A ray of hope

August 10, 2014

A school aiming at under privileged children is doing wonders for a small area like Lyari

A ray of hope

As a young girl Sabina Khatri walked the thin winding streets of Lyari with her doctor mom. Together they volunteered at a medical camp. Four decades later she left her private practice as a nutritionist and returned to the place she had spent much of her childhood at.

Under Khatri’s tutelage the crime infested, drug induced, troubled Lyari that newsmen often referred to whenever Karachi burned was now to become part of a mini experiment -- if it worked the plan could be replicated at a much larger scale.

In early 2006 Lyari’s Nawa Lane was plastered with hand written pamphlets; ‘Admissions Open at Kiran School for first born children of parents who don’t do drugs. Fathers must have jobs’.

The strange advertisement attracted the attention of many residents. An English speaking lady from Karachi’s posh Defence was here to open a school. Their children might learn English -- an ability that would open wider job opportunities for them -- something that they as children were deprived of.

Admission tests were an interesting day at school. Parents arrived with their first borns. Fathers were checked for jobs. Mothers enrolled in an adult literacy class. Twelve tiny tots made it to the first batch.

Over the next two years these youngsters were trained to get admissions at top schools of the city. Teaching here comprised a bundle of fun activities; painting, growing plants, visit to the beach, a day out with animals.

After completing pre-school these parents lined outside the top schools of the city to obtain admission forms; the Mama Parsi, the BVS Parsi High School, the Habib Public School and others. Their children sat the tests, cleared them and when the school administration showed concerns of admitting students from troubled Lyari, Khatri personally met the principals.

She signed a form which claimed she was their surrogate mother and guaranteed that, though from under-privileged backgrounds, these children will not engage in abusive language, come to school clean and a donor will pay their tuition fee.

 The woman herself

She is dressed in black cotton shalwar kameez, her hair tied in a pony-tail, fair, in her fifties. Khatri is speaking at an education conference about schools that run on a low budget.

"Teach like your hair is on fire, you don’t have much time," she says. She is passionate about what she does, and the positive vibe takes a few minutes to disseminate in the room.

She introduces the Kiran School model to everyone -- it’s simple really, and once you get it you wonder why no one thought of it before.

It takes a village to educate a child -- and the Kiran School model is based on this very philosophy. "In order to teach a child, you can not rely on just the teachers. You have to enter his house, know his problems," she states.

That was exactly why she enrolled mothers in an adult literacy class and made sure their fathers had jobs. "In a house with unemployed fathers, economic troubles result in frequent fights between parents. No matter how hard you try to teach a child from such a family, he will learn nothing."

Teaching mothers was important because she is the child’s best friend. "Whatever he learns at school he goes home and tells his mother. For her to be involved in a child’s performance she had to be educated."

Khatri devised an interesting model for teaching the mothers. The mothers would learn the lessons children were to be taught at school a day before. For instance if child was to learn fun facts about the sea, school will only teach him four out of five facts. "The fifth fact was with the mother. So when the child went home, and told his mother he learnt about the sea, the mothers could add to his knowledge. This strengthened the mother-child bond."

She chose the first born children, firstly because their parents were young and energetic. Also they had no older teenage brother who did drugs or had foul language. "This was my experiment. I wanted to control all the factors I could to get the best results."

All of the children who graduated the first year are currently studying in top schools of the city. Tuition fee for most is paid by donor families; some have received scholarships by their schools.

Every year students of the Kiran School meet their donors. Some have developed lasting friendships.

One hundred and twenty students have graduated from the school. The oldest batch is in sixth grade. Khatri is now worrying about their college education.

She started a college fund at school last year. Every parent donates something in the fund for his child each month. "I do not want these people to beg anyone for money when their children make it to college," says Khatri.

The last thing Khatri is now striving for is to get these children and their families out of Lyari. She faces criticism for this. "People tell me I am taking them away from their roots. My only reply to them is how many families who live in Defence today have always been living there?"

"If these children never see a violence-free life they will never understand how good it is. History proves that good leaders are those who get out of the society they have grown up in and come back to it later."

She knows because she was one of them.

 Visiting Lyari’s Nawa Lane

A police station, several banks, small shops selling household wares, rickety hand carts -- a busy road in the heart of Karachi’s old city leads to Lyari’s Nawa Lane where the Kiran School is situated.

A brightly coloured neighbourhood greets visitors; the walls are painted with elephants, plants and the globe in bright oranges, pinks and greens. The school painted the whole neighbourhood.

Everyone knows Khatri here, they call her ‘madam’. "So many children sit the admission tests every year. She only selects 20. We don’t know what her criterion is. Akhir wu Madam hain," said a tall bearded resident of the area.

"This is the best school of Lyari. Our men have started looking for jobs so that their children can study at the Kiran School," states another resident.

Zunaisha, a former student of the school is about to start third grade at the Generations School. Her donor ‘Afshan Aunty’ will pay her fee.

"I love doing math at school. Yes I have lots of friends at school," she states. His brother Sudes also goes to the Kiran School.

"These children understand that their friends come from affluent backgrounds. But the Kiran School has trained them to not care about these differences and compete through their talent. Zunaisha is the smartest in all of her cousins," said her grandfather.

 Moving beyond a single school

Khatri is planning to register the Kiran School model as school system, exactly like Maria Montessori did. "It has done wonders for a small area like Lyari, and I think it can be replicated in underprivileged areas of South Asia," she said.

A ray of hope