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.