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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Saying no – Active Citizens in Muzzafargarh and their battle against drug addiction

“People who are drug addicts are most vulnerable in our society and deserve our care, love, and attention”

Says Taimoor Khalid – a young Active Citizen from Muzzafargarh. Taimoor along with four other group members is working with members of his community to help people struggling with drug addiction.

An idea takes root
Drug abuse has always been part of the day-to-day life in Taimoor’s neighbourhood. There is only one public park where Taimoor lives, and as far back as he can remember it has always been home to drug addicts. The drugs of choice: Heroin and Hashish.

According to Taimoor, on a given day it is normal to see 50 to 60 addicts in the park, abusing drugs in public. Over the years this has had the effect of desensitizing people to this damaging practice.

This is why when these five young people were asked to propose a Social Action Project in the final phase of their training, they chose to start an awareness campaign against drug abuse and to work together to help addicts recover from their addiction and to ease their path back into society as valued and contributing members.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the group was convincing families of addicts that drug addiction is a disease and people who abuse drugs require medical attention to recover from it and proper rehabilitation so that they do not relapse.

In most cases the group members found family members of drug addicts indifferent to the possibility of successful treatment of the addiction. According to Taimoor most parents argued that as long as their child was not causing any trouble they did not care. Medical facts and religious reasoning were used by the group to convince them otherwise.

In all the youth group met close to 45 people. Gradually the affected community members began trusting the young people and showed interest in their project.

The group members also spoke to addicts personally and tried to convince them to kick the habit. After a lot of visits 8 drug addicts expressed their desire to sober up.

Besides visiting families of addicts the youth group also visited the local public school, Government Degree College. According to Taimoor, illegal drugs use by high school students is rampant.

The young people discussed their project with the principal of the school who expressed enthusiasm and promised his full support. And so began the second leg of the awareness campaign: high school students of Muzzafargarh. The awareness sessions also included documentary videos which highlighted the perils of drug abuse.

The group also convinced the school administration to declare the entire school a no smoking zone. The principal of the school and some staff members promised to contribute a portion of their monthly pay check to the group to pay for medication and other expenses.

Finally, with 8 people committed to kick their habit the group approached several doctors and medical staff. They managed to convince a few of them to volunteer their time and expertise in detoxification and rehabilitation.

To pay for the medication the group made use of the money collected from the teaching staff of Government Degree College. To raise additional funds they embarked on a scrap collection drive through the entire district. When people found out why they were collecting scrap they happily donated unneeded possessions.

By selling scrap to local junkyards the group was able to raise enough money to meet their expenses and purchase the needed medication.

Round 2
After the treatment of the eight patients ended the group members made a point of visiting them daily to support them through the period of rehabilitation. They have also convinced the recovering addicts to accompany them on their tours to the high school and to participate in their awareness sessions.
Taimoor and his friends now plan to follow the same sustainable model to help other members of the community who suffer from drug addiction.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It takes two – Active Citizens open up new avenues in Multan

As young people growing up in Suraj Miani – a neighbourhood of Multan – Abdul Rahman and Shumaila Bibi always felt the absence of IT training institutes in the area. The nearest computer training institute is 7 – 8 kilometres away and the nearest internet café is 3 kilometres away.

Perhaps the absence of a technology institute is felt more acutely by young girls and women of the area. Multan being a conservative city, relatively more avenues for personal growth are open to men than women. This includes opportunities for higher education and professional courses. After graduating high school most women face added restrictions by their families, and unnecessarily venturing out of homes is frowned upon.

At the Active Citizens training that they attended Abdul Rahman and Shumaila proposed a facility where the residents of Suraj Miani – especially women could benefit from technology education and brush up their language skills.

 A local NGO offered them space in their offices to hold the classes, and the youth group managed to arrange 4 computers for the classes – including their personal lap top computers. Now came the hard part: convincing parents of young girls to let them attend the free computer and English classes.

Abdul Rahman and Shumaila arranged two separate meetings: one at the Union Council head quarters for the male members of the community, and one for women and young girls at the residence of a community member. Besides these community meetings the young Active Citizens also took part in a door-to-door awareness campaign to recruit students for the coaching centre.

When asked about the problems faced by the youth group, Abdul Rahman responded that: “the biggest hurdle faced by us was convincing parents of young girls to let them attend the classes. The area we live in is very conservative and women stepping out of their houses are frowned upon”.

