Footpath School: More than a sanctuary for Karachi’s street children

Footpath School: More than a sanctuary for Karachi’s street children

BY SHAHJAHAN KHURRAM

PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEOGRAPHY BY: MUHAMMAD FAROOQ DHEDHI

VIDEO EDITED BY: HARIS KHAN 

KARACHI: 11-year-old Atif squints his eyes hard trying to make sense of the alphabets in front of him on a small notebook. He moves his lips in silence, trying to join the alphabets and pronounce the word successfully–it was pineapple.

An array of seats placed beneath a section of Karachi’s busy Bahria flyover surrounded by tents is the main hub for street children these days. However, this gathering of street children is a sight for sore eyes given the fact that the kids here have congregated to learn rather than beg, perform odd jobs or worse–do drugs.

“This bridge has been here since the past couple of years but has only been used for negative purposes, such as drug abuse or begging,” says Anfas Ali Shah, President of the Ocean Welfare Organisation (OWO) that runs the Footpath School. “I don’t think anyone would object if this place has been transformed into a school for the street children that also functions as a sanctuary,” she added before chiding a student for forgetting to wear his uniform.

The Footpath School is an ambitious project by the OWO that aims to impart education to street children in a bid to keep them away from begging, stealing and abusing drugs. The allure of the street is too much for these children and in order to keep them away from it, the Footpath School must offer incentives.

“The street children who come to my school are the ones who have nothing–no parents, no homes and at times, not even clothes to wear,” she says. “Hence, we have to provide them everything from books, stationary to medical help (if they need it). Oh and Rs 50 on a daily basis to each child as an incentive to keep coming to school,” she said.

Not only that, the children are offered refreshments and lunch every day by the staff at the Footpath School. Anfas Ali Shah started the project after the Army Public School massacre in 2014 in a bid to thwart terrorists’ efforts to obliterate education from young minds and instill hatred there instead.

“Look around, this is not the future of Pakistan but the future of the world,” she says, gesturing towards the street children. “Even if one child in Pakistan becomes a terrorist, he can harm hundreds anywhere in the world,” she exclaims passionately.

Despite the success of the Footpath school since more than a year, Anfas has her hands full and with financial constraints, there’s only so much she can do.

“In this branch, we have 600 registered street children,” she said. “We’re doing the work of the government here which they are supposed to do. However, no political party or government representative has ever visited this place of helped us,” she said.

After stressing that the Ocean Welfare Organisation has no political affiliation, Anfas does assert that the NGO has been successful where the government and other well-funded non-profit organisations have failed.

“I think the secret to our success is the fact that we don’t wait for the ideal circumstances to occur,” she says. “I don’t want to restrain these kids to classrooms surrounded by serenity and calmness. Street children will not take to such an atmosphere hence we have established a school here, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of traffic, that provides them a sense of ownership,” she adds. “This is why they keep returning to school the very next day.”

Sana Riaz is a paid teacher at the Footpath School who teaches children Urdu, English and Maths. She urges her class of 30 students to scream out the answers to simple maths problems as she scribbles with a marker on the whiteboard.

“I’ve been teaching here since the past two years and it is a wonderful experience,” she says. “When these kids came to me, they knew nothing. Now, at least they can read. The response of the street children is overwhelming,” she adds.

13-year-old AllahBukhsh works at a tailor shop with his older brother. He too had taken to the streets but the Footpath School had helped him get back on his feet.

“I like it here very much, madam gives us money everyday and food too,” he says. “On Eid, we’re fortunate to get clothes too. After attending school and studying all subjects, I assist my older brother at the tailor’s shop.”

All of a sudden, music booms through a loudspeaker which gets everyone’s attention. The children raise their hands, sing along to the words of the song and clap in unison. Evidently, this is their favourite activity of the day, another one of the tactics employed by the Footpath School to retain the street children.

Going around with a microphone and camera, the street children were eager to display their skills. Some sang the national anthem while others recited ABC for all to hear.

Armed with books, pencils and other stationery items, multiple teachers busy themselves in imparting knowledge to the number of street children that have congregated to learn.

As buses, cars and motorbikes whiz by, the Footpath School in the midst of such distractions is a sight for sore eyes. It is testament to the fact that Pakistan faces an uphill task when it comes to educating its street children but where there’s a will, there is a way.

It’s almost 1pm and lunch is to be served. The sound of chairs scraping the floor fills the area as the street children scamper away to eat. Meanwhile, Atif continues to sit on his desk with his index finger tracing the alphabets P-I-N-E-A-P-P-L-E. It’s clear he won’t quit till he gets it right.

News Reporter