Venturing into the narrow lanes of Lyari, I first reached Cheel Chowk, a landmark junction that was once a symbol of terror during the area’s gang wars, and then passed Maulvi Usman Park, commonly known as Bhaiyya Bagh, a football stadium that has put the oldest Karachi settlement on the world map for its love for football.
The smiling faces overlooking their shops in the marketplace led me to my destination: the Computer Sciences Department (CSD) in Benazir Bhutto Shaheed University Lyari (BBSUL), established by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led Sindh government in 2012. The large corridors of the university were buzzing with male and female students going in and out.
It was pleasantly shocking to see that Lyari — a place once known to the outside world only for its violence and killings — now harboured a rich, intellectual space for its students. Though built using limited resources, the collective efforts and dedication of students and university teachers to bring life to classrooms and labs shone through.
Over the past few years, Lyari has managed to successfully become a fledgling hub of Information Technology (IT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) advancements.
Once known to the outside world only for violent gang wars or its love of football, Karachi’s Lyari is now an upcoming hub of tech innovations led by its youth
For instance, three students of BBSUL came together to invent an AI-based walking stick that assists visually impaired persons navigate public spaces by notifying them of any obstacles in their way. It is monitored by an app called E-Walk and is available in three languages, for both iPhone and Android users.
Inventions such as these have become a catalyst for not just a technological revolution in Lyari, but also offer a radically different way of life to its residents, whose lives were once marred by internecine gang wars that claimed thousands of lives during the past three decades.
The youth in Lyari has put in concerted effort to bring about change and create a new status quo. Today, boxers, rappers, footballers and young entrepreneurs are emerging from Lyari, an area of around 600,000 inhabitants.
Some of the youth credit their aspirations, in fact, to the experience of decades of violence. Young entrepreneur and former student of BBSUL Noor ul Najam is among them. Running a software house with a five-member team in Lyari, Noor lost two of his friends in 2017.
“Some of my friends joined gangs and eventually became drug addicts. One of my friends was killed during cross-firing between gangs. Another succumbed to a drug overdose. I couldn’t be one of them. [Instead] I chose education to serve my hometown,” Noor tells Eos.
He and his team, under the supervision of their teacher at BBSLU, Raheel Sarwar, launched a project named ‘Kids Entrepreneurship’. The project targets students from class 5 to class 8 in different schools of Lyari and teaches them basic knowledge about computers, technology, how startups can be launched, how companies work and explains the difference between jobs and startups.
Since the establishment of BBSUL, around 2,000 students from Lyari have graduated in different disciplines. But arguably it is the tech students who have made the biggest impact.
Fatima Alam, a resident of Lyari and final year student in the CSD in BBSUL works at Amazon as a service provider.
“I am offering my service as a Virtual Assistant and a wholesaler,” Fatima tells Eos. “I am working with clients in America on web development and providing them Amazon’s drop-shipping services. I take pride that I am the only one in my family who is earning in US dollars instead of Pakistan rupees.”
BBSUL is popular in Lyari for equipping its students with relevant skills for jobs. The success rate of computer sciences students securing jobs is around 90 percent. It is interesting to note that many former students of the university are now entrepreneurs themselves, providing employment opportunities to youth in the area.
“Our aim is to prepare our students not only for jobs but also for entrepreneurship,” says Dr Mazhar Ali, Head of the Faculty of Computing Science at BBSUL. “When a student bears their expenses and also supports their family through freelancing and entrepreneurship, it gives us immense pleasure and satisfaction.”
The BBSUL management holds the view that quality education is providing the youth, be it male or female, with hope and opportunity to compete with the world. The administration of BBSUL declares that BBSUL’s grand ambitions are to become ‘Pakistan’s future Silicon Valley’.
Muhammad Owais Qarni, a former student of BBSUL running his startup in Lyari, shares that he started his freelance career as a web developer during his first year in university during Covid-19. He worked with companies based in America and launched his software house in 2019 by using his savings from his earnings as a freelancer. His software company comprises five members, two in sales and three developers.
BBSUL also inducts former students as faculty members. Many who were once students are now serving as teachers in the university.
Nadia Murad Baloch graduated from BBSUL in 2015. She shares, “There was a time [during the pandemic] when we were confined to our homes for weeks. It was so discouraging and heart-wrenching that you could not appear for your exams in that period. Thank God, the era of horror is over and now, in 2023, I am sitting here as a lecturer in my alma mater.”
The path of success for students of Lyari was much more difficult to pave as compared to anyone else. They often literally put their lives in danger to pursue their education. Surrounded by sounds of firing and blasts and seeing blood-filled streets every day, the dedication these students had to seeking education should be seen as an act of bravery.
Abdullah, former student and currently teaching at BBSUL, is a gold and silver medalist and an active proponent of female education in Lyari.
“I was born and raised in the Kalakot area of Lyari,” he says. “I was a student at a volatile time, when notorious gangsters plunged the entire locality into darkness during the gang wars. Now, I am about to complete my PhD with 48 research papers, among which 32 are ‘impact’ research papers, available on Google Scholar. All of this I achieved while living in Lyari,” he adds proudly.
He believes Lyari has now changed, as he has witnessed the female education rate rise over the past few years. His sister Rukhsar, also a resident of Lyari, is preparing to move abroad on a scholarship to pursue higher studies.
The achievements of BBSUL students deserve recognition. Not only have they managed to seek education and secure jobs but their success has had a ripple effect on everyone else in the area. Rising entrepreneurs have created jobs, encouraging many families to educate their children, especially their sisters and daughters.
“The people of Lyari are talented and have shown their abilities to the world whenever they got the opportunity” says Saeed Sarbazi, a senior journalist and president of the Karachi Press Club, who is also a resident of Lyari. “Many famous singers, footballers and rappers belong to Lyari. Even in the era of the gang wars, they did not lose heart. They only want job security and long-lasting and sustainable peace.”
Sarbazi notes that, although Lyari has come a long way, there are still plenty of issues that demand immediate attention. The lack of wider availability of quality education, the dearth of health and sanitation facilities, the continued drug problem and clustered high rise buildings swamping limited land are some of the issues he highlights that, he says, serve as an impediment to the residents’ ability to live a good life.
Having said that, it is not a small feat for the residents of Lyari to take ownership of their circumstances and rewrite their legacy for the world — one that is not centred on violence or football, but instead on technological innovation.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist with an interest in issues concerning environment and women.
She tweets @asifaidris
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 26th, 2023