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A school in a graveyard!

Karachi, July 9: They call it their Khamosh Colony. They say it is more peaceful to study here than in any other part of the city. And they may not be wrong. The Taj Goth Free Education Home is situated inside the premises of the Mewa Shah Graveyard and strangely enough students here feel their school is safer due to its peculiar location. "Unlike other schools in the city, our school is never closed during any riot or strike in the city," a young student proudly proclaims. This is no idle claim in a city where school shut often due to one reason or another.

One might expect the children to be rather apprehensive as they have to cross hundreds of graves everyday to reach their school located at one end of the graveyard. But the smile on their faces proves you wrong. Even the little four year olds, the kindergarten students, know they have to walk on the pathway carefully chalked between the gray and white gravestones.

"We have taught them it is wrong to disturb the people sleeping in their graves hence the children also make it a point to remain silent as they walk past the graves in queues," explains Soniya Williams, a teacher of class-II. The idea of teaching in a graveyard also appeared strange to Williams when she was offered the job, but when she saw the confident looks on the children's faces, it took her no time to accept the job.

The school is one large room separated by wood partitions that roll back when required for a larger annual school event. Initially the space was used as a mosque and a madrassah where a cleric, Moulana Shafiullah, taught children to recite the Holy Quran. When the idea of establishing a school was proposed to him, he readily agreed and changed the timings of his madrassah from early morning to late afternoon, after the school gets over.

From tuition fee to school books and uniforms, everything is provided free to the students. Special attention is also given to sports, religious education, nutrition programmes and annual excursions to ensure that the students do not miss out on any activity. Established in 2002, the charity-run school is a project of the Karachi Peace Women's Committee, an NGO. All the expenses are borne by the female activists of the committee.

"I think this is a noble deed by activists of KWPC. I have noticed a great improvement in the behaviour of the children in my locality and it makes me proud," said Moulana Shafiullah. Over 100 students from nearby localities like Taj Goth and United Colony, mostly lower income areas, come to study here.

The provision of free education has surely proved to be a blessing for hundreds of poor and illiterate families whose children would otherwise be led astry. Many others have fallen for drugs at a young age due to its easy availability in the area. Parents breathed a sigh of relief after the establishment of this school and they are now very proud of it.

There is more to this school than meets the eye. Mah Bibi, a Baloch, is grandmother of five and lives on the premises of the graveyard. All her grand children study at this school. Her daughter died due to severe illness a few years back while her son-in-law, now the principal of this school, was serving his term in prison.

Fida Hussain, the principal, recognized the importance of education when he was serving his term in prison in a drug abuse case. Using his right to education, he attained his degree in the prison. He majored in four subjects including Urdu Language, Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies.

Based on his good behaviour, Hussain was awarded a remission and his sentence was reduced by six months. After being released in 1996, Hussain was later elected as a member of the education committee in UC-3, SITE Town in the 2002 cabinet.

"The pathetic condition of the government schools and the poverty in my community led me to believe that the only way to improve the situation was through education. I got sick of the corruption at the government level and did not have enough money to establish a private school so I decided to do some voluntary work for the deprived members of this colony," disclosed Hussain, during his interview.

Fida had a firm belief in community schools as he had also received his primary and secondary education through a community school. "I completed my matriculation in 1988 from a similar kind of school and I remember Rehman Dakait's father was my teacher," he recalls. "This school has now become an important part of my life and I look forward to coming in everyday," he adds.

"The students are even more eager to learn," says another teacher, Sumeira Naz. "Our school is open during shutter down strikes even. We don't close unless there is a state of emergency in the city like that on May 12, but even then the students who are mostly from the neighbourhood come to question us at our doorstep. I am glad I am not wasting my education by sitting at home like most girls. I am doing something for my society and it is a great feeling," she adds with a smile.

All the teachers in the school have completed their matriculation and most aspire to study further. They earn Rs800 a month and also give tuitions to the school students in the evening. There are eight teachers in total seven female and one male teacher for physical education.

Taj Goth is also one of the few localities in Karachi where Hindu, Christian and Muslim communities reside side by side. Free from any racial or religious tensions, the students spend time with each other as members of a single community. "I don't know why most Muslims discriminate against us. I am a Pakistani first, then a Christian," said an outstanding student of the school, Maria Mukhtar. These are questions for which answers are scarce.

The school has changed lives and attitudes. Parents and single mothers were initially hesitant to trust the education system. Today, one can see big dreams in their eyes when their children complete primary education from this school. The school is no less than a blessing for this community, no matter that it does have a rather strange location. the news
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