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January 20, 2020

The cruel fate of the children who can’t move on

Karachi

January 20, 2020

The doors of the Government Boys & Girls Primary School Umar Farooq, Qasba Colony, Orangi Town open onto a cemetery — Photos by author

In the underdeveloped but densely populated neighbourhood of Qasba Colony, the government had managed to open only a few schools. But some of those institutions have been permanently closed and their buildings are no longer being used by the education department. Others that are fortunately still operational seem to be running in strange locations.

One such school is the Government Umar Farooq Primary School, which shouldn’t have been built where it stands right now: on its front side one doesn’t find a road, a street or a playground, but hundreds of graves. Yes, the school’s doors open onto a cemetery.

During break time, the students come out of the school and head straight to the cemetery and sit on the graves. There’s no free space nearby or inside the school for the children to play in. Even though they’ve been going to the school, a large number of students are unable to read the headstones inscribed with the names and details of the departed.

They, however, know exactly where the graves of the deceased are in the cemetery. The reason for this is that a majority of the departed had once been residents of the same neighbourhood.

When these children are talking to each other during break time, many of them don’t seem to realise that they’re enjoying their pastime on a burial site, where hundreds of people have been laid to rest.

Some, however, are fully aware of the presence of the graves because they have their relatives, siblings or even parents resting in the same place from where they have to pass through on a daily basis to get an education.

Traumatised students

The Directorate of School Education (Elementary, Secondary & Higher Secondary) Karachi Region has incomplete data on the public schools and colleges set up in close proximity to cemeteries. According to the directorate, there are around 50 such locations across Karachi, most of them in underprivileged areas, where educational institutions numbering in three figures are running.

These institutes have the strength of thousands of students, including those pupils whose family members, have passed away and are buried in the cemeteries located near their schools or colleges.

Fourteen-year-old Zain* is one of those students whose parents are buried in the cemetery close to his school. He studies in the seventh grade at the Mumtaz Government Boys & Girls School Firdous Colony, a neighbourhood of Liaquatabad Town.

Zain told The News that his mother had passed away in 2011 and his father had breathed his last just last year. Both of his parents were laid to rest in the graveyard situated exactly in front of his school.

He passes through the cemetery on a daily basis to go to school. He tries to move on but he can’t get over the fact that both his parents have left this world. While at school, he and his two sisters daily stop at the graves of their parents.

“When I go back home after school, I feel my parents calling me from beyond their graves,” said Zain. “I spend the night restlessly as I keep missing them. I feel better only after I visit their graves the next morning.”

After the death of his mother, his father felt that he had to take his children out of the public school because their mother was buried too close to their school. But when Zain’s father passed away, he and his sisters started going to the public school again because of financial problems.

These days the children and their stepmother live in a rented house in the same neighbourhood. Sometimes their neighbours offer them food, clothes and other essential things.

However, Zain works at a shop for six hours after school to earn Rs120 a day. “Whenever I feel upset and miss my parents a lot, people try to make me understand that I should behave like a strong man.”

During a survey of some five schools situated near or next to cemeteries, The News interviewed more than a dozen other students who narrated similar tales.

The students whose parents or relatives are buried at the graveyards near their educational institutions suffer on a daily basis whenever they go to school. They take less interest in studies and that has been affecting their exam results and the overall education.

Twelve-year-old Rabia*, a student at the same school that Zain goes to, said: “It’s been around three years since my father left this world. But on my way to the school, I daily stop at his grave. At that moment I feel like talking to my baba.”

In the past she used to spend a lot of time at her father’s grave. When her uncles found out, fearing for her mental health, they advised her mother to leave the locality and get the child an admission in some other school.

But both mother and daughter refused to leave. “I try not to stop at the cemetery daily, but when I miss my baba too much, I can’t control myself until I see his grave,” said Rabia.

Like the other children, she also misses her father. But Rabia said she is committed to completing her education because in the future she wants to help out her mother, who has been working at other people’s homes in North Nazimabad.

Another student, Kashif*, whose mother passed away just last year, said: “When I’m on my way home from school, I try not to look at the cemetery.” He, however, was unable to talk any more on the subject.

Unconcerned teachers

Regarding the trauma of the students, the Firdous Colony Government Boys & Girls Secondary School’s principal Arif Ahmed said the teachers sometimes unwittingly announce convening parent-teacher meetings or observing Mother’s Day or other such occasions that require the parents to accompany their children to school.

He pointed out that orphans aren’t enrolled only at schools located close to cemeteries but also at educational institutions set up in well-planned societies. But the children who pass through cemeteries on a daily basis to go to school are more sensitive and need more attention, he added.

