Breaking barriers

September 13, 2014


AS Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri continue to hold centre stage in Islamabad in their bid to topple this government, Pakistan’s problems haven’t gone away.

In fact, the disastrous rains and floods ravaging Punjab have added to the misery of millions. I suppose it would be asking too much of the protesters to devote their energy to helping flood victims.

And in the background of the ongoing political crisis lurk our mounting social problems. Issues like employment, education and health remain neglected. Largely ignored by our chattering classes, a recent demonstration in an industrial area in Karachi led by women and children demanded literacy.

Issues like employment, education and health remain neglected.

In a society dominated and defined by the lust for power and money, such mundane issues are swept under the carpet. Given the awful education imparted by the state system, it is no surprise that private schools and colleges provide the only learning worth the name.

Even poor Pakistanis therefore aspire to send their children to private schools so they can acquire fluency in English, widely seen as the key to decent jobs and a better life. Sadly, most of our ‘English medium’ schools are third-rate institutions, while the better ones charge a lot and are difficult to get into.

For parents with limited means, it is thus virtually impossible to obtain a decent education for their children. Generation after generation is locked into a fate of ignorance and grinding poverty. So when a couple of kids do manage to break through the class barrier, it is a matter of celebration.

Recently, the Sunday magazine of this newspaper ran a story about Waris Khan and his sons that caught my eye. A labourer at Tarbela Dam, he came to Karachi over 20 years ago to seek his fortune, as so many hundreds of thousands from the north of the country have done for decades.

He slept rough for a few months until he got a job with a fruit vendor, working 16 hours a day. After renting a room, he married and in 1993, became father of a son he named Fazal. By now he had his own fruit stall in Bath Island, a prosperous area of Karachi.

He often saw cars dropping and picking up students from the nearby Kensington Grammar School, and decided he would send Fazal there. Luckily for him, the school was run by a family who were involved in educating children from low-income families, and sponsored Fazal when Waris ran out of money.

Fazal was a good student, but still helped his father at his stall in the evening, where he would do his homework in between serving customers. In the years that followed, his younger brother Mahmood also joined the school. In his ‘O’ level exams, Fazal’s results were good enough for him to get a scholarship to the well-known Lyceum for his ‘A’ levels.

Here, he took part in extra-curricular activities and sports, making friends easily. When the time came to apply for a place at college, the Soomros, the family who had encouraged him in his early days, urged him to apply to McGill, Canada’s foremost university. To Fazal’s utter surprise, he was offered a part scholarship.

But even with financial assistance, Fazal was short of the money he needed to go to Canada. Here, a group of Karachi citizens, led by Adil Soomro, stepped in to help Fazal. Soon, there was enough money for him to apply for a visa and fly to McGill.

I spoke to Adil Soomro to get further details, and discovered that Fazal is majoring in materials engineering, and has completed his first year. Meanwhile, his brother Mahmood has also been admitted to McGill to study electrical engineering.

Adil’s family has been devoted to the cause of helping deprived young people get a decent education. They have thus transformed lives and made dreams come true. When Fazal and Mahmood complete their studies at McGill, they will be able to contribute meaningfully to society.

In short, they will be able to prove that our destiny is not shaped solely by the circumstances of our birth. If they can breach Pakistan’s rigid class barrier, the brothers can serve as role models to others who began life with similar disadvantages.

The Soomro family, and all those who have helped Fazal and Mahmood, deserve much credit for their initiative. In fact, Pakistan is lucky to have a culture of philanthropy that has made it possible to provide a good education to thousands of under-privileged Pakistanis. Without this, the picture would have been far bleaker.

Fazal and Mahmood also demonstrate that given a chance, most Pakistani kids grasp at opportunities to learn and excel. But by its malign neglect, a selfish Pakistani elite has ensured that the state education system has gone from bad to worse, specially from the 1970s.

If you, like me, want to help, you can contact Adil at to get further details. n

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2014