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Last Updated: Monday, 15 October 2007, 08:25 GMT 09:25 UK
School with no buildings gives hope
By Umber Khairi
BBC News, Rawalpindi

Pupils at Rah-e-Amal school
The school has gone from strength to strength
Tucked away in a quiet corner in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi is a school that is creating an astonishing change in the lives of the city's street children.

Rah-e-Amal in the city's Westridge neighbourhood is a school which has now been running for almost 10 years.

It has no building, but every morning the children set up their classes by laying out mats and blackboards in the garage, veranda and plot of land adjoining Zehra Fasahat's house.

After lessons are over, they put away everything and clear up with impressive zeal.

The children's pride in their school is self-evident, and they glow with confidence and happiness when they talk about what it has taught them.

Harsh lives

"Our school teaches us to be kind and considerate to others," says Qasim.

Another student, Hashim, says one of the most important lessons they are taught is that of self-control.

The students are models of courtesy and consideration - a tremendous feat considering their economic circumstances and harsh lives.

Most are from families struggling for survival on a day-to-day basis with parents who are domestic servants working for a daily wage or beggars.

Poor children in Pakistan
Poverty is widespread across Pakistan

Their children find the school has helped them to overcome the misery of poverty.

"Now I know what is right and wrong so now I have confidence in myself," says one student.

The school's founder is Zehra Fasahat. She says the children amaze her with their ability to cope with such austere lives.

"Some years ago one boy came to me and asked me for permission to go and see his father.

"The father was on death row, in a murder case and he had to go for a last meeting before he was to be hanged. He was young boy, but that was the reality of his life, and he was so calm about it.

"This boy is one of our very best students".

The school developed largely because of the commitment of the students.

Street wise children

"I saw these street children going through a rubbish heap and foraging for food. They were taking out what was left of corn cobs and biting off the bits of corn left on the very edges," said Ms Fasahat.

"I thought here are these children, in our neighbourhood, in our midst, so hungry and so desperate and it was our responsibility to try to do something for them".

She called the children over and asked if they would like to study.

She recalls that the street wise children's response was of immediate suspicion.

"They asked: 'Why? Do you want our vote? Or do you plan to sell us?' I said I didn't want anything. They went away but a few days later some of them turned up at my house and said 'can you teach us please?'"

In that way the class began meeting regularly.

"Then we moved house, and I thought they would stop coming," said Ms Fasahat.

Pupils at Rah-e-Amal school
Pupils denied of opportunities are given a chance in life

"But they insisted on getting our new address and turning up there every day for lessons."

The children's commitment consolidated the school, and it now runs every morning, five days a week, every month of the year.

There are now 200 students, with those in Class 10 preparing for matriculation exams.

'Best behaved children'

It has not been an easy ride.

"We just carry on, and somehow everything seems to get done and funded. Somebody turns up and says we want to make a donation, and they pay for the children's' milk or get them new shoes or clothes," said Ms Fasahat.

"Somehow God seems to send us what we need just when we need it. We just try to carry on, without being too disheartened."

We are never beaten here, nobody hits us
Pupil at Rah-e-Amal school

The difference in the children's behaviour has been noticed by everyone in the local community.

"The local bookseller told me we could buy books from him at cost price," said Ms Fasahat, "and when I asked him why, he spoke of the change in the students. Before they would cause trouble in the streets, but now they are the best behaved children who come into his shop."

Similarly, local milliners offered to supply cloth for uniforms and outfits for the Muslim Eid ceremony at cost price, because the children were "a good example to everybody in the area".

The children are now provided with uniforms embroidered with the school's badge, providing the students with a sense of identity and belonging.

The classes are co-educational.

"We want the boys to learn to respect girls, and for girls to have the confidence of being able to work with the boys as peers," says Ms Fasahat.

The students are from backgrounds where women are often victims of physical and emotional abuse, facing severe financial difficulties.

In the past, their poverty often made the children targets of violence and abuse, but their education is now helping them to escape this vicious cycle and many now aspire to become doctors, engineers or teachers.

Pupils at Rah-e-Amal school
The school has made an astonishing difference for deprived pupils

"We are never beaten here, nobody hits us, and we are taught with love," says one pupil.

"Even when we are told off it is with love. That is how we have learnt, now we know we must respect our elders and be polite and considerate, try to help others and try to be truthful."

But not everyone thinks education is a good thing.

One child who used to beg in the streets refused to carry on begging saying he would rather wash cars or do some other "honest work".

But begging earned his family about 10 times more than the "honest work".

His mother refused to let him come back to the school, and complained bitterly to Zehra Fasahat that her establishment had "ruined" her son.



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