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Story Publication logo August 16, 2009

Pakistanis in Seattle Give a Pakistan Community the Gift of Girls' School


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In the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks and the Obama administration's announcement of troop...

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Thirteen-year-old Humiera Kausar's oversized sneakers hurry over piles of granite boulders and through scrubby pines bristling with last night's rain. A headscarf and pink shawl are wound tightly around her small frame to protect against the thick mist that has settled over her high mountain village.

Her school uniform, traditional baggy pants and a long tunic, is glowing white and Humiera is careful not to soil the cuffs as she quickly makes her way along a rugged green spine of the Karakoram foothills. She's late for school and still almost four miles away.

For Humiera, the daily mountain trek to school is a privilege rather than a hardship. It's an opportunity she knows was made possible, in part, by help from another drizzly town half a world away.

"Sure, sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don't want to go to school," Humiera says through an interpreter. "But I go because I want to be important someday, maybe even a doctor."

About 100 teenage girls in and around Bugna, a small community of whitewashed homes 30 miles from the disputed border that divides Kashmir between Pakistan and India, have begun considering what possibilities their futures might hold since last year's opening of a girls' high school in the area.

The Human Development Fund-Pakistan Association of Greater Seattle Girls High School has an almost comically long name, barely able to fit on the newly painted sign that stands below the school on the side of a switchback mountain road.

But the founders felt it was important to give credit to this unique international collaboration, one that began with a devastating natural disaster four years ago and resulted in connecting Seattle to the troubled world of girls' education in Pakistan. Money raised in the Seattle area by Pakistani-Americans built and supports this unique school perched high in the mountains of Kashmir.

What Pakistan's next generation is being taught — and if it's being taught at all — has become an international concern.

Many consider the strife-torn country to have one of the worst education systems in Asia. Only about half the population is literate, only 63 percent of children complete primary school, and many Islamic religious schools are accused of fostering extremism. Pakistan spends about 2.5 percent of its GDP on education, among the lowest rates in the world.

Girls have it particularly bad.

In areas where the Taliban are influential, many girls' schools have been closed. Countrywide, far fewer girls than boys finish primary school, and only a tiny percentage get a secondary education.

"There's just not much motivation for parents to send their daughters to school because they know that they'll have to drop out sooner or later," says Sadiqa Salahuddin, an education advocate in southern Pakistan, regarding the lack of girls' schools in the country.

The Bugna school is exceptional by any standard in Pakistan.

It provides an affordable, high-quality high-school education to poor rural girls.

It is also confronting a big cultural barrier: the shortage of female teachers that keeps girls whose families are uncomfortable with male instructors out of school.

The Human Development Foundation trains young women in the Bugna region to teach at the high school and hopes that some of the school's graduates will stay on and become instructors themselves.

"Everyone should be educated"

These were the sort of factors Humiera's uncle, Mohammad Fayaz Abbasi, considered when it came time to decide whether she would attend the new school in Bugna.

Humiera's mother, widowed at 19 when her husband died of a heart attack, is economically dependent on her husband's family. Abbasi pays the school fees of about 30 rupees a month (about 30 cents) and buys Humiera's uniforms and books.

"It's against our social norms to send a girl too far for an education," says Abbasi, whose heavy brow wrinkles as he talks. "But it's in our religion that everyone should be educated — boys and girls."

The prefabricated school building encircling a small courtyard is modest by Western standards. But in a country where many government schools lack basic services and regular teachers, the facility has full bathrooms, a science lab complete with skeleton models and a buzzing computer room.

Like government schools in Pakistan, religion classes are taught here. But most of the day is devoted to secular subjects such as math, science, history, English and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

United by tragedy

The initial bond between Bugna and Pakistani-Americans in the Seattle area was forged by a natural disaster.

On the morning of Oct. 8, 2005, one of the most destructive earthquakes in recorded history ripped through this part of Pakistan, killing as many as 80,000 people and leaving millions homeless.

"I was in Wenatchee watching my daughter's Apple Cup soccer game when I got a phone call from a friend that just said 'Have you heard what happened?' " recalls Munir Rizvi, a Boeing engineer and then-president of the Pakistan Association of Greater Seattle.

