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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 / July 14, 2011

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.

Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor

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Nowshera, Pakistan

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.

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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.

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.

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