Surjani Town is one of those places in Karachi that you intrinsically hear a lot about but never really visit because you just don’t know where it is. Or what you’ll do when you get there, for that matter.
I found my reason to visit the neglected neighborhood in the form of Amal-e-Danish, a charity school better known as the “1 Rupee School” that lies some fifty minutes from the city center. Incidentally, the long drive from the National Stadium to the other end of Surjani Town was anything but pleasant. Just as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief for having made it past the unruly hordes of speeding motorists beyond the famous Nagin Chaurangi Bridge, the freshly made four-lane road came to an abrupt end and I found my car’s shock absorbers being tested to within an inch of their poor lives on a dirt path that seemed to go on forever. I didn’t realize what I’d gotten myself into until I got an animated call from Parveen Rao, the school’s founder and my navigator for the trip, whose car I had been following for a good 20 minutes now. “Your petrol tank’s full, isn’t it?” She asked with a knowing laugh that instantly added a notch to my worries. “Err…yes.” I said, “But we’re almost there, aren’t we?”
“Almost. I’m just making sure you have enough fuel because you won’t find any pumps after here.” She said, and mysteriously cut off the call.
And so began the second half of my long and exhausting, but in the end quite worthwhile, drive to Amal-e-Danish—the charity school with a difference.
Parveen Afshan Rao is everything you would expect a woman in her shoes to be. She’s managed to secure herself a decent education despite the many hardships she faced while growing up; she has a vision and she’s extremely driven—all these traits effectively serving to realize her lifelong dream of educating underprivileged children whose only hope at a better life is this school.
From outside the school’s building is essentially mediocre and can use a good dose of refurbishing. From the inside, however, I found it to be inspiringly alive and ornamented by the vibrant echoes of children playing and learning their lessons. And it wasn’t until I was led into a small classroom to meet the school’s eldest student, an 80 year old woman, wrapped up in a filthy old chadar that reeked of poverty, diligently learning to write her ABCs, that I truly felt the impact of Parveen Rao’s and her staff’s commendable endeavor to make a difference…
ON HER OWN ACADEMICS AND PROBLEMS WHILE GROWING UP
I’ve done my masters in Urdu Literature and have also studied Philosophy. I originally wanted to study space sciences, but in my time it was difficult for girls to have such dreams and ambitions. I probably would have done something more if I hadn’t been forced to take a break from studies after my matriculation exams. My family was against my studying and didn’t want me to go to college because I was good at housework and they were used to my being around all the time. Every year they would say that I could start next year, and this went on for so long that suddenly I realized that everyone, including my other siblings, had done something with their lives while I was still right there…no education, engrossed in housework. When I realized this, I went on a hunger strike and refused to do anything until they let me enroll in college. They refused to pay my fees and eventually, I borrowed money from someone and took admission in a government college in Lahore. The next few years were extremely hard for me as I was living in a hostel and barely making ends meet. I know a lot of people say this but I have literally worked very hard to gain an education.
ON THE INCEPTION OF THE IDEA TO OPEN A SCHOOL
I was constantly depressed because of all that I’d gone through. I felt there was a void in my life because I couldn’t study as much as I’d wanted, and that’s what prompted me to open a school for girls who were going though similar circumstances; who wanted to gain an education but couldn’t because of financial constraints and their families.
I opened a school in Korangi right after completing my masters in ‘85.The school was primarily for girls who worked in the factories of Korangi. I knew there were a lot of girls in the area who wanted to go to school but couldn’t because their parents were forcing them to earn a living instead. My idea was to open a part time school so they could keep supporting their families but also attend classes in their free time. Unfortunately the school didn’t prosper like I had planned and I was forced to close it less than a year later. There were some serious law & order problems going on in Karachi during the time and it had become almost impossible for me to go there daily and manage it.
ON THE STORY BEHIND 1 RUPEE SCHOOL
By the time I’d completed my degree, I was overage both for the job market and also in eyes of our society because I hadn’t gotten married yet. Everyone started pointing out that I should have been settled by now. So I got married a year later and you know how hard it is to continue doing your own thing once you have marital responsibilities and a family to look after. In ’95, once my child was old enough, I rented a house in Surjani Town and turned it into a school for underprivileged children of the area. I knew I couldn’t do much, but I was all set to educate around a hundred children and was quite happy with the way things were turning out. I had rounded up enough children from the streets whose parents simply couldn’t afford to send them to a proper school. I set the fees at 30 Rupees a month, which was bare minimum keeping in view the costs involved, but soon realized that those people couldn’t even pay that! The parents started to pull their children out and that panicked me. I refused to turn it into a free school like the parents were urging me, and so I finally decided to slash the fees by 29 Rupees and turn it into “1 Rupee School”.
