GIVEN that I have a publicly available email address, I receive many unsolicited emails every week from strangers. Some of them are readers’ comments about my work, others are requests for help, often from students who want tips on how to improve their writing standards. Over the years, I have found that there is one category of content that I dread to read. Unfortunately, this category also has the highest number of messages that sit in my inbox amongst the unsolicited pile.
These are emails purporting to be from students in various parts of the country seeking financial assistance for their studies. I use the word purportedly because I have no way of verifying the tragedy that is being talked about — the tragedy of students who believe in themselves and are keen to learn, but who are faced with the prospect of having to drop out of school or college, or not progress any further in their studies, because they do not have the financial wherewithal to do so.
Many of the emails I receive talk of unforeseen events hitting their families’ circumstances, as a result of which the planned-for future is suddenly no longer possible: a father’s illness or the abrupt termination of his job, an accident that leaves the breadwinner no longer able to work. The most heartbreaking are the other ones, though — the ones that talk about the breadwinner being caught up in a bomb blast, killed or maimed in acts of terror and violence and militancy that Pakistanis have sadly, grimly, had to recognise as a reality of life.
Do students who can’t pursue their dreams even count?
A lot of these emails seem to come from the northern and north-western parts of the country, areas that have not just been particularly hit by violence over the past decade and a half, but where the development indices were not high to begin with. Violence is somewhat less given the army’s various operations, but the latter, too, have not left the population unscathed.
On occasion, I read of accounts of educational institutions’ building having been requisitioned or occupied, or being razed or otherwise rendered useless during battles between militants and the security agencies. And these accounts must be delineated from the reports of hundreds of schools that were earlier directly targeted by violent extremists because of their belief that education — especially for girls — is a reprehensible thing.
Few of the students that write such emails request direct financial help or assistance, at least from someone such as myself who is simply an ordinary citizen. Rather, most are looking for avenues of aid — scholarships from either the government or private donors’ funds, a soft loan for education, any institution that makes a provision for underprivileged or economically stressed students.
Thankfully, there are a few such initiatives such as universities’ outreach programmes that seek to specifically accommodate students from underserviced areas including less-developed provinces or territories such as Balochistan or Fata. There are generous citizens whose contributions allow charities such as TCF to function admirably. At a much smaller scale, there are also individuals who are quietly willing to give their time and money to helping out, even fully funding, a student or two.
Even so, these efforts are a mere drop in the ocean of need that is Pakistan. This is not surprising when we consider that this is an underdeveloped, under-resourced country where population numbers are skewed towards the young; a place where there are issues such as the battle for law and order, the perma-crisis that is politics and governance, and so on. Do the students who cannot pursue their dreams even count?
Perhaps the answer lies in the setting up of a centralised fund or institution to which students in need of aid can apply.
But given the realities of Pakistan, this feels somewhat utopian. Is this even possible in a country where corruption, malpractice or at the very least, inefficiency, are rampant, even at the level of government institutions? And yet, if talented minds are being wasted, if a teenager has to learn a trade at the workshop rather than pursue the degree he yearns for, if his sister must contemplate marriage and motherhood rather than her dream, how can any meaningful development be expected to occur? If this isn’t an issue, then what is?
On Friday, the Senate dilated upon the impact of hate material in schools and the role of religious, security and educational institutions. An MQM senator called for the declaration of an ‘education emergency’, but added that ‘shameless activities’ were occurring in educational institutions. Perhaps she, and others occupying seats of power, ought to, instead, be hanging their heads in shame over how they continue every day to fail the country’s young.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2017