*Originally published in The Friday Times:
“Taleem aik amanat hai, issko aagay naa puhanchna khayanat hai”
This was Roohullah Gulzari, human rights activist and fellow at Atlantic Council and Emerging Leaders of Pakistan, speaking to the students at Youhanabad as one of three guests invited in a session dedicated to student activism and the pursuit of education against all obstacles.
This was Project Youhanabad.
Started by Minahil Mehdi, a senior at the Lahore University of Management Sciences who has been leading HumAahang a student-led initiative against intolerance, extremism and terrorism, Project Youhanabad was envisioned after the twin blasts that struck a church in the area earlier in March. To show support and solidarity with the Christian community, members of the Democratic Students’ Alliance from LUMS decided to form a human chain outside the church and were joined by other students as well including those who were part of HumAahang. It was during this time that Michelle Chaudhry, who heads the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, reached out to HumAahang resulting in Minahil’s visit to the Foundation’s school in Youhanabad.
It was after that visit that the idea of a summer camp in collaboration between HumAahang and CICF for those studying at the school was devised. Funding was sought, a curriculum charted with Fatima Khalid Khan of Next Generation Pakistan and applications for volunteers to teach at the camp opened. The summer camp began in mid-June and was to be conducted two days a week for two months.
Minahil is quick to clarify though that the summer camp, “wasn’t just a teaching program but a community engagement initiative.”
What exactly is community engagement? Community engagement is not constrained by a single, rigid definition, however, at its heart lays the concept involving participation, education, and the fostering of permanent relationships with a community. In this case, it is interaction with a community for the realization of its growth and development. Community engagement is thus, engagement with a community for the purpose of empowering it.
The students at the camp varied greatly in ages, with some as young as eight and others as old as twenty. Groups of six to seven students were assigned pairs of two volunteers as mentors; and the groups kept small so to foster a sense of trust, friendship and understanding between the mentors and students; to create a relationship between them that could be stretched out into the future beyond the project whenever the students need any assistance or help.
Interestingly, the summer camp did not involve teaching the usual school subjects such as math and science. Each week has had a different theme with one day was dedicated to instruction and theory and the second to practical performance and examination. There were sessions on critical thinking, world history, public speaking, child abuse, civic responsibilities, human rights, and on music and cultural politics. The idea, according to those running the summer camp was, “To expose the students to disciplines of education they have not known before; to introduce them to new perspectives, new dynamics. Telling them there is more than one way of thinking.”
To add an element of entertainment to the education, the camp also involved various trips and excursions within the city including one to the Mall Road, where the students were told of its colonial significance. More recently, they were also taken to LUMS and acquainted with the university’s National Outreach Programme (NOP) designed to identify and enrol talented students from all over Pakistan held back by financial constraints.
The objectives of this community engagement initiative branched out into both short-term and long-term. Conceived in wake of the Youhanabad attacks, the immediate aim was to dispel the feeling of isolation and insecurity prevalent in the place; to reach out and help; and to express and demonstrate support.
The long-term objectives strike at the status of the Christian community at Youhanabad, which Minahil helps explain, “Youhanabad is a very underprivileged community; they lack resources, facilities and opportunities. The tragedy is how all of this marginalization has led to the lack of vigour and dreams that every child must have. This is where many cleaners, nurses from our public hospitals, and domestic helpers live. So when we asked the children what they want to do, they said nurses, mechanics etc. We want them to think, why not a doctor instead of a nurse, an engineer instead of a mechanic? We want them to think out of the box. To dream, to challenge themselves, surpass their own potential or in the least be aware of their potential and talents.”
At its heart, Project Youhanabad sought to engage the students in a way to raise their morale as a minority community, open their minds, cultivate confidence in their potential, expand their sense of possibilities and assist them in their pursuit. It aimed to make them aspire and strive.
However, building long-term relationships was central to the key of community engagement, which is sustainability. Well-aware of this, Minahil states, “We are in fact very lucky that some friends of HumAahang have come forward and offered to sponsor the education of two students from this camp. So this really is what we wanted; for the project to go beyond a two month activity. To make it sustainable not only from our own end as an organization but by investing in the future of the kids because that is all that really matters.”
Project Youhanabad ended on the 14th of August.
In a time when Pakistan has been torn through by the fall and burst of bombs, violence, confusion and despondency, the state has much to do for the amelioration of conditions. But perhaps community engagement is also what the need of the hour is; for people to connect with each other, to help, to empower, and to heal. And if a university student can do it, so can anyone else given the drive and determination. Perhaps the present and future may not appear so bereft of hope if such initiatives are established all over the country and all those scattered are reached out to in spirit of our shared humanity and responsibility to each other, one community at a time.
~ Hafsa Khawaja