Ultimately 90 women and 25 men signed up for the computer classes. As a bonus the young women were also offered and English language course taught by Shumaila while Abdul Rahman along with another volunteer teaches the computer classes. The students are tested after the course is completed and successful candidates are awarded a certificate by the youth group. The ages of the students range from 14 years to 23 years and classes are held four days a week.

Besides acquiring technical skills the training also gives the students the confidence to pursue more challenging opportunities. A clear indication of this is the fact that 3 girls after successfully attending the computer course managed to get jobs in private schools where they teach Microsoft Word and Excel to young female students. This has also inspired other women to sign up for the classes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Banking on education

Sometimes the simplest ideas if put into practice properly can be extremely effective. An example of this is the Social Action Project being implemented by Kiran Kumari: a book bank; a simple but effective concept.

Being a school teacher in Sindh, Kiran knows well the hurdles faced by economically disadvantaged individuals – especially when it comes to educating their children. So it was only logical that when Kiran completed her Active Citizens training she would start a Social Action Project to make the education process less costly for parents who struggle to make ends meet.

Kiran asked her students to donate school books to her so that other, less fortunate children may use them. She also reached out to friends, relatives, and other teachers in the area for any reusable books that they could spare. With the help of her students she got rid of any erasable markings from the books and covered the books with clean scrap paper to protect them.

A large section of Kiran’s class consists of children whose parents don’t have a steady source of income. To make ends meet they work odd jobs – mostly as manual labourers. Kiran made a list of students who came from such homes.

As the donated books started coming in Kiran let the more deserving children know that they could use the books from her book bank free of cost. Her two conditions: that they take care of the books as if they were their own, and that they return them to her at the end of the term.   

Kiran first ‘tested’ her social action project in April, and nearly 60 students were able to make use of the books provided by Kiran. According to Kiran parents who rely on daily wages to get by this was an added bonus.

When asked about her plans for the project, Kiran replies: “I have decided to do this activity every year collect books from last batch and provide to next batch. Through this more than 100 students can get benefit from my book bank”.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Opening closed doors – Active Citizens in Thatta help two feuding tribes find common ground in education

A community divided
The inhabitants of Daggar Khan Palari Taluka – a  small village in Sindh  can be roughly divided into two tribes. Although members of the two tribes have inhabited the same village for a number of years, their coexistence has been less than harmonious.

The community members reached a point where they minimized their interaction as much as possible: there were no joint community events and no shared celebrations for a number of years. The estrangement left no one untouched – including children and young people.

A tale of two schools
The village had two public schools for children before they were shut down. As time went by and grievances remained unresolved the village folk forbade their children to mix or even share the same school.
Due to negligence of the local education authorities both schools suffered. Structural damage and lack of facilities did not stop the village folk from sending their children to school but it was the loss of teaching staff that finally put the breaks on the learning. Both schools were shut down in 2007.
With the passage of time both schools turned into rundown, vacant buildings with peeling paint and windows with shattered glass. The nearest school was in a village more than 5 kilometers away. In the absence of a school to go to children helped their parents in day-to-day chores.

A helping hand
After completing their Active Citizens training Babar and Tanveer wished to start a Social Action Project that would address the problem of ghost schools – a major concern in rural Sindh.  They surveyed the nearby villages and stumbled upon the village of Daggar Khan Palari Taluka – a community with not one but two abandoned schools. They talked to the local Education District Officer (EDO) and brought the matter to his attention. After a few meetings the EDO arranged a survey of both school buildings.
Monsoons had left the roof of one of the schools in very bad shape and the building was deemed too dangerous to use. The second school building was in relatively better shape and the EDO agreed to arrange teaching staff for it.

To their surprise Babar and Tanveer faced stiff resistance from the community they were trying to help. The demand of the community members: either reopen both schools or neither.
Refusing to abandon the progress they had made with the education department the young Active Citizens talked to members of the two tribes in hopes of starting a dialogue between them.

Let’s talk
“We asked them to give the idea of a single school a chance for the sake of their children”
Getting the two parties to talk seemed to be an uphill task at first. One thing in common people from both tribes though was the love of their children: all parents want to see their children do well.  Babar and Tanveer convinced to sit down and talk about finding ways to secure a better future for their children – a future with more opportunities.
Through these talks the two young people helped the community members to realise that some opportunities remain out of reach without formal education. “We asked them to give the idea of a single school a chance for the sake of their children” says Tanveer.
After much discussion the parent of out of school children agreed to one school for their children.

