Living Colours: Saya School casts a long shadow

Source: Published in Education on Thursday, July 2, 2015

Everyone talks about the plight of out-of-school children in Pakistan, but very few seem to be doing something about it. One of those select few is Asma Tughral, a teacher with a vision. From modest beginnings, helping other schools develop their resources, today Ms Tughral runs her own school in the underdeveloped rural Islamabad suburb of Golra Sharif. The school is run entirely on private donations by friends and family. Dawn spoke to Ms Tughral about her motivation, the challenges she faces and her vision for the future.

Q: How was the Saya School born?

A: We send our own children to the best institutions in Pakistan and abroad, but what about the underprivileged? It pained me to see the disparity between what we would teach at the expensive private schools and what the majority of our children were learning. I felt that there was no use sitting in our air-conditioned drawing rooms and blaming the government for all the things that are wrong with our country.

Initially, we looked for charity schools and supported some of them by opening computer laboratories, libraries and hiring teachers; whatever we could with the limited resources we had.

We had some ancestral land in Maira Aku, Golra Sharif and decided to open a school there. A teacher was hired and the school began under the shade of a tree, hence the name ‘Saya’. We now hoping to upgrade it to the high-school level, add a good library and teach more vocational skills to the children.

Q: What would you say your greatest challenge has been so far?

A: Finding local teachers who can teach the way a teacher at a private school in Islamabad would, is the hardest thing to do. We can only offer a meagre salary so it is difficult to find people who understand that essays must not be written out on the black board and memorised or that children must not be beaten.

Inculcating the habit of reading in children is also a challenge. Even getting them to speak the truth and teaching them not to lie or cheat has been a challenge. They come from tough backgrounds where it is the survival of the fittest and they have to do whatever they can to get by.

Getting girls to stay in school after the birth of a new sibling and convincing boys that it is wrong to beat up a girl, those are tough lessons to teach. There has also been little help from the community. There is a perception is that we are an NGO and that we get donations easily.

Q: What perceptions do people from low income backgrounds hold about education?

A: It is very difficult to convince underprivileged families to send their children to school. For them, more children mean more working hands and putting a child in school means losing out on that potential income. The parents are the ones who would threaten to withdraw their child from the school and we would have to beg and plead to let their child stay. But women, by and large, are supportive of their children’s education, more so than the men.

Q: Does teaching here help you better relate to these children?

A: Once, we asked students to share personal stories. A little boy of ten years wrote, “I hate the rich, they put my mother in jail on accusation of theft and I had to stay with my younger sister for three days, all alone and hungry.”

Another one wrote that his mother’s employer refused to help when his little sister burned herself, while their mother was away working at another home.

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Written by Shiza Malik

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