In a coastal shanty town, tragedy and hope live side by side

Originally published in Dawn

Lined with garbage and plastic waste, Machar Colony’s broken, narrow streets are enveloped by the smell of rotting fish. Young children and youth wander aimlessly. Basic amenities are scarce, unemployment persists and crime is rampant. In most households, men go out to fish while women and children help make ends meet by peeling shrimp for local seafood companies; work that pays little but is physically taxing and a gateway to widespread skin diseases.

Women and children earn a living by peeling shrimps. — AP/File
Photo: AP/Dawn

The Arabian Sea has been a primary source of livelihood for the people of Machar Colony for generations. With a population of over 700,000 people, this Karachi slum is spread along the coastal belt. A majority of its residents belong to fishing communities who migrated decades ago from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Today, their neighbourhood constitutes one of Pakistan’s largest unofficial and unplanned settlements.

Deep in the colony, three buildings stand out. Their concrete structures are painted in bright colours, housing airy sun-lit rooms and libraries stocked with books.

Each building has proper bathrooms, coolers for clean drinking water, steady supply of electricity, a playground and a garden — all rare elements in the colony. It is no wonder that the children who enter through the buildings’ gates every morning don’t want to leave at the end of the day.

These three buildings are schools run by The Citizens Foundation (TCF). The first one was built in the late 1990s, and TCF has since then added two more to fulfill an ever-growing need.

At the start of every new admission cycle, parents line up at the gates. With TCF adding extra shifts and teachers, the schools have seen a surge in admissions.

Every year, these schools dispel a common Pakistani myth that the poor are not interested in education and would rather send their children to work.

Many of Machar Colony’s children are however still forced to work due to their circumstances, but education has become their foremost priority.

TCF-run schools are also a haven from their daily struggles; one which they leave reluctantly at the end of every school day.

Caught in politics of the sea

Machar Colony.
Machar Colony

Unfortunately, abject poverty, lack of educational facilities and institutional neglect are not the only problems facing Machar Colony. Few places have borne a greater brunt of the endless India-Pakistan conflict than this slum. Fishermen from the two countries regularly stray across maritime boundaries in desperate search for good catch where they are arrested and charged with trespassing.

They are often left languishing in jails without trial and any contact with their families for years. According to human rights activists, many have died in prison waiting for release. Several of them belong to Machar Colony.

Yaseen, who studies at TCF, poses with his younger brother.
Yaseen, who studies at TCF, poses with his younger brother.

It is not uncommon to meet children enrolled in TCF schools who have lost a family member to the sea. One student’s father disappeared while fishing two years ago. Her mother, Rubina, is a young woman who is certain that her husband was arrested by Indian authorities but has never had confirmation. She has struggled to support her two small children ever since, being unable to work full time due to poor health.

“He used to take good care of us. Everything changed when he left,” she remembers wistfully.

Rubina never went to school herself. But she is convinced that education is the only way for her children to escape the misery they have been trapped in since they were born.

Her son is still very young, but she brought her daughter to the school after she heard about it from neighbours. On her visits, she loved watching the students in their clean, crisp uniforms. Even though she was struggling to keep a roof over their head at the time, she made sure her daughter was admitted.

Going well beyond lesson plans

“I want both my children to complete their education,” she says. “My daughter loves her teachers. The school’s principal is also very kind to me. She listens to me with respect and talks to me about my daughter’s progress.”

Rubina isn’t alone in her praise for the teachers and principal and the role they have played in her own life as well as her daughter’s. The teachers in these schools are known to go well beyond just giving lessons in the classroom. They have become a key part of the communities and the families they serve.

Many of these students had never been to school before. Those who did go were used to neglect and mistreatment. Few, if any, had help building confidence and self-esteem to dream beyond the poverty that has ensnared their families for generations.

TCF principals and teachers on the other hand have become confidantes and counsellors to these children as well as their families, often helping them deal with personal crises, including health problems among the students who work night shifts cleaning raw shrimp with bare hands.

Most of all, they have lent them empathy and strength to help cope with tragedy and despair, as in the case of Rubina.

Anwara with her children in a single room quarter.
Anwara with her children in their single room quarter.

Anwara, another parent at the same school, had five children when her husband went missing. She also cleans shrimp along with her children — two of whom are adults. The two younger ones are in school.

“People in the community keep telling my children that their father left them, and then they ask me why. I try to explain to them as best as I can,” she says.

It was the TCF school principal who convinced Anwara to enrol the children and gave them books and uniforms. Now she is determined to try her hardest to keep them in school.

“I have told myself that they might not have a father anymore but they have me,” Anwara says. “I will try my best to educate them. I want them to become independent, to own their homes, and once they achieve that, I just want to spend the rest of my life praying. That’s my only wish.”

Unlike Anwara, Rubina is still hopeful that her husband will return one day. In the meantime, she wants both of her children to finish school. She wants her daughter to become a doctor.

“Without an education, you have to hear a lot of rebuke from everyone,” she says. “Education can help us become something in the future.”

Someone different, someone important, she hopes.

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