New beginnings
With the help of the residents of the village and the education department staff Babar and Tanveer helped clean up the school building. Within a week the school building was ready to be used again. The EDO’s office also provided 300 – 400 text books free of cost for the students.
Babar and Tanveer volunteered their time to brush up the students’ basic skills. A young person from the village with a high school degree also showed interest in teaching and soon joined Babar and Tanveer in teaching the eager students.
Now the school has a regular appointed teacher and the enrollment has crossed sixty students. with nearly 60% male and 40%female students and their ages range from 7 years to 11 years. Babar and Tanveer visit the school regularly to see if it is operating smoothly and to offer their help if needed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The power of dialogue – Active Citizens facilitate health care in Mehmood Kot

As the 4-day Active Citizens workshop neared its end and the time came to propose a social action project to help resolve an issue that his community was facing, Talha Hassan spent no time in picking health care. Mehmood Kot is a small town in the Multan district with one Basic Health Unit (BHU) facility for the provision of health care to the community members at a low cost.

A modest affair

Mehmood Kot's Basic Health Unit is a modest affair with limited staff and a small dispensary. The bigger medical facility, the District Health Unit (DHU) is a considerable distance away. There are a number of private clinics in the town though which treat the bulk of the medical cases.

Over the years Talha noticed that the dispensary had assumed a more symbolic role a functional one: on some days the medical staff did not show up, and when they did their work hours were erratic. As a result most of the townspeople had no choice but to consult doctors running private clinics. 

This is a costlier option for the residents of Mehmood Kot, most of who depend on a modest source of income to get them through the month.

Hence over the years the utility of the Basic Health Unit was reduced to a place where cheap medicine could be bought.

Shaking things up

Talha and his youth group resolved to change this perception of their community. They wanted members of the community to receive the care they deserved at the BHU. And so they started a two pronged dialogue campaign: they met with community members in a door-to-door campaign to talk about the provision of their basic health rights; and they met the health care staff at the BHU to discuss professional duties that they were neglecting.

In this way the young Active Citizens were successful in starting a dialogue between the residents of Mehmood Kot and the health care staff at the BHU. The result of these meetings was that the health care staff resolved to fulfil their duties and to extend all possible help to the townspeople.    

Keeping Score

To make sure that the BHU staff would make good on their promise and things would not slip back to a similar situation Talha’s youth group formed a committee to monitor the work of the health care staff voluntarily. This committee comprised of the Imam of a local mosque, a social and political activist, and two Active Citizens from Talha’s youth group.

This committee pays regular visits to the Basic Health Unit and they report much improved staff attendance. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mentoring greatness

Asma Farhad teaches at a popular university in Lahore. When discussing the state of education in Pakistan and how it can be transformed, Aasma’s passion for education shines trough: “As an academic, I believe reforms alone cannot provide a solution, our education system rather requires a whole new revolution. I resolve to introduce a novel learning experience to those who need education most”.

Recently Aasma helped her students renovate a computer lab for less privileged young people. With the help of cash donations they also refurbished the faulty equipment. A brief description of the project supplied by Aasma:

We ran a pilot project in the University of Central Punjab, Lahore in August 2012, and experimented with the semi-literate children from slums and very poor economic back ground. Ranging from 8 to 13 years, all these children attended a six days long workshop on using computers as an e-learning tool. To our surprise children who could not even spell their names perfectly were able to use Google search, Google translator, find and play educational games and videos and learnt from them, entered correct URLs, receive and send emails too. That too in just six days!

We also observed that these children did not only enjoy learning, they were stimulated to learn more and often preferred to work independently. This made us work more seriously towards our second goal i.e. to provide free of cost computer and internet access to these children.

For this, our group initiated “donate a computer” drive. We discussed with our friends, family and acquaintances to donate old used computer CPUs, monitors, mouse, wires and key boards. We learnt about an institution in Iqbal Town, Lahore through a friend that provides free of cost education to children with very weak economic back ground. Upon meeting them we learnt that their abandoned computer lab had a few computers lying there.

