Engaging Youhanabad


*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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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

Silencing LUMS, Resilencing Balochistan


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

“Learn about the history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan.”

Such was the description of an event that was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences today.

Highly-anticipated, Unsilencing Balochistan was scheduled to have a panel including Mama Qadeer (Chairman, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), Farzana Majeed (General Secretary, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), columnist and activist M. M. Ali Talpur, academic Professor Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Director HRCP I. A. Rehman and activist Sajjad Changhezi. The session was to be moderated by Chief Editor of the Daily Times, Rashid Rahman.

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However, yesterday students, staff and faculty at LUMS were abruptly emailed a brief, one-liner by Ali Khan, Chair of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department:

“The scheduled talk has been cancelled.”

While the reasons were clear to the wise, it was still difficult to imagine the stomp of boots within a private academic institution’s premises resonating among its decisions and activities.

Yet a ‘direct order’ by a certain ‘institution of the state’ was conveyed to Ali Khan demanding that the talk on Balochistan be cancelled immediately.

To the utmost furore of the students, Unsilencing Balochistan had become re-silenced even before it could be heard.

It says much about that state of affairs in a country when a discussion in a private university located in modern, urban provincial capital poses a threat to the state; when a few whispers from thousands of strangled voices of suffering and struggle raised to shatter the deathly silence shake the towering walls, overshadowing the state and society, of the corridors of power in the country.

Whispers put to immediate hush shriek of a culture of coercion and injustice, of power and subjugation.

The forced cancellation of the talk at LUMS is but merely a slight brush of the all-pervasive hold that has Balochistan gripped for decades; littered its streets and roads with mutilated bodies, left it with craters for graves and vanished many into thin air.

More importantly, the event’s cancellation is a blatant pursuit of the monopolization of discourse and narratives in Pakistan by the all-mighty and powerful. A pursuit, that is not new, which has previously and continues to subordinate education to certain agendas by the perversion of textbooks in Pakistan through distortions, lies, fabrications and obfuscations.

In the case of the Baloch and Balochistan, the monopolization is so complete, and its absorption so widespread, that challenging or contradicting it has now become a ‘threat’ and abhorrent to ‘the state’. It is a narrative of the sardars, the BLA and the naïve Baloch – manipulated by all to resent and dissent against the utopia that is Pakistan which has been ceaselessly kind and generous to the people of the province.

This narrative does all but exclude the greatest violator of Baloch rights – the Pakistani state and its institutions.

Umair Javed, who also teaches at LUMS, was quick to point out that none of the speakers who were to speak at the event were linked to either of the actors upon which the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan is centered; and that the state’s side of the story on the issue has been fed to us for over 60 years.

People on Twitter were prompt in stating that talks and discussions at LUMS don’t and cannot bring change; they are insignificant. Fair enough. However, then what was so significant and alarming about a discussion within the university that called for its cancellation? It was the persisting monopoly of narrative that the talk at LUMS seemed set to challenge – a narrative that is a product of the carefully-constructed dominant discourse which brands any dissent or dispute to be anti-Pakistan, anti-state ‘propaganda’; a narrative that conflates certain institutions with the country itself, to criticise whom is to malign Pakistan; a narrative that strangles the people for it seeks to strangle their voice. This fight of narratives and discourses is not trivial but a crucial battle in the struggle for a genuine democracy in Pakistan.

And the cancellation is yet another alarming reminder of the necessity to reclaim the discourse in Pakistan, to wrench it away from the hands of the powerful to the people.

Balochistan is bleeding.

And silence in its bruised and bloodied face is very much an accomplice.

And it must be remembered that only the aggressor would stifle and silence the cries and wails of its victims; for it exposes him. And the forced cancellation of the talk sputters the same.

As the cancellation is an assault on freedom of expression, freedom of speech, academic freedom and thoughts; it is an indicator of the palpable limits to the widely-hailed freedom of expression in Pakistan which is only allowed to run rampant upon political actors and groups. It stems from the stream of logic that accepts that a democratically-elected prime minister can be sent to the gallows, another can be humiliated and sent into exile but a military dictator cannot be tried. No, never.

Thus, the ‪#‎ShameOnLUMS‬ trend which absurdly holds the university at fault for planning such an ‘anti-Pakistan’ event and justifies the subsequent cancellation. The social media trend is but sharply reflective of the pervasive absorption of the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan, which includes conflation of an institution of the state with the state itself, and the consequent acceptance of limitations to academic freedom and discussion in Pakistan – a stark legacy of decades of dictatorships and authoritarianism that is pulsating strong even during an ostensibly democratic period; indicative of where true power lies even today

In a time such as this, the invaluable and timeless words of the great Eqbal Ahmad draw us back to them.

While famously speaking against the brutal army action in East Pakistan in 1971, and how uncanny to find striking relevance, sewn deep in his words for East Pakistan, to Balochistan, he wrote:

“I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy.

 However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

And as the crime of silence reigns today; and if voices are a threat, then speak, nay, scream we shall.

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