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Karachi's 'City of Jesus' now just a ghetto

Published Dec 24, 2014 05:45pm

By Syed Fawad Hasan

The tale of Karachi's 'City of Jesus' began in 1962 when 85 Christian families migrated from Punjab to Pakistan's economic hub.

Karachi, for many, offered work opportunities and the city's ethnic and religious diversity served as a natural pull in the 60s and 70s. The 85 families too came with similar aspirations and though they found the initial stage of settlement tough, gradually they were in tune with the city's rhythm. The neighbourhood which they inhabited was christened 'Essa Nagri' or 'City of Jesus' as they set about creating a dominion which would be a model locality.

As narrated in an essay in ‘Karachi ki Kahani’ by Ajmal Kamal, when the residents of Essa Nagri successfully warded off unwanted elements from their neighborhood, an old revered man, Ghulam Masih, said, “we are the followers of Jesus and this vicinity is a city of Jesus.”

In the years to come, Ghulam Masih would have never known that people from the area would be sitting in the corridors of power. Essa Nagri has so far produced two Members of Provincial Assembly (MPA); Michael Javaid and Saleem Khursheed Khokhar.

Surrounded by a posh area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Civic centre and city’s old Sabzi Mandi and where numerous flags of a banned religious outfits flutter without check, Essa Nagri has largely armoured the Christian families against the vicissitudes of violence-prone Karachi. The social and economic status of the residents has, however, worsened with time.

 Men sit at the corner of a street in Essa Nagri. Unemployment and illiteracy is high in the area. — Umer Sheikh
Men sit at the corner of a street in Essa Nagri. Unemployment and illiteracy is high in the area. — Umer Sheikh

 The streets are lined with small shops.— Umer Sheikh
The streets are lined with small shops.— Umer Sheikh

The neighborhood is stretched out on 24 acres, and has grown into a population of around 45,000 people. It is protected with the boundary walls erected in 2012 in the wake of killings of five Christian men.

On any fine day, children, who should have been in schools, are seen bicycling, playing cricket or just sitting outside their houses. Some men look after their groomed dogs chained in the streets with kids watching over their every move. The streets are lined with small shops, fruit and vegetable vendors do steady business and there's even a barber and small clinic here.

But other than the relative peace and quiet that residents here enjoy, the 'City of Jesus' has transformed into a neglected ghetto over the decades. Although the residents and their representatives strove hard to get their land leased with the authorities, basic necessities of life still have yet to make their way to Essa Nagri. Sanitation is poor and the air filled with dust from the unconstructed streets with no asphalt on them.

 According to unofficial data, only 45 per cent of the children living in the area go to school.— Umer Sheikh
According to unofficial data, only 45 per cent of the children living in the area go to school.— Umer Sheikh

 The streets are lined with small shops and vendors.— Umer Sheikh
The streets are lined with small shops and vendors.— Umer Sheikh

“The water supplied to our houses is usually mixed with sewage. Sewerage lines are choked because of the nearby ‘nullah’ and the unhygienic condition of this place is there for all to see,” says Pastor Babar Habib, a resident of Essa Nagri.

Sanitation and basic necessities are not the only things missing here and though there are schools in the area, the literacy rate among the residents is very low.

According to unofficial data, only 45 per cent of the children living in the neighborhood are enrolled in the schools. Not many continue their studies after passing matriculation (10th grade). The schools are not equipped with proper facilities or staffed with educated and dedicated teachers.

The neighborhood has around eight schools, the largest being St. Michael Grammar School which was founded and is managed by Michael Javaid, former MPA and chairman of Minorities Alliance Party.

 “The water supplied to our houses is usually mixed with sewage.”— Umer Sheikh
“The water supplied to our houses is usually mixed with sewage.”— Umer Sheikh

 Basic necessities of life still have yet to make their way to Essa Nagri.— Umer Sheikh
Basic necessities of life still have yet to make their way to Essa Nagri.— Umer Sheikh

“These schools have nothing in comparison with the convent or missionary schools which have been imparting quality education to all in the city since the time of the British Raj. It is sad that these renowned Christian schools have been neglecting their pauperised people in quest for more money. The service of education by the once self-less missionaries have also become money-oriented,” says the pastor with remorse in his voice.

Irfan James, who is the principal of St. Mary Primary School in the Essa Nagri, is not too optimistic about the future of the children in Essa Nagri.

“We have 210 students at our school enrolled in different classes. Our school is affiliated with the Catholic Board of Education (CBE). I believe that people’s mindsets have now started to change since they are now sending children to the schools. Parents these days are more aware and think that education can work wonders in their lives. But where are the opportunities?” James, who has done Masters in Economics from Karachi University, asks.

“The law and order situation here is not satisfactory. Muggings, killings and discrimination is prevalent. I remember that a year or two ago we put up banners on our school building saying that our school does not discriminate against any people. It was done on purpose so that Muslims could also send their children to our school but hardly anyone came to get enrolled. Our bit to spread harmony amongst Muslims and Christians was all but futile. Even today our school is pelted with stones by extremist elements just to spread tension.”

 Scouts stand near a church in Essa Nagri.— Umer Sheikh
Scouts stand near a church in Essa Nagri.— Umer Sheikh

 The women in Essa Nagri are confident and relatively better educated then the men.— Affan Shah
The women in Essa Nagri are confident and relatively better educated then the men.— Affan Shah

The lack of unity and harmony among Christians of Essa Nagri, divided by the class system within, also congeals into a visible force, distracting the masses from reaching their goals.