Our volunteers renovated the lab, repaired old computers, replaced worn out spare parts with the workable ones. The lab is now operational and continues broadening horizons for the young fellows studying there.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Education for all – turning a dream into a reality

Luqman Elahi lives in district Layyah – backward area of Punjab. 70% of the district is rural where a feudal social system of sardars and jageerdars prevails. Enrollment in the local schools is low; poverty plays the biggest role in the schools lack facilities. Ghost schools are a common phenomenon and are mostly used as ‘bhanas ‘(the place where the livestock is penned). Those who are willing to spend money to see their children educated face other obstacles: landlords who discourage education. Luqman chose to work as a youth activist for the development of his area and to help educate the residents of Layyah. He believes that this is possible only through awareness of the benefits of education. Says Luqman: “I will educate them about necessity of education”.
Luqman met different families during his door-to-door awareness campaign. He talked to parents about Article 25a  and how the dream of an educated Pakistan can now be turned into a reality. Luqman discovered that most parents of wanted to educate their children and had hopes for a better future for them – different lives than the ones they lead. The failure to pay the high fee – often to ghost schools is the main reason due to which they chose not to enroll their children in school.
When asked how he would address these challenges, Luqman replied: “I chose to work on admitting underprivileged children in a private school. I knew that it was challenging owing to the fact that they couldn’t afford to pay the high fees on their own”. Luqman met the principal of a local private school to discuss this problem. In the principal he found a kindred spirit who agreed to admit students to his school without charging them any fee for one whole year.
Luqman is not only generous with his time, but does not hold back in spending his money for the all important cause of education: “I managed to pay for their uniform cost but I am looking for sponsors to support the cost of books, stationery for admitted students” he says. Thanks to the efforts of Luqman, 33 children from his community now attend classes regularly without worrying about paying a fee for them for a year.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Beneath the Surface

While 2011 saw excessive torrential rain all over Pakistan that resulted in floods that caused wide placed damage and displaced many people, this year the monsoon rains have been well below the level needed to irrigate fields, and fill natural water bodies and man made dams to serviceable levels. This shortage of rain spells disaster, and what looms now is the danger of a drought.

When it comes to needs and wants the people living in Dera Ghazi Khan are no different from people inhabiting the many villages and towns of Pakistan who depend upon natural water sources such as streams and rivers for their daily need. Naturally without seasonal rains these rivers and streams can not fulfill the needs of the people dependent upon them.

Mahrab Khan is a resident of 'Chooti', a remote area of the Dera Ghazi Khan district. Growing up in Chooti Mehrab was acutely aware of the local community’s needs and after attending an Active Citizens training course his awareness gained focus. Mahrab decided that the most immediate need that his community members was the availability of water. He therefore decided to design a Social Action Project around the provision of water to the various small localities called 'bastees' in the area. Mahrab teamed up with two other Active Citizens: Mr. Ali Abbas and Mr. Kumail to start work on the project.

The group members pooled in their resources to fund the digging of underground water holes in these areas. Ten workers were hired to help them dig these wells. Wells have always been a traditional and cheap method of providing clean water to remote areas, where no other water source is available.

In some places they found drinking water at 140 ft while at other spots they had to dig as deep as 300 ft. The group has also installed taps in some of these water sources in order to make it easier for people to collect water. The group has so far been successful in digging 5 wells, where each well provided access to clean water to 25 – 30 localities. They have also initiated the same activity in other areas so that more people can benefit from their Social Action Project.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Prevention through Awareness

There are certain things that we associate with the summer season. For people living in colder areas there is the promise of warm, lazy days; for people who live in a warm climate it means that their days will only get warmer and longer. In Pakistan we have come to associate newer and less pleasant things of late: the monsoon rains that will flood fields of farmers and drive people from their homes, and the return of the dreaded dengue fever. 

Each dengue epidemic in Pakistan has been worse than the previous one: more than 300 people lost their lives to the dengue virus and more than 14,000 were affected by it in 2011. A group of young people fresh out of an Active Citizens training teamed together to launch a dengue awareness campaign targeted at young people and children in Lahore.

The first part of the project was rolled out at the Punjab University Laboratory school in April this year. Group members briefed the students on the dengue virus, its symptoms, how it can be transmitted, and what precautionary measures to use. The students were also added to the discussion their knowledge on the subject, and stories and jokes. At the conclusion of the activity flyers were distributed among the students who were encouraged to spread the awareness on the deadly disease.
In May the group held an awareness campaign at the Pakistan Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (PSRD). Along with information about the virus and precautionary measures, a drawing competition was also arranged for children at the rehabilitation centre. Children enrolled in therapy sessions at the centre also participated with quotes, stories, and songs.

