Karachi: Entering Karachi’s oldest and most densely populated neighbourhood, Lyari, requires a lot from a pedestrian. Jumping over small heaps of rubbish, leaping over potholes, and dodging cars travelling the wrong way on the district’s narrow streets makes finally reaching one’s destination feel like a small prize.
Lyari is full of people and noise. The area is cramped and its newer buildings appear placed in a haphazard way — a kind of chaotic construction common to Karachi in general — but these buildings also bear the grim reminders of Lyari’s notorious gang wars of the past where local crime lords competed for the larger share of revenues from extortion, drug running, and arms dealing. The buildings remain marked with holes of various sizes, a testament to the neighbourhood’s tough times.
But amidst the poverty and the grittiness of daily life, local champions decided that just because outsiders had given up on Lyari did not mean the people of this place should do the same.
One such person is Jalil Ibrahim. He’s been teaching the children of Lyari, in one form or another, for more than 25 years.
Jalil Ibrahim began his teaching career providing affordable and sometimes free education to the children of the area. He himself received his entire education from local schools and realized early in life the importance of learning.
In 1985, Ibrahim and a small group of other volunteers started teaching classes in the street providing basic education at a nominal fee.
“We understood that no one was going to come and help us. If we wanted to provide our children with education, we would have to do it ourselves.” Ibrahim said. “We had to take our future into our hands and work towards making a workable environment for ourselves and others.”
The street school was run by a group of 70 volunteers. They received moral support from the local government and other area leaders but that was about it. There were no funds to help out.
Ibrahim says the children were motivated purely by their passion for learning. Despite having no desks or resources of any kind, they still came every day.
“We were not only teaching the curriculum at this street school, but we were also mentoring the youth at the same time.” Ibrahim said. “Things were bad and many of the students were scared and confused. We kept their morale high and gave them hope for a better tomorrow.”
Ibrahim’s street school was the consequence of a long history of neglect. In many ways, Lyari stays stuck in the past. Post-Partition Karachi grew by leaps and bounds not just population-wise but with roads and buildings and new and modern housing. But the infracture boom that came to Karachi bypassed Lyari and even though the area saw a huge influx in population with the creation of Pakistan, its people were left to make do with pre-partition systems.
The area’s reliability as a source of votes for the PPP has not helped its people in any measurable way. Lyari’s people have stood by the Bhutto family from patriarch Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to his daughter, Benazir, and, now, his granddaughter Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari but despite this loyalty, Lyari remains politically neglected and socially isolated.
Gang warfare has been part of Lyari’s landscape for decades but the uptick in violence — often quite graphic — that came in 2008 with the creation of the People’s Amn Committee seemed qualitatively different. There were daily accounts of kidnapping and counter-kidnapping, ransoming, torture, brutality, and murders. But the school in the street never closed and the kids never stopped coming.
“We tried our best to make the best of this horrible time. The teachers kept calm at least outwardly, for the sake of the children,” said Ibrahim. “We tried to appear sane even though our world seemed to be spinning around us.
“There were times when we were depressed ourselves, but you couldn’t blame us considering how we were existing on a day to day survival mode.” Ibrahim said. “Sometimes I found it hard to keep positive especially when my friends or people I knew were dying. And it was worse when you attended a funeral of some youngster you had seen growing up – it’s hard to keep yourself sane – but the innocent faces of our students watching us closely always made us stronger so that they would not crumble.”
Ibrahim says it was difficult watching the children, some as young as 10, often opt for the gang lifestyle regardless of volunteers’ efforts to keep them focussed on school and the future.
“The street school not only provided education to the students of Lyari we were also in our way rehabilitating those who were trying to survive in some of the most difficult times Lyari has faced. We have saved many youngsters from falling prey to the madness that was around us.” He added.
Lyari’s people are trying to bring their beloved neighbourhood out of its stuck past and to a place where the youth can participate equally with their fellow citizens who live in other parts of the city.
Sania Naz is one of those young people saved by the street school from the swirling madness. She has a university degree and gives back to Lyari by volunteering and helping its youth. Another success story is Junaid (not his real name). He also finished his university degree and now works at a bank. He volunteers in Lyari teaching math and science to primary school students.
“I received my basic education from Lyari – I was also a student enrolled in the street school. I saw my teachers working in the most difficult of situations and still providing education to us – they didn’t have to, but they continued selflessly. It really made you realize the importance of their work, and you wanted to do the same,” he says.
Junaid remembers the street school and its staff as a refuge from the dark reality around him. Being there gave him hope despite the world crumbling around them. He knew many young children being coaxed to join gangs – most of them did – and he saw some of them dying young.
“Our teachers were our only hope. They mentored us. I really believe a lot of lives were saved by them. I was often depressed but when I saw the smiling faces of my teachers and their encouraging words, I always felt better.
“When you don’t have anything – especially from the government – it is refreshing to know you will be taken care of. The street school really helped people like me to carry on with our lives and make the most of it.”