The only objective of 1 Rupee fees is to assure the students that they’re not getting a free education; that they’re paying for their schooling.
ON CHOOSING SURJANI TOWN
I chose this area because it was comparatively peaceful and I knew the school wouldn’t be thronged as there were less than 150 houses in the area. I understood my limitations and knew I had to start on a small scale and this was the perfect place. When I asked the Katchi Abadi Association for a plot to open the school they said that they would only consider my application once I had actually opened a school! They needed to make sure I wasn’t a con-woman trying to eat up their land! When the residents heard about this, around 20 families came forward and offered me their homes to get things started. Eventually the Katchi Abadi Association allotted me a plot and then I brought the adjoining plot as well. Sometime after that my husband gifted me the other adjoining plot and my nephew also bought the one behind that. We started with four rooms and now we’ve built more than 20 rooms.
ON THE PARENTS’ ENTHUSIASM
The level of awareness about the importance of education has increased considerably over the last few years through TV. Even these people now know that they cannot face the outside world unless they have an education. They’re not just aware; they also realize its importance. Some of the parents literally begged me to open a school here and I’ve never had to waste any time trying to convince them to send their children to school. I only spend my time, energy and money on providing.
ON RAISING FUNDS AND THE UPS AND DOWNS OF RUNNING A CHARITY SCHOOL
It’s easier for students to raise funds, but by the time I had opened 1 Rupee School I was no longer a student. I was a married woman and couldn’t possibly go around asking people to donate money for my dream. I was too proud to ask for help and then there was also the question of my husband’s honor! After a lot of thinking I decided I was going to start a small printing business and use its profits to run the school. The business flourished and thankfully everything kept going according to plan for five years. I didn’t need anyone’s help and the number of students also kept growing. We’d started with a hundred and by the end of 2000, we had over 300 students.
The next few years went by smoothly but 2005 turned out to be a very bad year for me and the school. I was getting a generous cheque from a local pharmaceutical company that had promised me that their donation would keep coming in as long as the school was active. Their donations were extremely helpful and for the first time I actually started spending money on school supplies with an open hand. Eventually though, the money I was making from my business and the donations started to fall short. The number of students had increased dramatically and our monthly expenses were easily crossing the hundred thousand mark. I was slowly breaking down because of all the stress. I was driving from Gulshan-e-Iqbal to Surjani Town and back during the days and from Gulshan-e-Iqbal to I.I. Chundrigarh Road and back during the evenings, daily! In between all the work and driving I had to look after my home and give my husband and daughter some time too. I was constantly short on personal money because I’ve always believed that once you take up a responsibility, you have to see it through. I knew that if things were ever to get seriously bad, I would probably cut down on my home supplies rather than delaying my teachers’ salaries.
Thankfully things started to look up again after a British lady visited the school with one of my friends and fell in love with the setup. She instantly became a fan of the school and urged me to meet her husband who is a Pakistani and writes for Dawn newspaper. Eventually Mr Irfan Hussain wrote an article on the school and instantly, almost as if by miracle, I started getting emails from people who wanted to help out. One of the emails was from an Indian gentleman who works in Dubai and was quite impressed with the concept of 1 Rupee School. He asked one of his Pakistani colleagues, Mr Imran Hussain, to send someone to visit the school and soon after they joined our team and have been making generous donations ever since. Their contribution has finally helped me relax a bit and now I only have to put in 15 to 20 percent from my personal account and that too if needed.
ON THE ISSUES OF EDUCATING A DISADVANTAGED, ILLITERATE COMMUNITY
Because the literacy rate of these areas is so low, we faced a lot of problems along the way. The school started at 8am and some of the children didn’t show up before 9am. We had to educate them about the importance of punctuality and tell them that they couldn’t enter the school even if they were five minutes late, let alone an hour! I didn’t blame them though because the fact of the matter was these people didn’t have any clocks in their homes! Eventually we’ve managed to train them and things are a lot better now.
I was also literally running a small clinic in the school in the beginning because there were no doctors or medical facilities in the area and there used to be a lot of cases of scorpion bites etc. that I had to take care of.