The efforts of the group did not stop here; they held similar interactive awareness sessions at Nasheman and Dar-ul-Mussarat – both institutes for people living with mental and physical disabilities. At both institutes they were welcomed with enthusiasm. Says one group member: “we went to make these children aware of how to save a life, but (instead) we learnt from them that how to live a life”.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Active Citizens - partnering for stronger communities

A life-time’s learning can sometimes be condensed into a sentence or two. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu did just that when he uttered words to the effect: “Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime".

This line of thinking is just as relevant today as it was many centuries ago. Helping someone by providing them with money or food or shelter – although commendable – is not a long-term solution. By providing someone in need with the means to earn a living not only enables them to provide for themselves but it also has a positive effect on their morale and self-esteem.

Green Town is a residential area of Lahore with a high rate of unemployment and a low education rate. The residents of Green Town by and large live in poverty, and putting food on the table regularly is a struggle for most.

Shumaila Naaz is a professor in the Management Sciences department of the Superior University in Lahore. Shumaila teaches a course on community development which includes an end-of-semester project that students need to complete to pass the course.

To help her students gain a better understanding of how their efforts – no matter how small – to make their communities a better place to live can have far reaching effects, Shumaila organised an Active Citizens training workshop with the help of Chanan Development Association (CDA) – an Active Citizens partner.

After they were done with the training, a group of her students came up with a formal plan to help women in Green Town earn a living and provide for their families. Their proposal? To raise money to fund the purchase of sewing machines for the women of Green Town.

The women selected by the group fall into certain categories: women who are widowed; women who are divorced; and women whose spouses live with disability.

The proposed project also had a personal significance for one of the members who has lived in Green Town for more than 11 years but has never lost hope for better days for his community.

The students were able to raise Rs. 75,000 by reaching out to donors with the help of a well thought-out project proposal and an effective communications campaign which included the distribution of pamphlets, and a door-to-door campaign. With these funds they purchased 17 sewing machines.

To ensure that the sewing machines would not be resold the group members attached a condition with their distribution: the women who would receive the machines would pay a fee of Rs. 250 to the group each month. In this way the recipients would gain ownership of the sewing machines and through the fees collected the group would be able to finance more sewing machines for other deserving candidates. In short a win-win situation.

A distribution ceremony for the machines was arranged by the group at a local high school of Green Town. A large number of the residents attended the event and praised the Active Citizens for coming up with this clever yet simple plan to strengthen a community that gave its members the tools to be more self-reliant. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On the challenges of intercultural dialogue

James Edleston has been Head of International at BYC since 2009, before which he worked as a Youth Programme Manager at Think Global (previously DEA).  His role at BYC involves supporting youth representation, global campaigns and projects, intercultural learning and action, global youth work and European and international policy.

Here he talks about his experience of working with the Active Citizens programme for the promotion and development of intercultural dialogue in South Asian countries.

Could you highlight your experience working with people in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan in terms of intercultural dialogue?

A special feature of the programme is that people can reflect on their place in their community (before they engage in dialogue). Dialogue can be a dangerous thing. You can’t just sit in a circle and talk.

The Active Citizens Programme has two parallel goals. The idea of the programme from the very start was that there were two distinct aims. One was about building trust and understanding, and the other was about community action…let’s say, ‘sustainable development’ action for positive change. And these two things were seen as mutually reinforcing. That by building trust and understanding we can work together to change our community for the better, but by working together we also build our trust and understanding, and bring our communities close together and live in a more peaceful way.

So this was kind of the conception…the core of it, and that’s why these two parallel aims have always been there. Every time we write the vision, it’s got something to do with peace, or trust, or coexistence. And the other one is about community development or sustainable development, or social action. There are always these two things. And that is sort of the vision. It’s about understanding each other first, it’s about the belief in every individual to be able to make a change, it’s about the power of working together to create new solutions. These are all principles, and everything we do fits between these two elements.

Giving a space to people in a programme that can be very technical is really important. We spend a of time on investment in the initial stages (of the programme) – understanding ourselves, our motivations, how we interact with others, the way we work in our communities, what we think about things, what we believe, what we want for the future. We invest quite heavily in that. And that’s I think, one of the reasons why it spreads quickly and engages people; and people give a lot of voluntary time.