“Around two months ago we found an abandoned schoolbag in a classroom. When we realised that one of the girls was missing, we informed the police and her family. She came back to school later and said she had been at the nearby cemetery to visit her mother’s grave.”

Schoolteacher Qaisar Sultana believes that the children who daily see the graves of their parents or relatives while going to school are not traumatised and are quite familiar with the entire thing.

“The students who go to schools near cemeteries are also residents of the same areas. They know that people from other areas also visit the graveyards, where funerals are held and the dead are buried.”

She, however, added that sometimes parents assume that their children are being affected by “evil forces” while heading to their schools passing through the cemeteries, which is also untrue.

A graveyard is also located opposite the Government Girls Degree College and the Government Polytechnic Institute in Orangi Town Sector 11½.

‘We are not responsible’

After School Education Karachi Director Hamid Karim was asked to comment on the issue, he said that the authorities of Sindh’s education works & services department are not responsible for setting up schools near cemeteries.

However, he added, unplanned infrastructure across the city has caused many issues, especially in the unauthorised areas where the people have occupied all the free space, which is why it’s difficult to establish schools there at proper locations.

He pointed out that builders are bound to specify amenity plots, including parks, and locations for schools and community halls before starting development work in societies, but owing to unchecked policies, even authorised areas lack civic facilities. People have built graveyards, commercials zones, residential plazas and educational institutes on their own.

“The officials and teachers have no other option but to continue running schools near cemeteries. If we were to shift these schools to other areas, neither would the students commute to those institutions nor would anyone else attend the school meant for residents of underdeveloped areas.”

‘Do not expect better results’

Ejaz Farooqui, former chairman of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science & Technology’s education department, said schools are supposed to provide a safe, equitable learning environment to students, adding that they also play an important role in the mental and physical growth of pupils.

He said that a school should not be in a place like cemeteries where children can be traumatised by seeing the graves of their parents or relatives, adding that this situation can affect their abilities.

Farooqui said that the learning process of students depends on social, emotional and physical development, adding that educators should not expect better results from children who are emotionally distressed.

A partial list

Since the Directorate of School Education (Elementary, Secondary & Higher Secondary) Karachi Region has incomplete data on the public schools and colleges set up in close proximity to cemeteries, the following list mentions some of such educational institutions.

  • Government Boys Primary School New Karachi No. 1
  • Government Boys & Girls Lower Secondary School Jahangirabad, Nazimabad
  • Government Boys & Girls Secondary School Firdous Colony, Liaquatabad Town
  • Government Boys Secondary School Baloch Colony, Liaquatabad Town
  • Government Boys & Girls Primary School Umar Farooq, Qasba Colony, Orangi Town
  • Government Girls Degree College Orangi Town Sector 11½
  • Government Polytechnic Institute Orangi Town Sector 11½
  • Government Boys Higher Secondary School Baba Wilayat Ali Shah, Orangi Town
  • Government Girls Higher Secondary School Baba Wilayat Ali Shah, Orangi Town
  • Government Boys Secondary School Al Ghazali, SITE Town
  • Government Boys & Girls Primary School Zia Colony, SITE Town
  • Government Boys Lower Secondary School Mannu Goth, Gulshan-e-Iqbal
  • Government Girls Elementary & Secondary School Saudabad, Malir
  • Government Boys Lower Secondary School Asghar Jalbani, Malir Town
  • Government Girls Lower Secondary School Mulla Essa Village, Gadap Town
  • Government Boys Primary School Korangi Sector 48H
  • Government Boys Primary School KTS 16, Korangi
  • Government Boys Primary School Qayyumabad, Korangi
  • Government Boys Primary School Jamia Millia, Korangi
  • Government Girls Secondary School Lyari Town
  • Government Girls Secondary School Baloch, Lyari Town
  • Government Girls Secondary School Gharibabad, Lyari
  • Government Girls Secondary School Wali Muhammad Hassan Ali, Lyari
  • Government Girls Secondary School Mir Ayub No. 1, Lyari Town
  • Government Boys Lower Secondary School Mianwali Colony, Lyari Town
  • Government Boys Lower Secondary School Pak English, Baldia Town
  • Government Girls Lower Secondary School Haji Ahmed, Baldia Town
  • Government Boys Primary School Iqbal Gujrat Mohalla, Baldia Town
  • Government Boys Primary School Saint Luke’s, Baldia Town
  • Government Boys Lower Secondary School Islamia Missionary, Keamari Town
  • Government Boys Lower Secondary School Saint Mark’s, Keamari Town

*Names changed to protect identities