Pakistan school offers orphans refuge to prevent turn to militancy

A Muslim charity provides free schooling to Pakistani orphans, putting itself at the forefront of a national effort to close the education gap and reduce the appeal militancy holds for children.

By , Staff writer

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    Another way: Ashfaq Ahmed, a dean of the Ummah Children Academy, stands with one of the students on campus. The boarding school in Nowshera, Pakistan, gives orphans options besides militancy.
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    The Ummah Children Academy, a boarding school in Nowshera, gives orphans from Pakistan's tribal areas options besides militancy.
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At the age of 8, Khalil Rehman saw a US drone kill his father at their home in South Waziristan. In an instant, the boy became an orphan in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which meant his education and future prospects went up in smoke.

Some armed fighters had recently crossed over from Afghanistan, and Khalil's cousin had given them temporary shelter. His father was visiting them when Khalil, returning from mosque, saw and heard the explosion.

His mother survived, but in Pakistan a child becomes an orphan if his father dies. With the loss of his father's salary, Khalil could not afford to go to private school and there were no public schools around.

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For the next three years, the boy worked on farms until his mother heard about Ummah Children Academy, a free boarding school in Nowshera for orphans.

"I want to be an engineer," says Khalil, now a confident 12-year-old sitting beside two other classmates who were also orphaned by drone attacks. "I am happy over here. Living at home is very good but we have to sacrifice it for getting an education."

Pakistan is undergoing an education crisis. Some 10 percent of the world's primary school-age children who don't attend school live in Pakistan, according to the Pakistan Education Task Force.

In many places central to the war on terror, public schools have never existed. Floods and conflict have further wiped out educational opportunities. The unschooled then become vulnerable to joining criminal gangs who run under the banner of the Taliban.

Khalil's story represents one small effort to get the most vulnerable children back in school and back on track to a peaceful life.

"Orphans are the most vulnerable," says Ashfaq Ahmed, a dean of the Ummah Children Academy. "They are picked by those people who use them for their own purposes, to make them slaves, thieves, pickpockets – and suicide bombers."

Madrasas not the primary danger

The Ummah Welfare Trust, a Muslim charity based in England, opened the academy in 2007 and now houses about 700 orphans. Classrooms and dorms line a central, grassy quad, and mosque. The students pray five times a day and are taught the Koran, as well as a curriculum published by Oxford University Press that includes English, computer skills, and hard sciences.

"This is not a madrasa," says Mr. Ahmed. "We want [our students] to be good doctors, good engineers, with good human hearts and minds."

Nor are madrasas the biggest risk factor for conflict, according to a 2010 report from the Brookings Institution in Washington. Less than 10 percent of Pakistan's students are taught in madrasas and have not been a primary cause of rising militancy.

The real danger?

"The education supply gap in and of itself likely increases the risk of conflict in low-income countries like Pakistan," the report reads. Eight out of the 10 countries with the lowest primary school enrollment rates in the world experienced conflict between 1990 and 2005.

And to get the 26 million out-of-school Pakistani children ages 5 to 16 into classrooms, something more than a few worthy nongovernmental organization safety nets are needed.

"Given the big numbers and the scale of the problem, government has to respond to the emergency," says Mosharraf Zaidi, an education campaigner in Islamabad.

Last year, Pakistan adopted a constitutional amendment making education free and compulsory up to age 16. So far, the government has not put the money forward to make this a reality, let alone enforce it: More is spent on subsidies for Pakistan International Airlines, Pakistan Steel, and Pakistan Electric Power Co.

The floods have brought international dollars and attention to the education sector, but the waters also left the country with 8,618 fewer schools. The US Agency for International Development's website says that its programs have ensured some 900,000 school-age children could attend classes.

Overcoming 'mental trauma'

But the tribal areas at the center of the conflict represent both the biggest educational challenges and the highest stakes. Many schools are closed because of fighting or simple neglect by the government, says Ahmed.

Educated people do not want to return to tribal areas to teach. Ahmed rattles off a list of his faculty with master's degrees, a group he is able to attract because the school is located in a settled area between the cities of Islamabad and Peshawar.

The boys may also benefit from leaving the stressful uncertainty of the conflict zone.

Khalil and another child orphaned by a drone attack admitted their families knew they were taking a risk when they sheltered militants – though families do not always have the freedom to say no to armed passersby. A third boy, Ajab Noor, says his father's killing was a mistake. The man was simply returning from a trip to sell the family vehicle when he hitched a ride from a car of unarmed men.

"In the evening I go sit with them and I try to have some catharsis with these students. They have mental trauma and we are trying to bring them out," says Ahmed. "It is not that easy."

Surveys conducted by Khalid Mufti, a psychiatrist based in Peshawar, show some 70 percent of the population in northwest Pakistan indicate signs of stress. Dr. Mufti says he has patients who have delusions involving drones. But after a few visits to the academy, he is upbeat about the orphans' future.

"Because they are very young ... and because they have a good environment, there is a great difference with them," Mufti says. "They will come out good people."

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