In areas where there is serious conflict, like every-day insecurity, people engage quickly in the vision of a more peaceful coexistence. In a place like Pakistan, I guess it resonates with people who experience these things every day.

Just about your own experience with meeting people from South Asian countries like Pakistan, how do you think intercultural dialogue has taken place between you and facilitators you have met over the past three years?

I have learnt probably a lot more than I have shared from this programme, and that’s because we have been able to bring together people from all over the country with completely different perspectives, and that’s one thing that I feel is a strength.

In the UK issues of class, and status, and power, and wealth are more obvious because it is the country I was brought up in; it’s not so obvious (for me) here. But it does seem that the people that Active Citizens engages are quite diverse. I have definitely engaged people with very, very different perspectives, and people who I really respect have some times very challenging views for me. So I have to engage in the process myself; I have to engage in dialogue with participants myself and put my assumptions on hold; (I have to) engage in very deep questioning where I am challenged to think all that kind of stuff. So I’m learning more about intercultural dialogue by being here. It’s learning by doing.

What have you learned about intercultural dialogue?

Being forced to live those principles, and live the way we think the way we should interact is a challenge. It helps because we have to understand all the challenges that the Active Citizens face when they do the work.

What challenges does intercultural dialogue face in this region and what inherent strengths does it possess (to overcome them) and flourish?

There is an assumption that when we say ‘intercultural dialogue’ there are two cultures that we can see – provincial, or tribal or a country. But it goes deeper than that.

The challenge for intercultural dialogue is how it’s done. There is a danger that it can be superficial. One real challenge is that it is much easier to bring together people in a dialogue who obviously belong to different cultures but share the same economic status, or have wealth, are well travelled, have been to a university…that’s quite easy. In any country of the world you can bring well travelled, well educated people together, and have a good conversation. Sometimes this is easier than bringing together people with a different status or some other subtle difference.

So that is really a challenge: where can intercultural dialogue be most effective and who with, and not to be content with taking the easy road. What do we call good quality intercultural dialogue? What outcomes are we looking for?

People resist dialogue because they think that it is a danger to their identity and culture. There is going to be resistance to any externally organized process that gets people talking. There is always going to be suspicion, and that is a definite challenge.

There are dangers too in bringing people together. If there is underlying tension and conflict, then it can be a very dangerous and explosive situation. If it’s not well managed then it can make things worse.

**James Edleston was speaking with Younus Khan and Sadia Rahman ** 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Getting the ball rolling

There are some things that have become associated with Balochistan of late; most of them unpleasant. Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, even with its wide open spaces and tough terrain was once regarded as a melting pot of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions. Other images that the name ‘Quetta’ conjured up were a laid back lifestyle, hospitable people, apple orchards, and bustling market places famed for their selection of nuts and dried fruit. In the summers Quetta also served as a base for families vacationing in the not-too-far hill-top resort, Ziarat.

Sadly, a few of the things that come to mind nowadays when one hears ‘Quetta’ are ethnic and religious divisions, organised violence, acts of terror, and mysterious abductions. Not too surprisingly the general consensus for visiting Quetta is: avoid if possible. But closing one’s eyes does not make a problem go away. Some people are relocating from Quetta but most people will stay – regardless to the extent the situation deteriorates to. These persons of different ethnicities and subscribing to different faiths have lived in the same city for generations and will hopefully find a way to live together in harmony for many, many years to come.

Empathy is the essential ingredient for – not merely existing in the same place peacefully – but more importantly to help members of different communities understand one another better and to form relationships with one another. It is hard to empathize in dangerous and unstable times, but this is when it is needed the most. This point was brought home by a group of young people from the city who celebrated diversity and harmony through sports.

Shanti Nagar is an area of Quetta which has been historically inhabited by the Hindu population of the city. A stream and a watering station divide Shanti Nagar from the nearest Muslim settlement. Both communities have had an arrangement for years by which they share the watering station to replenish their water supplies. Tension existed though because of the waste disposed off into the stream. Since the Muslim area is located downstream, most of the trash found its way there.

With time as the levels of pollution in the stream rose tensions turned into a debate, followed by accusations and finger pointing when no mutually acceptable solution could be agreed upon. The standoff reached the tipping point when the elders of the Muslim jirga – a traditional tribal council whose decision is considered unquestionable – hinted at blocking off access to the stream and the watering area.