"My first question was 'How is my family back in Pakistan?' When I knew they were OK, my second question was 'What can we do to help?' "

The Pakistan Association called a meeting and invited local media. Soon money was streaming in. Donation boxes at copy shops in the University District were stuffed with money. Some people, eager to help, simply looked up the Pakistan Association and sent a check. All told, they raised $152,000.

The association contacted the Human Development Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit that raises money primarily from Pakistani expatriates for development projects.

When Rizvi and colleagues traveled to Bugna a month later, they helped put up tents and distribute aid. They were also struck by another need that wasn't being tended to by relief agencies.

"I went to the school. It was damaged and the high school only had two rooms set aside for girls and the rest was for boys," Rizvi says. "Everyone else was doing relief work, so we said, maybe we should build a school with the money from Seattle."

A meeting was called among the Seattle representatives, Human Development Fund workers and Bugna community leaders. That's where the idea to build a separate girls' high school for the area was born.

Education violently politicized

In Muzaffarabad District, where Bugna is located, there are half as many high schools for girls as for boys.

The gender gap is worst in rural areas. Many families who are willing to send their daughters to mixed primary schools may not allow those girls to continue attending class with boys after puberty.

Those concerns are a factor in Humiera's daily walk. Her 15-year-old brother accompanies her for the first mile of her hike until she is met by the next uniform-clad girl along the route.

The two girls then head out together to the next student, who waits with a pile of textbooks in front of her sleepy one-room house, still hazy with breakfast fires. The group eventually grows to six.

Nearing the school, Humiera and her classmates move even faster in fear that they'll be late and have to pay a small tardy fee that is used to help subsidize girls who cannot afford tuition.

The twisting trail gives way to a flat, grassy plateau surrounded by hills carved with ancient ribbons of agricultural terraces. Half a mile below them is the swollen Jhelum River, a wide torrent of milky tea-colored water that separates Kashmir from Pakistan's tumultuous Northwest Frontier Province.

Just 80 miles away, in the war-torn Swat Valley, girls' education has become a flash point for violence. The Taliban have torched and bombed hundreds of girls' schools and intimidated thousands of school-age girls into staying home.

Sufi Mohammad, a pro-Taliban cleric in the Swat Valley who was recently arrested, declared famously a few months ago that a woman should be free to leave home only twice: to make a religious pilgrimage to Mecca and for her burial.

"The demolishment of schools and these problems have happened because of a group of people that are trying to manipulate the situation. The majority of people [in Pakistan] don't look at it that way," says Azhar Saleem, chief executive of the Human Development Foundation's Pakistan office. "It's happening because of lack of education. It's easy for uneducated people to be put on the wrong path."

While extremist religious schools and Taliban edicts against girls' education have caught international attention, government apathy and neglect may be a greater enemy of education in Pakistan.

It's estimated that the country has as many as 30,000 ghost schools — public schools that exist on paper but in reality were never built, have been closed or don't function. Many existing government schools suffer from chronic teacher absenteeism, insufficient resources and sporadic funding.

"Even when funds have been allocated [for education], they are often wasted through inefficiency and corruption," Saleem says.

Creating positive connections

U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and here — including regular drone-fired missile attacks in the northern tribal areas — leave many Pakistanis suspicious of America these days.

But those involved in the Bugna school hope education projects like this can create positive links between the two countries.

"The perception in Pakistan is that America is there for destruction, not for construction," says Rizvi, who stepped down as president of the Pakistan Association to start his own organization to raise money for education in Pakistan. "And that's why we should not just give money to the government, but also show that we are personally involved in helping to build new systems in the country."

As Humiera makes her way into the school's tiled outdoor walkway, careful to wash off her shoes first, international politics, religious extremism, government corruption and military strategy seem far away.

Humiera is sure her family will allow her to continue her studies at a nearby college so she can eventually pursue medical school. It's a huge leap for a girl whose mother only finished primary school.

Breathless and bright-cheeked from the thin, cold air, Humiera is eager to join fellow students giving a droning recitation of the periodic table inside a classroom.

Even after hours of hiking, her energy hasn't waned. With the blast of an electronic bell, Humiera shoots across the courtyard and is instantly absorbed into a cluster of white headscarves bent over shared chemistry books.

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