Surviving Pakistan's slums: The extraordinary story of Mohammad Sabir

Every morning at sunrise, a five year old boy stepped out of his house, sagging a garbage bag to his shoulders,...
Published June 16, 2015

Every morning at sunrise, five-year-old Muhammad Sabir stepped out of his house, sagging a garbage bag to his shoulders, filling it with aluminum, plastic, paper scraps or anything he could find to sell. Salvaging trash to survive, he picked up snippets of newspapers and tried to read them.

“My family thought I had gone crazy,” he laughs.

Sabir comes from a family of nomads living in a slum on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city.

Until this point, Sabir had never attended school. Squatting in flimsy tents with no electricity, running water or toilets, they were routinely harassed by the local development authorities and forced to relocate because of illegal encroachment.

In Pakistan, the housing shortfall is estimated at 9 million units, according to a report published by the State Bank of Pakistan. Those unable to afford housing are driven to settle in undesired areas such as near open sewage channels or along the hazardous banks of River Ravi which floods every year.

“It is a national crisis,” says Dr Murtaza Haider, an associate professor at Canada’s Ryerson University whose research interests include urban development in South Asia.

“The state helps the empowered classes by giving them land for free or at nominal prices and withholding the land from the very poor."

Estimates regarding the number of slum dwellers in Pakistan vary between 23 to 32 million people. The majority are street hawkers and day labourers that earn very little and are not able to afford medical care or school fees.

Sabir poses with a group of boys from his neighbourhood.
Sabir poses with a group of boys from his neighbourhood.

A challenging fate

Sabir was expected to work and contribute to the family income instead of going to school, much like the rest of the children in his community.

He, however, had a burning desire to learn how to read but his family had severe doubts. Sabir was the eldest of nine siblings and his parents needed the income.

His mother was a cleaning lady and his father drove a donkey cart. But despite working long hours, they were barely able to get by and make ends meet.

Sabir’s extreme poverty was not his only challenge in life – it was also his caste. His ancestors belonged to the Hindu scheduled caste and converted to Islam at the time of partition.

Sabir is pictured in Lahore
Sabir is pictured in Lahore

“My community is like the untouchables,” Sabir explains. They are outcasts and heavily discriminated against: persecuted by the authorities and denied jobs.

Many of them do not have national identity cards which practically makes them a voiceless group resigned to their fate of working undesirable and hazardous jobs to survive.

By all accounts, Muhammad Sabir has not won the birth lottery. “Childhood for me was not comfortable,” Sabir laments.

Promising his parents that his education wouldn’t interfere with his job, the young boy enrolled in a local government school.

Sabir would wake up early and set out to collect garbage, come back home, grab his school bag and dash to school. After classes he would continue working, either selling cold water bottles to thirsty families or hard-boiled eggs as snacks at local teashops.

He would not get back home until late at night and then the homework would start; studying in candlelight since there was no electricity in their tent.

He says that in school, his teachers treated him differently because of his caste and classmates taunted him over dirty clothes not wanting to sit near him.

“I think I was not smelling very good at the time,” Sabir jokingly recalls. But the prejudice made him even more determined to prove himself.

An insatiable bookworm

For Sabir, it was books and the ability to read that opened up a whole new world and provided a source of empowerment.

In fifth grade, he started learning English and felt that people would treat him differently because he could speak the language.

“Just imagine a child like a blank piece of paper and then suddenly he can draw some meaning out of it,” Sabir says.

“My early encounter with reading really shaped my imagination and had a very strong impact on me.”

He was an insatiable bookworm, with his reading list ranging from Russian literature to Virginia Woolf to Karl Marx, easily putting some of our average reading lists to shame.

But it was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations that profoundly influenced him to view society from a different angle. The timeless story of a boy who overcomes his social class through hard work and determination, Sabir realised that his circumstances did not need to define the rest of his life.

An activist is born

Sabir completed his schooling from City District Government Boys High School, Township Lahore and finally graduated from Pakistan’s Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and taught tuitions on the side to earn money.

Since 2007, he has also been working to address two critical issues in the slums: sanitation and education.

Sabir is pictured receiving an award in Lahore by the US Council.
Sabir is pictured receiving an award in Lahore by the US Council.

He established an organisation called ‘Slumabad’, and is building mobile toilets for the community and enrolling children in schools.

Sanitation and hygiene are major challenges in Pakistan with over 90 million people without access to proper sanitation facilities – that is nearly half the country’s population.

In the slums, there are no toilets and dwellers urinate near their tents.

Women in particular suffer as they must wait the whole day for nightfall’s cover to relieve themselves. Water sources get contaminated, resulting in diarrhoea, cholera and other preventable diseases.

By constructing mobile toilets, Sabir hopes to not only address the issue of sanitation but also turn human waste into fertiliser or biogas to generate energy.

Coming to America

In recognition of his social work, Sabir was selected as a 2012 fellow for the Emerging Leaders of Pakistan (ELP) programme run by the Atlantic Council, a development program empowering future Pakistani leaders. For his training, Sabir traveled to the US for the very first time.

“It was a defining moment in my life,” Sabir remembers. “I was thinking to myself that: Oh wow! I have made something of myself.”

However, he did not immediately share the exciting news with his parents because he was scared he would not get an American visa. He had no passport or travel history. Money was still tight and he had to raise funds for the visa fee.

“I couldn't share with my friends and my family that I had been selected,” says Sabir. “I was hiding it from them and was very unsure.”

Eventually the visa arrived.

Sabir pictured in New York.
Sabir pictured in New York.

To prepare for his trip, Sabir viewed videos about US history on PBS (which he absolutely loves), watched Hollywood movies, including Gangs of New York (he’s a big movie buff), and read voraciously, including the US Constitution (which he believes is the second best constitution after France).

In the US, Sabir met with policymakers, civil society leaders and entrepreneurs to exchange ideas and learn best practices that can be applied in a Pakistani context.

Sabir is pictured with a group of people from his fellowship programme in New York.
Sabir is pictured with a group of people from his fellowship programme in New York.

“From the get go, Sabir struck me as a person who is driven, has a strong desire to learn, wants to make the most of the opportunities he gets and change his family's future,” Huma Haque, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center that manages the ELP fellows programme tells

So what’s next for this social reformer?

Sabir is continuing his work in the slums through ‘Slumabad’.

He has also been selected for several additional fellowships, including the Acumen Fund as a 2015 Pakistan Fellow, recently in February.

The yearlong program will provide training to scale up his organisation. While Sabir blazes his trail forward, his journey to this point is remarkable.

For Pakistan’s slum children, the 28-year-old's story is a beacon of hope about overcoming one’s circumstances through hard work, determination, and dreaming big.

Design by: Hussain Ali

Amna Khawar is a freelance journalist with an interest in South Asian arts and culture, technology and social change.

She tweets at @amnak1.