s help, Nigar established a school on a 1,600 square yard plot, in a locality without access to transport or water supplies. Children coming to the school were charged a monthly fee of Rs50; but many could not even afford that meagre sum. Thankfully, the gap was filled by donations.
By the time Nigar finished telling her story, we had reached our destination: one of the many flood relief camps along the Super Highway. It was another one of Karachi’s sunny days, the heat unrelenting in its intensity. Easing her car into an opening, Nigar honked the Bolan’s horn.
As soon as she did, children in school uniforms scampered out of camps from all directions. As they eagerly boarded the vehicle, it was clear that going to school was not something they dreaded, but in fact something they looked forward to. In a matter of minutes, 18 children had squeezed into the small van, while those left behind knew that Nigar would come back to fetch them. Bubbling with cheerful anticipation, they reached the school in Surjani Town.
Nigar instinctively realises that these children, victims of the worst floods in Pakistan’s recent history, need a break from the gloomy environment of their camps. She understands that they need to see the city, to learn and to grow, and most importantly, to get relief from the dark, confined life of an internally displaced person.
The students at the Britanica School — coming from such an impoverished background that some cannot even afford the monthly fees of Rs50 — have wholeheartedly welcomed the flood-affected children. They not only share their classrooms with the newcomers, but each child brings an extra ‘roti’ for lunch to share with these guest students.
For the IDP children these school lessons and their playtime with colour pencils, balls, skipping ropes and computers are pleasures that cannot be missed. They have so much to explore, learn and take back. Majida, an intelligent 13-year-old girl, can now read and write Urdu and wants others in her community to learn from her so that they can progress in a city like Karachi, which they now have to make their home; Aslam and his friends have learnt to write their names on the computer on Microsoft Word; and Faiza loves the uniform she wears to school. They are learning a new way of life, and in their eyes can be seen a craving for what the flood took away from their families — an identity — that Nigar strives to give them despite her own limited resources.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2011.