Collecting the 1 Rupee fees from the younger children is also an exhausting task. They have to be reminded again and again to bring the fees, and when they finally do bring it, they go out and buy a candy instead of giving it to the teacher!
The distance from my home to the school was also a major problem for me initially. The neighborhood you see here now was virtually nonexistent until a few years ago, and I had to drive past the abandoned patch alone every day. The area wasn’t just unsafe it was scary.
ON HER SPECIAL FOUR DIMENTIONAL EDUCATION MODEL
Right now I’m working on a specific educational model for these children which I call it the Four Dimensional Model.
The first dimension is the 1 Rupee School for underprivileged students and children who are going through a temporary financial crisis.
I call the second dimension “Tez Raft”. It involves accelerated tuition for children from low-income families who for some reason were not able to go to school at the right time and are therefore lagging behind. For example, when a twelve year old child’s parents finally decide to send him to school, no school would take him in because he’s too old to attend nursery and too “dumb” to attend sixth grade. What I do is give everyone admissions, no matter how old they are, and make them sit through a separate class called “Tez Raft” where they study a specially devised “accelerated” syllabus until they’re ready to join the class they should ideally be in. Right now we have about 150 students just in “Tez Raft”.
The third dimension is for boys and girls who have reached their matriculation or intermediate level but their families cannot afford to educate them any longer and are essentially forcing them to start earning a living. I plan to open a coaching center for these students in the future when I have enough resources and teachers, but until then, I’m giving them teaching jobs in the school. This way, their parents are satisfied because they’re earning money, while I’m helping them pay for their books and tuition. I encourage them to set high targets and not worry about the money at all. Whether they want to do matriculation or intermediate; bachelors or masters, I pay for their education if they agree to teach someone else from their own neighborhood in the same manner, so that the tradition continues. A fifteen year old girl came to me and said she wanted to become a teacher. When I told her that she’s too young and should at least pass tenth grade before she can become a teacher, she told me that I was the only hope she had of ever doing her matriculation. I eventually hired her and believe it or not, she’s now the head of my kindergarten section and doing her bachelors! Who would have thought such a young girl could turn out to be such a wonderful teacher and student.
The fourth dimension is called “Taleem-e-Baalghan” and it’s all about educating the mothers of our students. I’ve written a special exercise book for these women which includes things like Urdu and English alphabets, basic day to day word & sentence construction, addition & subtraction, and learning to write their name, ID card numbers etc. I’ve also added a section to help them learn to read the names of public buses, hospitals and famous markets. The book is basically like a “Qaida” but a little different in pattern because some of the women actually stopped coming to school because their children were making fun of them by saying that their mothers were studying a book they had studies years ago! The new, personalized format makes it look different and the children can’t point out any similarities between their “Qaida” and their mothers’ “Meri Kitaab”.
ON THE ADMISSION CRITERION
My only criterion is that the student must be genuinely underprivileged and should have a passion for education. I conduct interviews of the parents and if I feel that they can afford to pay the fees, I reject them because there are other schools in the area now that they can go to instead. I simply cannot afford to waste my seats on children who are not genuinely needy. Also, the decision of which class to admit the child in is mine to make. If someone comes to me with a specific class in mind, I take their admission test to see whether they are fit to attend that class or not.
ON THE SCHOOL’S STRENGTH AND BRANCHES
We have around 800 students in Karachi, 105 students in Lahore and 35 students in Thania, which is a small mountain village north of Muzaffarabad. It was one of the worst affected areas of the 2005 earthquake and the two sisters who are running that school were badly injured in a mudslide. One of them lost her legs and hurt her backbone, and yet she’s extremely zealous and teaching the children with full enthusiasm and responsibility.
ON HER FUTURE PLANS
My main aim has always been to provide basic education to the most neglected sects of our society and what all I have done till now has been an experiment. These children are extremely intelligent, the only thing lacking in their lives is education and for that I’ve experimented with my four dimensional model and I’m still in the process of polishing it. Once it is perfected, I plan to open a proper institution where the model will be professionally implied for the first time.
I’m also ready to give my services to genuine parties who are interested in adopting my model and opening charity schools in different cities. I hope and pray that I will be able to build on and strengthen this model in the years to come and I’m confident that if the Pakistani youth adopts my idea and works to establish it throughout the nation, a serious change can come about and within ten to fifteen years and a very large portion of the nation can easily be blessed with basic education. If crazy people like me continue to work for the betterment of the country then I’m sure one day things will definitely start to look up!