September Issue 2014

By | Education | Published 3 years ago

On June 19, 17-year-old Haris Suleman took off from Plainfield, Indiana, in a single-engine plane to circumnavigate the world in 30 days, and raise funds for The Citizens Foundation (TCF). Haris would have been the youngest pilot in history to do so, but on July 22, during the last leg of the journey, his plane went down into the Pacific Ocean between American Samoa and Honolulu. While Haris’ death is “heartbreaking, and will always be a cause of distress to us,” says TCF board member Nilofer Saeed, “it represents the commitment of Pakistanis all over the world to help TCF achieve what it has today.” Fittingly then, Haris will be awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz for his efforts.

In July 2014, 19 years since its inception, TCF realised its long-standing goal: it set up its 1,000th school. Located in 100 towns and cities across Pakistan, the purpose-built school units provide an education to 145,000 children – of which approximately 50 per cent are girls – as well as generate employment for 7,700 women. TCF graduates go on to study at various higher education institutes in Pakistan, including IBA, Fatima Jinnah Medical College, Khyber Medical College and, as of this year, on a complete merit-based scholarship, at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and the United World College (UWC) in Singapore. The seeds sown by TCF almost two decades ago are beginning to bear fruit, all the sweeter in recent years, quite possibly because more students are completing their education in a TCF school, as opposed to transferring from or to other institutions in the course of their school education.

In July, the organisation was awarded the coveted Ramon Magsaysay Award – Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. And while receiving the award “is a great honour,” according to Mushtaq Chhapra, “taking children off the streets is worth more than any award in the world.” Chhapra is the current chairman and one of the founders of TCF, and he believes in the power of thinking big. “When you want to make a difference or start some sort of a revolution, you have to think big,” he says. This is precisely what TCF did in 1995, when a group of six businessmen set their sights on building 1,000 schools in Pakistan in just 10 years. “When we started out, we wanted to set a target that was really bizarre and challenging,” recalls Ahsan Saleem, another TCF founder. ‘Bizarre’ certainly defines this rather ambitious aspiration. “People laughed at us; they said we were mad. How on earth will you build 1,000 schools?’ they asked. But now the same people are praising us – ‘TCF, what a grand organisation!’ they say.” But setting an easier target, of 100 schools for example, would have meant that “our planning and entire thought process would have been geared towards achieving this smaller goal, and today we would probably have had a mere 100 schools,” he contends.

In meeting this 1,000-school goal, TCF has faced several challenges, but none that have proven to be insurmountable. The one challenge the foundation continuously faces is meeting the human resource requirement. Several TCF schools are located in areas with difficult terrain, and although transport is provided for all those who need it, travelling two to three hours from a remote area to the nearest school can discourage teachers. TCF schools are also always losing their teachers and principals to government and other private schools, whose salary packages they simply cannot compete with, being solely a donor-driven organisation. This is especially true since, compared to government schools, TCF teachers are expected to work exceptionally hard and to meet strictly maintained standards. “I would say the main challenge is finding and training teachers. It is by far my biggest worry, because it is directly linked to the quality of education we provide,” laments Ateed Riaz, another TCF founder.

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One thing TCF need not worry about, however, is support from other people. Today, the charity has branches in Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Italy, the UAE, the UK and the US. Quite like the unexpected Magsaysay Award, the web of international branches that exists today is also something the team hadn’t envisioned at all. They were set up by expatriate Pakistanis who heard about the work being done by the organisation and decided they wanted to help. Whereas the first five schools TCF opened in Karachi in May 1996 were funded by the founders themselves, today the organisation can rely upon donations from its international support group.

It may have taken TCF nine years longer than they originally anticipated to achieve their 1,000-school goal, but it has given them confidence in the people and future of Pakistan. Mushtaq Chhapra believes that Pakistan is a very young country, and that given some time and a few honest individuals, it too can have a bright future. “If you think of the Dark Ages in Europe, or take America 160 years ago, they were worse than Pakistan. It is my firm belief that there is only a small percentage of bad people in this country, but by and large the population is good. They just need education and a little prodding,” he says.

Prodding, and spreading the benefits of their now well established education system, is precisely what the ‘TCF in a Box’ programme aims to do. This is the foundation’s next long-term goal: to share the TCF syllabus, school books and teacher training programme with the small, private schools across the country to help them improve their standard of education, and function as efficiently as TCF schools do now. Also on the agenda is setting up more secondary schools, so that TCF can build upon their students’ primary education. Nilofer Saeed is confident that TCF will live far beyond its founding generation. “I have a feeling that it is all these children, the graduates of TCF, who will continue the movement,” she says.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue.

Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline