An Exercise in Self-Help: Pakistan’s Garage School Offers Its Students a Way Out of Poverty

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: The WIP

Anil is now a young man of 19, studying for his high school examinations at Bahria College. He is also working a summer job with a cell phone company to earn a few extra rupees for his family.

• Shabina (standing at left) and her first group of students at the original Garage School site. •

I have known Anil since he was a child, when he joined The Garage School in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi where he lived with his family. The school opened in 2000 when Shabina, an enterprising widow, decided to utilize her garage space to help poor children acquire some education. Anil was amongst the first 15 or so children who enrolled. Today he acknowledges, “Under the discipline and guidance of Madam, my life has changed.”

Coming from a poor family – his father works as a part-time cleaner – Anil’s chances of improving his life were indeed bleak until his mother sent him to Shabina. In a country that spends barely two percent of its GDP on education, Pakistan has only scarce resources to provide a decent education to 60 million or so children under 15; not all can hope to be educated. According to Pakistan’s 2007-2008 Economic Survey, only 57 percent of children (age 10 years and above) are enrolled in school.

• Most of Shabina's students come from the impoverished Neelam Colony. •

Governments in Pakistan have traditionally been measly in their budgetary allocations for the social sector. As a result, the private sector has stepped in to fill the gap where it can. At the primary level, 14 percent of the country’s schools are managed by private entrepreneurs. The best of these, which compare favorably with the elite schools in the United States, charge fees of the likes of which Anil can never hope to pay. The average monthly income of families such as his is much less than the monthly fees of these high-brow institutions. Since the public sector schools are inadequate in number, relatively inaccessible and maintain pathetic educational standards (teachers are neither highly trained nor motivated), most Pakistani children are denied the very thing that could help them to pull themselves out of the morass of poverty.In this context, Anil’s case is a heart-warming story of how well-meaning humanitarian efforts by dedicated individuals can make a world of difference for children who would otherwise be consigned to the depths of poverty, underdevelopment and illiteracy. Without education, the country cannot facilitate the acquisition of skills and training necessary for its people to seize opportunities and employment. Education is the most basic tool for poverty alleviation; its absence adversely affects the economic productivity of the workforce and the country’s overall economic progress. This is the tragedy of Pakistan.

When Shabina first launched her school, she had no idea that she would be able to expand so quickly and reach out to so many children. Initially she started with 15 students from her neighborhood – generally the sons and daughters of domestics working in the homes of the rich, as well as the lower class, poorly paid office workers. Enrollment grew quite rapidly; today there are 115 children studying in The Garage School.

• Many of The Garage School's student receive education that they would otherwise not get from the Pakistani government. •

“I provided the children [with] all-round care. That meant not just teaching them the skills of reading and writing. They also received snacks such as eggs, fruits, biscuits and milk to keep them healthy while staving off [the distraction of] hunger. Philanthropists were generous. Enrollment in my school also brought healthcare for the children because I felt a sick child cannot really apply himself to his studies. Doctors came and gave the children their services and pharmaceutical companies donated medicines,” Shabina says, disclosing the secrets of her school’s success.Holding up her outstretched palm, Shabina also talks about the “five-finger formula” that defines her schooling philosophy. In Urdu it stands for “Tor, Tariqa, Tarbiyat, Taaleem and Taraqqi,” or “Grooming, Approach, Training, Education and Progress,” a well-rounded mission that entails not only teaching her students the alphabet but discipline and culture as well. She talks of the values she instills in her children (honesty, hard work, hygiene and health) as equaling a “human being.”

Another factor has helped The Garage School produce great human beings: its approach to inter-faith relationships. Shabina’s students are of different religious denominations – Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Sikh, but all religious festivals are celebrated with equal zeal. At Christmas they attend a mass at church. The Muslim festivals bring all of them together and for Guru Nanak’s birthday Shabina takes them all to the Sikh gurdwara (temple). What better lesson in tolerance could there be for a country where religious bigotry has emerged as a major evil?

• One of The Garage School's many success stories, Anil is now studying business at the university. •

Shabina is always mindful of the future of her students. “I had to ensure that they would be able to get a job and hold on to it when they grow up.” A patron of the school suggested that Shabina’s students enroll in regular mainstream schools after a year or two under her instruction so they can ultimately go to college (high school), and perhaps even university, as Anil has done. This gentleman even offered to pay school fees for sixteen children. As the school grew, Shabina found more sponsors and The Garage School became an ever-widening conduit for children on their way to mainstream education. Support campaigns like Sponsor a Child and Feed a Child proved to be a roaring success, but money alone would not have helped these youngsters. It was the crucial grooming and socializing they received at the Garage under Shabina’s tutelage that enabled them to move on.

The Garage School is now in the process of even more expansion. “Now I will start holding classes for the school, [keeping] examinations on my own premises. Instead of sending children all over the city, I will now keep them in my own school in the new building I have acquired. I will also hold classes for adult literacy and vocational skill workshops. But the Garage will remain as the starting point for education in my school,” Shabina says, full of pride.

Shabina’s inspiration to launch this ambitious venture comes from a place close to her heart. Her late husband, an officer in the Pakistan Air Force who was killed in the 1971 war in Bangladesh, always had a dream: “He wanted to educate the children of the poor,” Shabina explains. “This is my tribute to him,” she says as her eyes beam.

– All images courtesy of The Garage School