The woman who started a school in her garage.

The woman who started a school in her garage.

With a population exceeding 229,000,000, Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world. Twenty-two per cent, or around 50,380,000  of those people live below the poverty line. The literacy rate is 59%, with millions of children deprived of schooling. In its largest city, Karachi, the Neelum Colony sits in the midst of affluent Clifton colony, with its residents' tiny homes surrounded by the homes of their elite employers. Neelum's inhabitants are mainly domestic workers, serving as gardeners, drivers, cleaners and maids to wealthy Cliftonites. Neelum residents can expect to earn $2 per day, from which they pay for food, rent on their 9x9 feet family home and also their water as there is no water supply facility.

The story of The Garage School began in 1999 when Shabina Mustafa's maid came to her, seeking help for her daughter who had been refused admission to sewing class on the basis of illiteracy. Shabina had gained her bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Karachi in 1972. No stranger to the hardships of life having been widowed with a tiny baby at age 19, Shabina agreed to start teaching and decided that her garage would be a suitable place to start. Encouraged by her own mother, Shabina made preparations for the new school. By the next week, linoleum covered the garage floor and 14 children waited to begin their learning journey. “When I saw the faces of the kids there was no turning back. The glow in their eyes!”, Shabina has been reported saying. From the humble beginnings of just two plates, a kero stove and her mother's motivation, Shabina's school grew quickly as word got out. The Safi Benevolent Trust was created and classes began on a rotational basis eventually providing not only learning but uniforms, books, stationery, shoes and socks.

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Above, clockwise from top left: The streets of Neelum Colony; the school began renting this three-storey building in 2007; some of Shabina's founding pupils; a typical home in Neelum Colony measures 9x9'.

Providing so much more than the three R’s, The Garage School takes a person's wellbeing into account, ensuring students are ready for learning each day by providing nutritional food such as milk, bananas, dates and multivitamin syrups. The benefits were visible immediately with children performing brilliantly in all fields. There have been outstanding results with the street kids of the area, those whose parents work all day and leave them to roam. The emphasis is on informal learning and self-discipline, teaching pupils to be constructive humans. 

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Shabina looks after each child as if they were her own, not calling them 'her students' but rather 'her children'. They receive regular ENT and dental checkups along with vaccinations and blood grouping. Due to intermarriages in small communities diseases affecting the eyes, heart and blood are common. The Garage School provides medical support for children with severe illnesses through the help of sponsors. Shabina would previously take children to India for heart surgeries but after tireless campaigning, there is now a heart surgeon in Karachi who performs surgeries in bulk. A lack of clean water also causes health problems. Shabina teaches her children self-care routines such as plugging their ears before bathing to prevent ear infections. Each morning classes cover health and hygiene topics and the learnings received are paid forward by students doing community service.

It’s common for children in Pakistan to not know their actual date of birth but instead have a 'made up' birth date. Each year on Shabina’s birthday she has parties where everyone celebrates their birthdays, in an effort to encourage a tradition that children can continue throughout their own lives. The school also has monthly ‘de-stress’ parties where everyone stops work for two hours to play games and relax together. The children all look forward to that day, bringing food to share.

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Above, clockwise from top left: The school began in a garage in 1999; Balbeer now studies Biosciences at university; health & wellbeing is a vital part of education at The Garage School.

Financial empowerment is a huge part of learning at The Garage School. Parents often give their children  - especially boys - money to spend, just a few rupees, not realising that those small amounts add up to worthwhile savings. Shabina starts the children off with piggy banks, teaching them to save for bikes or earrings and helping them to open bank accounts. She has encouraged their families to open bank accounts too. After noticing those families needing to use their children as signatories due to illiteracy, Shabina created a special curriculum for adult literacy with results in just eight months enabling parents to read expiry dates on medicines and understand important documents. “If you don’t look after the family, how can you look after the kids? It’s a continuation of one family to another. The grandparents to the parents, the parents to the children and so on. So I can’t leave them. We started an evening class for men and one for women. The girls doing domestic work (14 - 16 years of age) come. I was amazed at the number of people who wanted an education but they had no means,” Shabina says.

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Parents can now check their children's homework and purchase food better because they can read prices. “Now when we talk to people we feel good about ourselves,” one mother says. Families also receive help with rent, food rations including chicken each month and building materials or paint for their home as needed. 

Along with adult literacy, vocational classes teach women to become proficient in sewing and embroidery, enabling them to contribute to a family’s income. Their skills make them feel proud to be amongst the empowered woman of the world. Shabina and her fellow teachers share information just as a mother would, encouraging while ensuring the work is completed to a high standard. The women learn, then sell their crafted items and in turn, teach the craft to others.

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Above: Using her hand to count off the fingers, Shabina traces the dip between pointer and thumb noting it will be the student’s responsibility to travel the difficult path from education to progress.

It wasn't long before the school outgrew the garage, it now fills two rented multi-storey buildings in the Neelam Colony. The school acts as a catalyst for uplifting colonies, saving lives through education, mentoring and health care. The need is so great that the school could not cope with the demand for teachers and now an affordable teacher training college has been established. Previously, teachers did not have extensive training in various subjects but now they can not only teach better, but they also have more confidence as teachers and have learnt better methods.

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Above, left: Shabina's late husband, Flight Lieutenant Syed Safi Mustafa; Right: Shabina with her mother.

In creating this community that began in her home garage, Shabina realised her late husband’s dream, which was to open a school for children from low socio-economic backgrounds and underprivileged communities. His life was cut short when he was killed in combat in 1971, but his dream took shape through his incredible wife, changing the lives of one child and one family at a time.

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