The solution to the looming crisis came from a group of young people in the most unexpected form. It is not uncommon for young people from both communities – young and old to form friendships. A group of friends comprising both Muslims and Hindus had also attended an Active Citizens training together. They grasped this as the ideal situation to put their training to the test. They put their heads together to come up with a way to encourage constructive dialogue in a friendly atmosphere. They reached the conclusion that to encourage members of both communities to start talking again some sort of positive interaction was needed. One such positive form of interaction they decided was sports.

Quickly two teams from both communities were put together to participate in a friendly football match. All arrangements were taken care of by the funds pooled together by the group of young Active Citizens. Community members were invited to attend the match free of cost and the total turnout on the day of the match was approximately 150 people. At the conclusion of the match elders from both communities were honoured, and young people from both teams spoke about the important role that dialogue plays in resolving conflict.

As a direct consequence of the efforts of these young people influencers from both communities resolved to clean up the stream and to help finance the building of a proper drainage facility. Within two weeks the stream was much cleaner and proper drains were built. Proper waste disposal has not been a topic of argument between these two communities since. Several football matches have been played though.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How to save a life

Ubaid Malik is a resident of Pind Dadan Khan – a town not too far from the hauntingly picturesque salt mines of Khewra. Although Pind Dadan khan lies at a distance of only 200 Kilometres from Islamabad the atmosphere that prevails there is predominantly rural. Growing up in Pind Dadan Khan Ubaid witnessed first-hand the unjust and discriminatory practices that are woven into the rural fabric. “I grew up in a place which is unmatched in backwardness of thought and where a high level of illiteracy prevails” says Ubaid.

An unfortunate reality that is part and parcel of the rural life is the high mortality rate due to inadequate medical facilities, especially true for women – a fact that Ubaid refused to accept. In search of ways to improve the deplorable medical facilities he approached several community leaders, but instead of encouragement he mostly found disinterest.

Refusing to give up Ubaid found his way to an Active Citizens training organised by a partner organization of the British Council. Here he got an opportunity to polish his skills for starting fruitful dialogue and involving others in the struggle to achieve mutual goals. Most importantly though he formed lasting friendships with other like-minded young people.

With a strengthened belief in his abilities Ubaid approached the problem anew. He convinced a few of his friends to join his cause, and together they came up with a brilliant idea to help members of their community: a database of blood types. Says one group member: “although we did not have sufficient resources for to set up a proper blood bank, but we though that at least we could compile a record of people and their blood groups”. The thought behind this was the high number of people that pass away because they did not receive a blood transfusion in time.

The young people made contact with the local health department and pitched their idea to them. Their response? The concerned officials agreed to lend the youth group – dubbed the Active Involvement and Motivation (AIM) youth group – the services of two members of the medical staff for a fee of Rs. 1,000 for each blood group awareness camp they organised. After following this model a few of times the youth group began to feel the inevitable brunt of bearing the expenses. According to Ubaid: “we quickly came to realize that we could not continue to set up these camps (using our own resources)…not for the number of people we wanted to reach”.
 Ubaid and his friends next visited the health department of Jehlum, the district that Pind Dadan Khan is a part of. The officials there were so impressed with the group’s social action project that they took necessary steps in order to ensure that the young people receive the cooperation of their town’s health department, free of cost.

To date Ubaid and his group have organised nearly 30 health camps. Their database now boasts names, addresses, and blood types of 3,200 individuals. When blood samples are collected forms are also circulated which inquire whether the individual is willing to donate their blood in case of emergencies. According to Ubaid nearly half the people in their database have agreed to donate blood if required.

Not one to be satisfied by what he has achieved, Ubaid recently completed an Active Citizen’s Training of Facilitators (TOF) and now plans to help other young people achieve their dream of making their communities a better place to live through positive social action.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Playing for keeps

For a long time Mehroze Kiyani wondered how he could help the young people of Abbotabad who had lost their way and were leading aimless lives. His biggest wish was to help young people who had turned to drugs and crime in their despair. But Mehroze is not a person who only wishes for good in his society; he is actually a doer. Mehroze got in touch with individuals at the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) – a partner organization of the British Council who invited him to participate in their next Active Citizens capacity building workshop.

According to Mehroze this was a turning point in his life: “I came to realize that young people living in any country are capable of bringing a remarkable change (in their societies)”. A key feature of the Active Citizens training programme is its flexible and adaptable structure. Taking advantage of this flexibility Mehroze chose an often overlooked aspect of society for his social action project: sports.

