One student’s extraordinary journey from FATA to UWC

Published: July 30, 2015
The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @Mbilallakhani

The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @Mbilallakhani

“We live four to five kilometres from the Afghan border,” shares Zafar Ali. “I was born in 1997 in Khyber Agency (Fata) and spent my childhood there. My father is a truck driver. He doesn’t spend much time with us but he does manage to earn Rs10,000 a month. No one in my family graduated, even from Matric and my mother isn’t educated either. But I wanted to study. I started by going to a very basic school, where we sat on the floor and didn’t have any facilities.”

“A few bad things like terrorism and family problems began happening in my area so we moved to Karachi, which was very peaceful,” he says. “I live in Musharraf colony and I found a good school run by The Citizen’s Foundation when I moved to Karachi. They had good teachers and supported us financially. That school changed my life so much that on my farewell party, I hid a fistful of sand from the playground in my pocket. I still have that sand and school uniform with me to this day. It was a tough time though. Not all the boys in my class wanted to study. Sometimes, they would just want to have fun, like once when they broke a bulb playing cricket and didn’t tell the teacher who was responsible. I used to scold them. The school was giving us so much. Why did you damage their property?”

“In 2013, I passed my Matriculation with ‘A+’ grades and was admitted to the DJ Science College,” he continues, adding, “Then, I was told about applying to the prestigious United World College (UWC) scholarship in Singapore to continue my education. But when I saw the competition, I got scared. People should dream but they shouldn’t dream so big. At each stage of the selection process, I would think it’s over now. When they told me I got the scholarship, I couldn’t believe it.”

Descent from scholar to terrorist

“I had to apply for a Singapore visa but I had never made my travel documents before,” he shares. “I didn’t even have a computer, internet or phone from which I could check email or learn how to do things. So I used to take a one-hour bus ride to go to an internet cafe, where I would print documents and then go back one hour to get them signed. I used to stand in government offices in the heat by myself as even my father or mother couldn’t guide me. One day, I went to the police to get a character certificate and they told me I was a terrorist because I came from Fata. My visa application got rejected.” At this point in the interview, I was struggling to control my emotions. Zafar, on the other hand, never lost his calm.

Even the rejection of the visa didn’t stop Zafar as he went on to get admission into a different UWC campus in Bosnia and is currently studying in the International Baccalaureate programme there. I asked Zafar what kept him going through all the challenges that came his way. He didn’t have an older cousin, parent or friend guiding him through the process or showing him light at the end of the tunnel. “Our dreams are still too small,” he says. “Problems will happen but joy will emanate when we strive to overcome them. What we imagine we can accomplish in life is so small compared to what we’re actually capable of,” he says in perfect English, which he practised on his way home from school every day because friends made fun of his ‘backward’ Fata accent in class. “I worked hard to get educated so I can bring education to Fata. I’m not saying I can change everything, but maybe, I can guide at least one person like me.”

The purpose of this article is to find and share inspirational stories about everyday Pakistani heroes (if you know someone who should be profiled, send us a tweet @Mbilallakhani). If we don’t share these stories about Pakistan, no one else will.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Jul 30, 2015 - 9:42AM

    Thank you for doing this piece on Zafar. Pakistani children are full of genius stuff…if only we can have the potential to hone and guide each one of them. Recommend

  • Jawad khan
    Jul 30, 2015 - 1:49PM

    good attemptRecommend

  • Neutron
    Jul 31, 2015 - 9:38AM

    He has the same story as mine. Here is what will happen next in this story. He will end up getting good grades and good job but Parents will refuse to give him their daughter’s hand because of his Background and class!Recommend

  • Naveed Ahmed Abbasi
    Jul 31, 2015 - 3:07PM

    Before I begin with my actual comment, I want to say that FCR in FATA is draconian and the majority of people there will only progress when a proper implementation of law gets there. It basically benifits the rich smugglers from that area and pushes the normal people back. The narrative of lawlessness and terrorism can only be taken from people if we give them an alternative way.
    Now, it says that the author has some degree in journalism, so being a journalist he should atleast investigate some of the comments made by the article. You should know the process of getting a character certificate. Being from FATA, the police in Karachi cannot give you a character certificate unless you have a character certificate from your local police or FC office. Its not a perfect process in a modern country but there is a process behind it and we all have to get it done when we travel abroad without any exception. You wanted to present the stories of Pakistan so you should educate yourself, the poor kid and other people through your article as well. More people from FATA can benifit only in such a case and not by your demoralizing account where they wouldnt even try for a character certificate next time. Recommend

  • Zafar Ali
    Aug 13, 2015 - 5:55AM

    I am from FATA and am well aware of FCR. Recently they put a student of matrick class in jail and is kept there for months without any trial or anything. This is what FCR is all about and is thus called “Black law”. Now the only thing here Naveed Ahmed g is that the writer had 40 minutes long talk with me and was thus aware of so many facts that you aren’t. I live in Karachi for six years now and I had all the documents and proofs required for the process of character certificate but just that I wasn’t able to pay 5000PKR, they refused to issue me a character certificate.Recommend

  • Naveed Ahmed Abbasi
    Aug 13, 2015 - 10:52AM

    @Zafar Ali:
    ASA, first off its good to hear from you and I want to appreciate your struggle for education. Hardworking people like you are the future of Pakistan. While I might never be able to comprehend your struggle or the dynamics of FATA like a citizen of that area would, I am well read and have talked to people from that area myself. You gave a good example of how wrong FCR is and its collective punishment is even worse.
    What I wanted to tell people was that there is a process behind it and it might not be given directly. You ran into some corroupt policemen (which make up most of the police in this country) as could I have or anyone else. I myself had a very difficult time in making my character certificate as I live in Rawalpindi and belong to KPK. But for a fact I know that its easier to get the said certificate in Islamabad because the number of corrupt policemen is much less there from where my friends got it. The same goes for policemen in KPK. Now then, the purpose of mentioning all this is that a struggling person like you might also be present in Islamabad and I would not want him to be disheartened or give up without even trying through the right process. Even then if we run into a corrupt policeman, we should stand our ground and make them do whats according to the law. Yes, it usually takes a lot of time and patience but it will eventually benifit others as well.Recommend

  • Zafar Ali
    Aug 26, 2015 - 3:55AM

    @Naveed Sahb
    Respected Naveed, I am really thankful for your appreciation. I also appreciate your concern for other students like me. The only reason I felt to comment was that you said that the writer wasn’t aware of something. You are right about the systems that we have in our countries. It might be different and good in other parts which is a good thing. You also know how powerful people influence most of our systems and I think this was all the writer was pointing our that how hard it is for a poor student from an area like FATA to get what is his right and as you said it is just not the case with me but with most of the students who dream for a better tomorrow and have limited sources to make their dreams come true.Recommend

  • Naveed Ahmed Abbasi
    Aug 31, 2015 - 12:48PM

    @Zafar Ali
    We have started a bit of a conversation here. I am glad I am having this conversation with a sane person who is hearing what I say and I am able to hear what he is saying. Having said that, with each reply I respect your struggle even more and respect how you are presenting it. I strongly suggest you that once you finish you degree, please go into academics to teach the coming generation about these issues so that a fight can begin. All across Pakistan, I am seeing people like you emerge and there is a change finally happening in the attitudes of people. This is because they have broken their mould and did things according to their potentials. You for example could have worked a lowly paid labor job yet you came out and tested your potential. You people will change this country, inshAllah. Dont be motivated by these so called powerfuls, they have their days numbered and people are breaking free from their chains already.Recommend

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