TES Christmas Appeal - 'They would come and live at school if they could'

10th December 2010 at 00:00
In the flood-ravaged regions of northern Pakistan, schools run by The Citizens Foundation are giving shape to the ambitions of some of the country's most disadvantaged children

Eqra Habib was seven years old when the earthquake killed her elder sister. Now 12, she sits on her hands and wriggles in her chair as she talks. Then she gazes out at the terraced fields and snowcapped mountain peaks beyond the school playground.

"Our house just caved in," she says. "I was at school, but one of my friends dragged me to where my house used to be." She pauses. "There was only rubble." Her mother and sister were both buried in the wreckage; her mother was rescued the same day, but her sister was trapped for another three. By the time she was dug out, she was dead. "I was really scared," Eqra says, wiping her nose with her kameez tunic. "I just cried and cried."

Afterwards, her family lived in a tent in a refugee camp for a year, before another home could be built. Young as she was, Eqra found herself reconsidering her priorities. She had been attending a low-cost private school but her teachers regularly failed to turn up for lessons and children ran wild. She pleaded with her father to send her to The Citizens Foundation (TCF) school instead.

There are 650 TCF schools across Pakistan, purpose-built to educate 95,000 of the country's poorest children. Raised in slums, TCF graduates now attend medical and business colleges - one has just won a scholarship to an elite private school in Lahore.

The Himalayan foothills of Pakistan, where Eqra and her classmates live and learn, are not an easy place to live. When The TES visited in March, the area had barely recovered from the earthquakes that devastated significant regions of north-western Pakistan in 2005.

Then this summer, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously known as the North-West Frontier Province) was once again ravaged, this time by floods. So, too, was the southern province of Sindh, where TCF schools attempt to provide education for children in some of the most impoverished conditions in Pakistan.

The dust is everywhere in Sindh. It forms a thin, grey film over everything: people's belongings, their clothes, their hair, their skin.

In the tiny village of Keti Bandar, a dozen children have gathered at the doorway of a one-room hut made of dried mud and corrugated iron. Streaks of red paan juice scar the hut walls, a rare patch of colour amid the relentless brown. The room is dominated by a charpoy string bed, on which the family's possessions are heaped; nearby, a shelf is stacked with mismatched plates.

Jaffar Mallah, a round-faced 13-year-old with a cheeky grin, lives in this single room with his parents, two sisters and three brothers. Like Eqra, he has recently started attending a local TCF school.

Jaffar's father joins him on a charpoy outside the shack. "I'm a driver," he says. "That's fine for me. I mean, if there was a better job available, I'd love to do it - nobody likes this kind of living. But I'm used to it. I want Jaffar to be a doctor. Like every normal, average father dreams for his son, I want him to prosper, to live in a good house, to earn well."

At the nearby school, 15-year-old Mohammad Faisal has similar dreams. Gaunt and long limbed, with a soft layer of down coating his upper lip, he talks about the government school he used to attend. There, too, the appearance of teachers was sporadic. Pupils instead amused themselves by setting fire to rubbish in the playground. But his family lived opposite the TCF school: he saw the way that things could be. He is now in his first year there.

With no father around, Mohammad is the man of the house by default: it is his job to support his mother and two sisters. Every evening after school he works as a waiter, serving customers and cleaning up afterwards. It is a trendy cafe; he is usually waiting on customers roughly his own age.

"I don't know what they feel like when I'm serving them," he says. "If I make a mistake, sometimes they might be unfair. Sometimes they even beat me. It's very difficult, but I need to control my emotions, do everything I can to get a good tip. I follow the customer-is-always-right philosophy."

By the time he arrives home it is usually around 2am; at weekends it is sometimes 3.30am. He has to be up at 6am to finish his homework and make it to school on time. Until recently, when he was able to save enough money to buy himself an alarm clock, he slept on the roof so the rising sun would wake him up.

"There are times when I feel like I could leave everything - run away and find somewhere I can just sleep and sleep," says Mohammad. "But I'd rather leave work than school. I want to be a businessman. Any kind of business, as long as I'm the big boss, with a penthouse office. So there's no way I will leave my studies." He straightens the collar of his uniform shirt.

This attention to personal detail is part of his TCF homework. Children are expected to turn up at school neatly groomed and well presented; the difference between Mohammad's short, cropped hair and the dirty tangles of the street children of Keti Bandar is striking.

"They're completely unkempt when they come here," says Hina Anjum, Keti Bandar kindergarten teacher. "Their hair is filled with dirt, their faces aren't washed."

Her job is to teach them what TCF pupils should look like. In a cabinet in her classroom she keeps shampoo, hair oil, scissors, soap and toothpaste. Each day, after assembly, she washes their faces, ties their hair back, and checks teeth and nails.

"Parents say: 'We have to go to work in the field every morning - we can't spend time on our children's appearance,'" she says. "Others don't have running water at home, can't do all of this at home. It's the reason so many of them would come and live at school if they could."

This is equally true back in the hills of the north-west. "Many families don't do self-grooming," says Sumaira Khawas, a teacher at Eqra's school. "Children smell like, well, like somebody who doesn't take a bath more than once a month. Pungent. They have nails full of mud and filth, chapped eyes, no concept of brushing their teeth. Every time they open their mouths, the smell is really bad.

"A lot of children are like hooligans when they come here. They fight, push, say bad words. Now, they're well groomed, physically and mentally."

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is deep in Pakistan's conservative heartland. Beyond the school walls, women in burqas scurry down muddy pathways; men in beards and Hajji caps congregate in front of tea shops. Many TCF school desks remain empty as teachers struggle to persuade parents to educate their daughters.

Or, in some cases, daughters struggle to persuade their parents to send them to school. Thirteen-year-old Zainab Bibi seems permanently poised on the brink of tears. "In my family, there's no tradition of giving education to daughters," she says, and her voice is practically a whisper. "There are doctors and teachers and other professionals in my family, but they are all men."

Two years ago, when she reached the end of grade three, her father wanted to withdraw her from school. "I told him my teachers were very careful and well dressed and well groomed," she says, looking down and fiddling with a henna-coated fingernail. "I said I'll be like them. I'll be careful when I go to school and careful when I come home again. I'll watch out for vehicles and men."

Next to her, Eqra nods. "This school is half an hour's walk away from home, so my parents were worried I'd be picked up along the way," she says. "But teachers tell us to go straight home, without stopping. That's part of the lessons here.

"I want to grow up and be financially independent, not like my mother. You get self-respect with your own money. You don't have to ask for anything."

Briefly, Zainab looks up, then returns her gaze to her fingernails. "I want to become a teacher," she says, quickly, quietly. "I want to help other children like me."


Raise money with The TES

The TES is raising money to build a TCF school in Pakistan for some of the country's most disadvantaged children.

Through a variety of fundraising activities, we aim to raise #163;65,000 for the Friends of The Citizens Foundation, a UK-registered charity that raises funds for TCF.

TCF was one of six organisations recently honoured by the World Innovation Summit for Education for its work in transforming education.

Go to http:uk.virginmoney giving.comTSL.

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