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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.