 But Mehroze did not pick any popular sport for his project, no he wanted to connect with young people on a physical as a well as an emotional level. He decided to work with traditional sports that used to be popular in the Abbotabad area; sports, which sadly had been ignored for many years. On being asked why he chose to base his Social Action Project (SAP) on sports, Mehroze said: “I think that involving young people in healthy physical activity is an effective way to keep them on the right track – and away from despair and antisocial behaviour”. Besides, adds Mehroze: “this is also a way to get in touch with a forgotten dimension of our culture”.
Mehroze enlisted the help of a few friends to help him research these cultural sports, help organize training camps, and promote them. Together they identified a sport that tested endurance and strength of athletes who had to lift small boulders (بُتکر بازی) and move them to a certain point. The beauty of this social action project was that Mehroze did not have to invest any money for sports equipment; all he needed was rocks of a suitable size and the right location out in the open.
Experts in the local sport were invited from the union council who advised the young participants on how to play according to the correct rules, regulations, and what safety precautions they should follow. Once the training camp was over, a tournament was organised. The tournament was a success with a better turnout than was expected by Mehroze. The winner was awarded a cash prize of Rs. 500.
Mehroze and his friends now plan to organize more training camps and contests for other traditional games. The youth group is pleased to see that young people of the area have embraced بُتکر بازی as a recreational activity. Mehroze talks about his social action project fondly and discussing its effects on the young people of his area remarks: “although my social action project is not a quick fix to the problems that local young people face, but it’s a start. After all, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Gypsy School

Ramshackle gypsy settlements are a common sight in nearly all cities of Pakistan. With no fixed occupations and no land, members of the gypsy community live in uninhabited areas till they are forced to leave by the local authorities. Gypsy children are often seen begging for money or food at road sides, shops, and in residential areas. Gypsies have always lived on the fringes of society and are usually viewed with suspicion.

But these children like all children are entitled to education. This realization did not escape Faisal Idrees, a young Active Citizen from Multan. Faisal decided to do something in his capacity to rectify this situation.
Faisal enlisted the help of two of his friends and together they formed a youth group to facilitate the provision of education to as many gypsy children as they could. According to Faisal: “Every parent wants to send their children to school but most people, and especially marginalized communities do not know about Article 25 A and the right to education”.

Another problem that these young people faced was the sad fact that the money these children collect by begging contributes to their family’s income. And so parents with no fixed source of income can sometimes perceive education of their children as a threat to their family’s well being.

Faisal and his friends decided to set up a make-shift school in the gypsy camp and started a door-to-door campaign to convince parents to let their children attend it. In the beginning this seemed to be an uphill task as not most parents were reluctant to loose the income brought in by their children, and they also viewed the strangers with suspicion.

But despite the resistance the three young people resolved to march on ahead; by the third meeting with the community members they were allowed to set up their ‘school’.  Since they did not receive any support from the gypsy community in terms of a place to hold classes in, they started teaching in the first free space they could find. On the first day of class 4 children showed up. Gradually the number of students started increasing. By the end of the first week they were teaching 22 gypsy children. By the end of the year the school had 138 students.

According to Faisal, initially the group members pooled in their money to buy the necessary supplies to run their school, but as the number of children steadily increased these meagre funds started proving insufficient. To overcome this Faisal and his friends came up with a simple yet smart solution: they met with principals of different private and public schools of the area and convinced them to put up a box in the school where students could donate used books and notebooks. At the end of each week members of the youth group visit these schools to collect the donated books and stationary items. 

Notebooks which have been filled using pencils are erased and made ready for use again. And books which cannot be used are sold and the proceeds are used to buy pencils and other stationary items. 
Faisal and his friends are now allowed to use empty tents to hold their classes while the tenants are away but have to empty it once they return. The irony is not lost on the youth group who have dubbed their school the Gypsy School

The youth group has enjoyed other successes besides providing these children with basic education. One of these is convincing parents to admit their children to the local public school. So far 28 children have been enrolled in this school. Consequently these children have stopped begging and now lead a much healthier life style.

Children attending the Gypsy School are also encouraged to give up begging through stories and activities. The group of young Active Citizens hopes to dissuade as many children from begging as possible and to facilitate their admission into schools.

Faisal and his friends now aim to reach at least 300 children by the end of this year.