It’s just another weekday at the SOS Children’s Village in Malir, Karachi and Rubina Khan, one of the most senior ‘mothers’ in one of the houses here, is busy in the kitchen putting the final touches to lunch.
“Today’s menu is daal chawal,” she announces.
“Every morning as they are off to school, we discuss with the children what they would like for lunch. When the majority voted for daal chawal this morning, I reminded them about the biryani they had just two days ago. It is also rice but they insisted that daal chawal is different from biryani and so daal chawal it is,” says Rubina as she tells me that she will recruit one or two of the older girls to prepare the raita and salad to serve with lunch as soon as the children return from school.
There are nine children, six girls and three boys of different ages, in Rubina’s care at the SOS Village. All live in the same house, one of four in a mohalla or neighbourhood. In total, there are 16 houses, four in each corner making up the four mohallas. The houses are nice, airy and well-lit.
Today, as one of the little boys, Kashif, returns from school, Rubina tells him to open his school bag before her so that she can go through its contents. “One of his friends at school gave him a kite and string that he brought home recently, hence the special treatment,” Rubina winks at me. The bag is clean and the boy is allowed to go, shower and change. After lunch, he is also the first to be told to bring out his homework copy by Rubina. That taken care of, she turns to the other children.
Some of the children are orphans, some come from broken homes. She is there for all of them and they know it well. Rubina herself came to the SOS Children’s Village some 23 years ago.
Motherhood is more than simple bonds of blood and DNA. Sometimes, a mother’s love and care comes wrapped in other garbs…
“I am originally from Bahawalpur. I was young, divorced within a year of my marriage. Looking for a change of scenery and environment, I came to Karachi to stay with my cousins for a short while only, but here one of them asked me to think about getting a job. He even had something in mind for me and brought me here. That was when I fell in love with the shiny, happy faces I encountered here. The very next day, I was hired. The rest is history. I never wanted to go back to Bahawalpur. My children needed me.
“As we nurture these children, brought to us by fate, they in turn also enrich our lives,” says Rubina, who has by now raised three to four generations of children and sent them out in the real world to find their place.
“But they don’t really go. We keep in touch as they call often to share things and also to seek my advice. So many times, they also come here to meet and stay for a day or two. But even if they didn’t, they all have their own special places in my heart. I remember each and everything about each and every one of them. I think I know them more than they know themselves. Isn’t that how a mother feels too?” Rubina smiles.
“One of my girls recently returned to stay with me here for Eid with her two little children. Her daughter was a handful, running around and lying on the bare floor for hours. My girl scolded her, told her to behave herself, but I stopped her. The child was doing exactly what her mother used to do at that age in this very house,” Rubina laughs.
“You know, one of my boys, Inzamam, is a lieutenant with the Pakistan Army now. He has kept in touch, too,” Rubina shares.
“All my children call me ‘Mamma’,” she beams. “You know, whenever I go out to shop for myself, I am also thinking about what would look nice on which of my children, who needs what with what, such as socks or ribbons or hair clips and bands,” she laughs, adding that the SOS Village takes care of all the children’s individual expenses, but she can’t help herself. “And it is not just me. Other mothers here are also like this,” she adds.
“It’s not a blood relation that we have with our children, but our hearts still beat for them,” she says.
“A few months ago, we got two little children, Huzaifa and Zainab, in our mohalla. Their mother had passed away and the children were terribly disturbed. But the SOS mother, Sarwat, finally managed to console them and turn them around. They are doing much better now. In fact, four-year-old Zainab’s mannerisms and the way she speaks have even started resembling Sarwat’s style of talking and doing things,” Rubina says.
The narrow reception area with the two wooden sofas with big orange seats looks cheerful, despite the sofas making the corridor narrower and heavy grey steel cupboards lined up against the remaining walls almost covering all the windows. Someone has spilled a pink liquid on the floor, which I am careful not to step on as I take a seat. The air smells of freshly fried omelette. The young lady who opened the gate for me and ushered me in, closes the door to the dining area to let the other children have their breakfast in peace.
“What’s your name?” She asks. I tell her before asking her the same.
“Muqaddas,” she replies before hopping off to fetch Sister Saima Nighat, Superior of Providence Home.
Sister Saima, who wears her hair in a neat bun and is dressed in a crisp white shalwar qameez, walks in to greet me as her eyes dart to the little pink puddle on the floor. She looks slightly cross but doesn’t say anything.
There are 18 young ladies at Providence and Leo, the tortoise. The girls are aged between five years to 20 years. The female tortoise is seven and belongs to Maliha, one of the girls. All the girls at Providence come from broken homes with single parents who are unable to give them a proper home. Providence is a home for such girls, who are supervised by three nuns from the Daughters of the Cross.
The girls residing here are like sisters. They play around, study, quarrel and also help in the housework.
Life is not to be taken for granted at Providence Home. On weekdays, the girls wake up at 5.30am. The older ones get ready themselves and then help the little ones get ready for school before preparing breakfast. Then all tumble into the van owned by the Home before heading off to school. Some attend Our Lady of Fatima School, some go to St Joseph’s Convent and some St Patrick’s Convent for Girls. They study hard and are encouraged to excel in life, striving to be the best in whatever they do.
“It keeps them busy and out of a lot of mischief,” says Sister Saima. “Of course, it is not just this. We also go out for picnics if they have been good. But there also they must help with preparing the picnic baskets,” she smiles.
“We get a lot of donors who also like to take the girls on outings such as shopping sprees, the movies, etc. On such occasions, I am careful not to let things get out of hand. The donors are more than happy to buy them any clothes or toys or other gifts that they would like, but I make sure they don’t overspend. They need to understand that money and resources are not to be wasted. They need to understand how to spend wisely and save. I often have to remind them that this is not the last time they are going out for anything,” Sister Saima points out.
“To teach such small but important lessons to them, I need to be firm with them sometimes. If they object and throw tantrums, I explain to them, after they have cooled down a bit, that those who love them also care for them and scolding them like this is also a way of showing how much I care for them,” she smiles.
“I understand that I will never be able to step into their mothers’ shoes but I am responsible for them. I am not one to give motherly hugs or kisses but I care and, in turn, I know that they also care for me as much as I care for them. There is also love there, but there is also respect for me, which is obvious,” she says.
“They just need to understand how lucky and blessed they are. And they must thank God at all times,” says Sister Saima.
IN MUMMY’S SHADOW
It has been one year since the passing of Bilquis Edhi, everyone so lovingly reached out to as ‘Mummy’. But there is Chhoti Mummy. Sabah Faisal Edhi was trained well by her late mother-in-law to take care of the needs of the girls and children at the Edhi Centres and Home. Soon after Bilquis’s passing on April 15 last year, when everyone started calling Sabah ‘Mummy’, she asked them to call her ‘Chhoti Mummy’, as she felt that Mummy was irreplaceable.
“Everyone keeps me so busy. Busier than my own children ever kept me. Of course, there is our very able and responsible staff here too, but I also cannot sit idle in an office,” says Sabah.
Therefore she takes her place on the white bench where Mummy used to sit every morning, taking care of matters, calling all the other centres to know what was happening there, if there were any need for her to visit, etc.
She tells me that, just like Mummy, she also always makes sure that none of the now-married girls who grew up here and are visiting Edhi Home leave for their marital home empty-handed. “It was Mummy’s way to send them home with gifts. Now I also make sure to have lots of nice suits in our cupboards for them, along with cute clothing and toys for their children to present as gifts, along with some cash before they leave here,” she shares.
“Nowadays, I am also shopping for wedding clothes, jewellery and furniture,” she says.
“Do you know, I have in this past year also got nine girls who grew up here, married? And I’m looking at good proposals for two more,” she informs me enthusiastically. “Please pray they all have a good marriage and a good life,” she says. I tell her she even sounds as old as Mummy now.
“Why not? Besides ‘Chhoti Mummy’, I am also being referred to as ‘Chotti Nani’ by the children of the girls we had gotten married in Mummy’s time. So you can say I’m enjoying motherhood as well as grand-motherhood now,” she chuckles.
I can’t help but notice how well she herself has picked up from where Mummy left off, taking care of the entire Edhi household.
The writer is a member of staff.
She tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2023
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