Shazia Mushtaq
Shazia Mushtaq (top left) runs four schools in makeshift structures for dropouts or out-of-school children in the low-income neighbourhoods of Youhanabad, Khaliq Nagar, Samanabad, and Shahdara of Lahore. Image Credit: Supplied

I met Shazia Mushtaq in 2016 to interview her for my book Do We Not Bleed? She was one of those special people I had the honour of meeting and never forgetting. Resident of the nondescript, low-income Christian-majority locality of Youhanabad in Lahore, Shazia was and is not just a role model for everyone whose life she touches but also for all those who with stars in their eyes wish to set into motion a long-lasting positive change in their world.

A single mother of then a seven-year-old son, Shazia taught herself to stand on her two strong feet. Problems were giant and many, one thing that she knew would always be her ally was education. Despite limited resources and working part time as a teacher and a newsreader at the Radio Pakistan, she never gave up studying, acquiring a postgraduate degree in Urdu, the language that she loved.

Starting in 2007, Shazia in 2021 runs four schools in makeshift structures for dropouts or out-of-school children in the low-income neighbourhoods of Youhanabad, Khaliq Nagar, Samanabad, and Shahdara of Lahore. Her mission is to provide an “Education, Adoption, Promotion and Support Programme.”

The last time I visited Shazia in her house in an unpaved, potholed street, it was full of happy sounds of children. Across her house was an empty plot that was used as a dumping ground of the locality. Inside, Shazia educated, free of cost or charging a miniscule fee, the children of her locality. Not much dulled her easy laughter, her nothing-is-impossible credo, her dedication to her work.

No fancy classrooms, not a whole lot of extracurricular activities or materials and resources for art and drama, not much that resembles a regular school, Shazia’s schools running on her personal limited funds and private donations are sparkling manifestations of kindness becoming the shelter for the unlearned, the hopeless, the forgotten children of our world.

Talking to Shazia was a pleasure. Her story told in her perfectly articulated Urdu, which led her to her passion for reading news, her unfailingly positive outlook on life despite huge odds, and her clear plan for teaching out-of-school children were things I remember five years later.

In our phone call for this interview, Shazia tells me that she is now working as an assistant news editor at the Radio Pakistan, her son is 12, and she is still teaching children who either never studied or gave up education at a very young age. Currently, in her four schools 200 students are being educated.

Shazia’s house is still full of happy sounds–of her students, and her son, her brother, his wife, and their eight-month-old daughter. Across her house on the empty plot that was used as a dumping ground, now a house has been constructed. Inside, Shazia is still providing education for children of her neighbourhood and the nearby localities.

I asked Shazia Mushtaq a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: What made you think about teaching out-of-school children?

Shazia Mushtaq: My inspiration was my younger sister, Nazia. When she was 15, she realised the importance of education, regretting why she had refused to study years ago. When our parents enrolled her in a school, she did not like it, and quit studying. Later, she understood the importance of education. That was when I begin to see that countless were the teenagers, her age or older, who wished to study but could not because of “embarrassment” or “shame” of attending a regular school or a tuition centre. They felt that people would make fun of their age, why they had not realised the essentiality of education earlier, and how they would study at their present age.

Increasingly, I thought that there should be special places where older children and teenagers could start, without feeling any embarrassment, their education from the very basic, the ABC, the alif-bey-pey. An education in the pursuit of which no one would make them feel small. Rather, they would be encouraged and appreciated for their decision to study.

Keeping all that in mind, I opened a school in my home for dropouts and out-of-school children who at any age could start or resume their education.

What was the biggest difficulty you faced when you began your work?

The biggest difficulty was convincing older children that it was possible to start or resume education even at their age. Our society has this deep-seated mindset that education cannot be acquired at an older age. If they have not received an education, girls should be married off and boys should find a job. My work started with convincing the parents and their child that even at their advanced [in terms of starting age for school] age, they could begin their education at the nursery level. They could begin kindergarten even at the age of 20.

Convincing and motivating people was quite challenging. They would ask: how can it be done? How will it be done? An older child or a teenager or an adult starting their education, how would that happen? The usual responses: it is impossible; the child/teenager/adult would feel embarrassed; their brain wouldn’t function; if they were going to study, it would have happened a long time ago. But my conviction of purpose and persistence of effort eventually worked. I never gave up.

Convincing one child and one family to study, sometimes, takes me two-three years. I do not quit. Once they are convinced to start their education, they don’t stop. Even if we stop teaching them, and they move to another place, they don’t give up their education.

Motivating children and inculcating in their heart love of education was the biggest difficulty I faced.

How many children have benefited from the schools that you run from your home and other makeshift structures?

More than 3,000 students have benefited from our school, our organisation. What is truly wonderful is that all our students, while they are studying or after completion of their education, are our ambassadors. They continue to motivate more children and adults to start studying. They teach them that there is no shame in acquiring an education, that there is no age limit to starting school, and that no obstacle is insurmountable. All our children are working as education ambassadors. In their personal capacity, they teach other children. Within their limited resources, they help others.

Is there any organisation that has helped you in your wonderful but extremely difficult work of teaching out-of-school children?

When I started I was all alone. I had no help. I had my house, and children started to arrive to study. I was teaching all of them. A little while later, Father John Joseph Edward Thuraisingham, a Sri Lankan priest, and a long-time resident of Pakistan, became my greatest support system. He was the only one who helped. He also sent some teachers and including me we became a team of five teachers. Father Edward also helped in providing textbooks and other school materials. It is because of his support that our mission continues.

What is the principal aim of your system of education?

To educate children, especially those who think education is no longer an option. Those who work–in a workshop, in a salon, at home, in a shop. Those who are earning money for their families but still wish to study. One of the main purposes of our schools is to educate minors who work as wage earners or are child labourers. The aim is to give them education so that they can stand on their own feet someday.

Have you ever received any governmental support in monetary or any other form?

No, we have not ever received any support or validation from any government. Our schools work on the help-yourself system.

If today you were to ask the Punjab government for assistance in your work, what would it be?

My request to the government would be that while there are schools for normal-age children where they study from the primary to the higher standards, there should be special schools for dropout students where they could start their education at any age. Such special schools should be under the umbrella of the government.

What is your dream and goal for out-of-school children of Lahore, and for all of Pakistan?

My purpose is to bring on a par with regular school attending children all those children who think they have been left behind because of absence of education This is also my dream. Our organisation is a ray of light for those who have been left behind, those who have no hope. Come to us, study, and move forward in life. Education is a possibility at any age. Education does not have an age limit. I wish to prove this right. Dawn is when you open your eyes.