Mehreen Saeed
Most of these girls have to travel through a difficult terrain, often walking for over half-hour or even an hour to come to school, says Mehreen Saeed, a Kashmiri who spent her childhood in the exquisite valley before moving with her family to the US. Image Credit: Supplied

On March 26, 2022, I saw a tweet about a school built in a remote mountain village in Kashmir. Education that must be a mandatory fundamental in any society is still a dream for so many children from underprivileged backgrounds in many developing countries. Prem Kot’s Government Girls High School is a long-cherished project of Pakistani-American Mehreen Saeed, a Kashmiri who spent her childhood in the exquisite valley before moving with her family to the US. Now the school is operational and is a symbol of true commitment to a cause that is noble, inclusive.

Mehreen has a postgraduate degree in public administration from New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service; she currently heads the Citywide Savings Unit at New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget. With her deep empathy for the ones who need public and private aid to survive, Mehreen supports several NYC soup kitchens and food pantries. She is also on the advisory board of the UK-based Bondh E Shams (droplets of sun), which uses solar energy to provide filtered drinking water in many villages in Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Sudan, and Yemen.

On April 29, 2022, Mehreen tweeted that she had collected funds to build one more school in Kashmir, adding “hundreds of schools collapsed in the 2005 earthquake and were never rebuilt. Can't wait for more kids to have a roof over their heads.”

For Gulf News, I asked Mehreen Saeed a few questions:

Congratulations on the inauguration of your wonderful project—a school for 300 girls in Prem Kot, Kashmir. What made you think of opening a school in a village nestled in the mountains of the Neelam Valley?

I spent my childhood in Kashmir, it’s my home. I always feel that Kashmir is either in news due to some tension along the LoC or a natural disaster, such as the 2005 massive earthquake, with the loss of over 100,000 lives, or the avalanche in the Neelam Valley area in January 2020. I focus on Kashmir because it’s where I come from, and because it is overlooked in many ways.

We, Pakistanis, take pride in the fact that we are among the most charitable people in the world. I felt the same way when I was younger, but with time I realized that charities are not the answer to a country’s long-term issues. All social services programmes are the responsibility of a state. Sadly, successive governments in Pakistan have failed to establish proper infrastructure to provide education, healthcare, and other social services to the marginalized communities in many areas. That is why people, through their charitable work, try to help the neglected segments of society, and why charity organizations are doing so well in Pakistan.

Although I built the school through a charity, I’ve ensured that it is a public-private partnership and is run by government. The NGO that I selected has been working in Kashmir since the 2005 earthquake, and hence their deep familiarity with the area. I wanted to focus on a government-run school. In the long run, education is only sustainable if it is a state responsibility.

What was the biggest obstacle in the process of building a school in Prem Kot?

Kashmir is unique in the sense that its overall literacy rate is much higher than the rest of Pakistan. With the primary school enrollment rate being over ninety percent even for girls, the statistics show that the people of Kashmir despite being conservative are very progressive. Convincing the local community to send their girls to school was not an obstacle.

The actual challenge lies in the lack of infrastructure. I went to Muzaffarabad in February 2020. In January 2020, Neelam Valley area was hit by an avalanche in which dozens of people died and many houses were buried underneath the broken masses of snow. I visited a government-run shelter where a few families were living in a cramped space. I had some funds to help them in their medical treatment, to resettle into their homes, or get them by until they were resettled.

During that visit, as I talked to more and more people, I realized that according to a government estimate, 19,000 children died in the 2005 earthquake. Many school buildings collapsed; the earthquake happened at the time when schools were in session. More than seventy percent of the casualties were in the Muzaffarabad district. Since the 2005 earthquake, almost eighty percent of government school buildings that collapsed have not been rebuilt. Missing boundary walls, or fully collapsed and never reconstructed, or partially collapsed and damaged, none of which is conducive to proper learning. Lack of infrastructure or insufficient furniture, due to lack of financial resources, show that successive local governments were unable to rehabilitate schools. That adds an additional challenge for girls whose families want to send them to school.

Most of these girls have to travel through a difficult terrain, often walking for over half-hour or even an hour to come to school. Even when I visited Prem Kot in March for the first day of the school, the inauguration, it was an hour and a half to two-hour drive from Muzaffarabad, and then we had to walk for twenty-twenty-five minutes to get to the school. No concrete road that directly goes to the school because of its location in a steep terrain. Girls have to commute often by foot; as most of them come from humble backgrounds, they don’t have private transportation. Even in hired school vans, it takes a long time to reach the school.

The other issue was the school did not have a building. Girls were sitting on rocks, under trees, and without a roof over their heads. The local community was eager to send their girls to school and were waiting for someone to help them.

I contacted Comprehensive Disaster Response Services, (CDRS), an organization that has been working in Kashmir since 2005. CDRS has a deep connection with the local community that arranged the land for the school, so we didn’t have to purchase it. This is another sign of the passion of the people of the area to send their girls to school. The local community provided the land, CDRS took over the project management and construction, and as I had initiated the project, I took on the responsibility of raising funds. Luckily, it was a small amount; the cost estimate was US$28,000.

The only real obstacle I can think of is that I decided to raise funds during the financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I started at the end of December 2020; in the US, most people had already made their yearly donations by that time. However, I was able to exceed my target of $28,000. I had promised myself that if I was unable to raise the required amount through crowdfunding, I would cover the balance from my own pocket.

I chose Facebook to do the fundraising, linking the process to CDRS, a registered 501(c)3 charity organization. Facebook crowdfunding platform is free of charge, with all credit card processing fees covered by Facebook. Donors receive a receipt from Facebook via email, and the donation is tax deductible. The benefit of using the Facebook platform was that as soon I created the fundraising page, donations just started pouring in. Some were as little as five dollars, and some 1,000, even 2,000 dollars. The best thing was that I didn’t have to make a single phone call; Facebook, on its own, worked as a marketing tool. When people see someone donating, they also come in, and that’s how the message spreads.

Share with us the process of building your school.

The process of building the school entailed partnership on three levels. The first one was identifying a government-run school. The second part was the involvement of CDRS; their team was instrumental for the management and construction of the project, and their in-house civil engineer did the cost estimation. And the third level was the funding and fundraising.

The process is cost effective; a small amount creates a huge impact in the lives of hundreds of children. It is also an efficient process; instead of reinventing the wheel, it’s more effective to support government run schools in areas with little or no infrastructure. And it is sustainable; as I said earlier, ultimately, education is the responsibility of a state. Non-profit organizations can and should play a supporting role but long-term sustainability in education can only come about through free universal education provided and funded by a state.

What is the ideology of knowledge and learning that the Prem Kot Government High School is following to provide quality education to girls in a traditionally conservative area?

Since this is a government-run school, curriculum is at the discretion of the government of Kashmir. The standard government-authorised curriculum is the main medium of education. However, I ensured to provide funding for a computer lab, as I believe the future is digital. If young students learn the basics with the help of an instructor, it will become very easy for them to navigate computer skills on their own at an older age. Hopefully, by the time they graduate from high school and are ready to go to college, they’d have the knowledge of the basics of computers. Young people can always enhance their computer skills, and if they don’t wish to pursue traditional professions, they can do business remotely, or start a small business, using their computer as a marketing tool.