I was thirteen years old when I first visited Ibtida, a tiny drug rehabilitation centre tucked away in a corner within the walls of a beautiful church in Saddar.
Accompanied by a super zealous mother, this was supposedly a lesson on the danger of drug use that stalks every gullible teenager in the world, but that day I also had my first real lesson in history. How bad policies and power politics can ruin lives of generations of people for decades to come, long after those decision-makers are dead and gone.
More than thirty years ago, Pakistanis, till then familiar with hashish/charas, were introduced to chemically processed heroin from Afghanistan. This unfortunate access was a result of the overambitious role Pakistan chose to play after the invasion by Russian forces into Afghanistan. Opening the borders with Afghanistan led to the influx of not only illegal weapons and immigrants, but also of cheap, easily available hard drugs that caught the fancy of millions of Pakistani youths across all classes. That problem only grew in size and today our country has some of the worst statistics in drug use in the world. Some estimates claim more than 42 tons of processed heroin are used in Pakistan every year and three times more is smuggled out. This is big business running into billions of dollars and despite some very tough laws (including death penalty), Pakistan is estimated to be the most heroin-addicted country in the world. With little hope of any operation cleanup in sight, this is one terrorist that will continue to live in our society.
Sensing the enormity of the problem, some individuals and organisations came forward to try and counter this menace that, according to UNODC, afflicts almost 7 million people in Pakistan. Ibtida, run by the Church Mission Society, is one such centre that was formed in 1984 by Reverend David Primrose of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Despite severe lack of resources, 33 years down the line, Ibtida is still running valiantly, led by Reverend Julian, trying to pull as many young people as possible from the dark pit of drug addiction towards a dignified and productive life. Working with small groups of boys, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, Reverend Julian’s formula is based on constant, unrelenting counselling and follow-ups that require large reserves of patience, time and energy. The most incredible thing is how many of the young addicts walk out to new beginnings even though they still have to face enormous challenges and biases as they step back from the side of a pavement into an unforgiving society.
In my last visit, I met 17-year-old Ashish, exactly my age, who had completed his rehabilitation at the centre. I expected to see a shaky shadow of a boy, someone whose soul had been chewed up by drugs and spirit broken by the rehab itself. I was amazed when a smiling young man strolled in with a goofy smile and a ‘puff’ haircut he seemed to know he would get the predictable lecture on.
Ashish turned to drugs at the tender age of 12. He started off with cigarettes offered by ‘friends’ which slowly escalated to ‘Charas’ and eventually, as the need for a bigger kick settled in, moved to heroin. All this was easily accessible from the corner shop outside his school. By 8th grade, Ashish had to drop out of school due to his drug habits. Eventually, his friends who would get high with him, drifted away and his family, tired of his habits, almost gave up on him, leaving a young, teenage boy alone in the world.
Something finally clicked and when his father brought him to Ibtida, he decided to stick it out. I asked him what gave him the resolve and his reply was how an old classmate looked through him when he bumped into him on the street. The fact that no one wanted him seemed to have cut through the haze and got to him. Now Ashish has accomplished quite a bit. He completed 10th grade privately and is looking to chart his future. One thing that drugs do is drain you of your motivation. After cutting drugs out of his life, Ashish has discovered a passion for cooking, and now aspires to be a chef. So far his introduction to culinary skills is limited to helping prepare meals for other inmates at the centre, but his optimism is infectious and his resolve in the face of so many challenges, humbling.
A misconception people have about drug addicts is that they lose their humanity and are not worthy of being treated like the rest of us. Deep-rooted mistrust in their ability to stay clean and drug-free translates into fewer opportunities to become productive members of society. This may be the reason why institutions such as Ibtida are so underfunded. Rehab centres are as important as hospitals and should be just as well funded because addiction is a curable disease. Ashish is proof enough that a second chance at life may change someone from an addict to someone with determination and a strong will to succeed.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, a classic rock band from the 70s, once wrote: ‘Don't mess with the needle or a spoon -- or any trip to the moon, it'll take you away’. This is a message we need to spread in our community as rapidly as possible as drugs take loads of lives and, honestly, after meeting Ashish, the world would feel incomplete if Ibtida hadn’t saved his smile.