Taking school to the street children

Updated August 10, 2016

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KARACHI: “We hear that something must be done to end terrorism in our land. There is talk of the army, Rangers, law enforcement agencies taking on the negative elements here. But what about where these elements are generated from? Someone also has to strengthen and nourish our weak roots,” says Syeda Anfas Ali Shah Zaidi, president of the Ocean Welfare Organisation, who runs three Footpath Schools in Karachi.

The open-air classes of the Footpath School under the Bahria Icon Tower flyover. —Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
The open-air classes of the Footpath School under the Bahria Icon Tower flyover. —Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

“If we don’t do something for our street children soon, these very kids will grow up to hold guns to our heads,” the woman points out as she walks on the narrow paths created to separate the classes with extra supplies of pencils, erasers, sharpeners and whiteboard markers.

Each open-air class on the footpath under the Bahria Icon Tower flyover near the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine has around 15 to 20 children sitting cross-legged with their little backpacks, textbooks, notebooks and pencil cases.

There is a teacher assigned to each little class, seated on a chair at the front with a small white board next to her on a stand. The teachers give individual attention to each and every boy and girl of this school, calling them to the front to check their notebooks and asking them questions to see if they have understood their lessons.

One of the teachers is Shahnaz Parveen, who says that after completing her BEd several years ago, she joined a government school as a teacher but left soon after. “My own children were small so I gave up teaching early. But they are all grown up now and I miss teaching. So here I am doing the most satisfying job in the world,” she says.

“Some of the teachers are as learned as Ms Parveen, some have just done their intermediate. But they can all teach the children here,” says Ms Zaidi.

The different classes have children at various levels of their education. In one class there are children who don’t even know how to hold a pencil. After that comes the kindergarten class, then the next one where the students have learnt their alphabet and are now learning how to read and write, and so on. They have no demands on them and are allowed to learn at their own pace. All make it a point to wish their teacher and say, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

“We do counselling of the kids before allowing them to sit in our school. Street children are into crime and drugs. There are some refugee children among them also, who hate Pakistan. After counselling and after attending a few classes here, they, too, are turning into normal, happy children who are developing love in their hearts for Pakistan,” says Ms Zaidi.

“But I can see that these kids need more than just education. Many of them are homeless, so our long-term aims include hostels.”

But the Footpath School cannot achieve this on its own. “Right now, we are relying on self help. We provide the bags, books and stationary to each of these kids. Apart from that we provide them with fruit and snacks with Rs50 each day. We also arrange private security during classes. The rest is pretty much out of our league, so we are looking for donations from the corporate sector,” she adds.

The social worker says she has approached the Bahria Icon Tower administration nearby for help in this regard. “So far they have donated free juice. But juice and snacks we can manage ourselves. There is much more to be done.”

Ms Zaidi says she took on this venture soon after the 2014 Army Public School tragedy in Peshawar. “It was also then that I found out that I couldn’t teach children on the road until I register as an NGO. Thus the Ocean Welfare Organisation was born, though I used to have a very low opinion of NGOs that do nothing but hold seminars,” she says shrugging.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2016