“Certain people do not send their children to our schools because they think we, who run this institute, are just sweepers and cleaning is all we can do,” James says.

James reveals that he is a US-immigration applicant and wants to settle abroad for there was not much hope left in Pakistan, acquiescing that he will not be accepted no matter what.

Women here are generally outspoken and help their men to earn a living. What is remarkably different in their attitude is their confidence and it's quite evident that all they need is a little bit of support from the elected representatives of the area.

“I am not very learned. Please talk to someone who is educated,” one of them says.

Basheeran, another resident of the area who is in her 60s, says there is no point in narrating tales of their woes because Essa Nagri is forever neglected.

Then she says something which highlights the unfortunate circumstance that Christians, in fact all minorities, find themselves in in Pakistan.

“We avoid talking too much, as it is, because confusion and misunderstanding transforms, within hours, to alleged blasphemy,” Basheeran says, pointing towards the brutal murders of a Christian couple, Shehzad and Shama, in Punjab last month.

The mothers here have also had to bear the burden of seeing their unemployed sons picking up the habit of drugs which have gradually infested the area. The community elders are also perturbed by the relative ease with which alcohol can be purchased from the wine shops in the area.

But according to young men in the area, drugs and alcohol are not the only factors keeping them down.

“I studied till fourth grade in Punjab. Yes, the situation here is not very good as far as education is concerned but people now have started sending their children to schools,” 31-year-old Imran Iqbal says.

Imran has two younger brothers. He wants them to get a good education because he's learnt a few 'lessons' in life.

Ansar Iqbal, 18, who is Imran’s younger brother, says that he passed his matriculation and was now aspiring to become an engineer.

“Who does not know that our community faces severe discrimination? Our people are persecuted in schools, workplaces and other fields. I remember a friend of mine who had a surprising command over English language. He didn’t achieve what he should have. And there is only one reason for that; he was a Christian,” Imran says.

According to some of the other boys in the area, the Christian youth is forced to take on menial jobs because even after finishing school, there is no guarantee of a better future.

“And so we end up become the 'untouchable' janitors,” a 21-year-old, who requested anonymity, says.

But has the government been doing anything to promote education and ensure security in the neighborhood?

 Women at a Mass in one of the churches in Essa Nagri. — Affan Shah
Women at a Mass in one of the churches in Essa Nagri. — Affan Shah

 A pastor leads a sermon in one of the churches. — Affan Shah
A pastor leads a sermon in one of the churches. — Affan Shah

 A church ban performs before prayers. — Affan Shah
A church ban performs before prayers. — Affan Shah

 A United Presbyterian Church in Essa Nagri. — Affan Shah
A United Presbyterian Church in Essa Nagri. — Affan Shah

 A pastor leads a prayer at one of the churches. — Affan Shah
A pastor leads a prayer at one of the churches. — Affan Shah

“We have a very big private school here called St. Michael. The government a few months ago announced to give scholarships to a number of children free of cost in that school. We all welcomed that initiative. Besides, Rangers have also established a check post just outside our area which has provided us with a sense of relief. Moreover, we are a peaceful people; we usually keep to ourselves and remain busy in our work, worship. We do not need much security within the confines of the neighborhood.”

But outside, clouds of fear and uncertainty constantly hover over the peaceful neighborhood of Essa Nagri as not far away from this locality and across the road, the strongmen of an extremist-religious organisation dominate the area politics. The flags of the banned party, raised on a pedestrian bridge, wave aggressively around them.

Extortionists in the name of Jizya, Islamic religious tax for protection of minorities, often harass the Christian shop owners,

Former MNA Micheal Javed in one of his interviews from the past had highlighted the ease with which gangs operate in the area. “Apart from extortionists, daylight robberies are also at a peak as young men on motorbikes enter the area, flashing guns and entering homes. They loot homes in public view and leave with impunity.”

John Maseeh, an area resident who has his grocery shop situated a few meters away from the main road and in Street Six of Essa Nagri, says he has thought of leaving the area on occasion but something keeps him tied to the place.

“The business is good here as this locality is densely populated and I have a lot of customers. But, yes, I have thought about leaving this place. One can freely walk in our area.

  Sanitation is poor in Essa Nagri and the air filled with dust from the unconstructed streets with no asphalt on them.— Umer Sheikh
Sanitation is poor in Essa Nagri and the air filled with dust from the unconstructed streets with no asphalt on them.— Umer Sheikh
No one will dare stop him or her because we are simply not that kind of people. We are peaceful. The threats come from outside and it is not particular to any caste or sect,” John, says, while tending to his customers.

“I give up the thought of leaving this place on the grounds that my family and I are still protected here. I don’t know if I will be safe in any other area. This place is a safe haven for me and my people.”

The situation, though, has forced some of the people to move of out even as others remain steadfast.

The area witnesses hustle-bustle every Sunday during the Mass at the 16 established churches here. Before the sermons start, many churches arrange musical sessions to inspire people to attract them to walk on God’s path.

“Music has always been an essence of Christianity. It literally means to tie a knot in air. We use biblical instruments for making music which is considered a core part of our religion,” says Pastor Babar Habib.

Christmas, though, will be a sombre affair in the area keeping in mind the recent terrorist attack on Peshawar's Army Public School. The residents respond to any act of violence across the country by taking out a rally to the main road.

The elders say they feel the pain just like all other Pakistanis but do not understand why they are marginalised.

“We don't want wine shops only acceptance and equal opportunities.”

“Our ancestors came here for a reason and though we have suffered a lot, we will keep Jesus' City alive.'