I grew up in Rawalpindi, Pakistan a sprawling city, right next to the capital, Islamabad. When it was time for my sister and I to start going to school, my parents faced a predicament. A good quality education in Pakistan comes at a hefty price- a price my parents could not afford at the time. There was no question that we would go to school, however, my parents stayed awake at night feeling the guilt of their limited income limiting our future.
Now, you may be wondering, a school is a school. But here are the sober facts:
The public school system in Pakistan is grossly underfunded with only 2 % of GDP allocated for education- one of the lowest in the world- and that obviously leads to insufficient number of schools and an alarmingly poor quality of public schools.
There are some 20,000 “shelterless” schools throughout Pakistan. And even when there are buildings, 60 percent have no electricity, and 40 percent have no drinking water. The state of the schools is so dismal that Pakistan has the lowest enrollment rate in all of South Asia.
My parents tell me how the guilt of not sending their children to a good school tore them apart. They made significant sacrifices and prioritized spending money on our education over other needs. My mother worked her way through the system and got a job at a private school which allowed her children to go to school for free. That is where my story begins.
I started at The City School when I was 5. It was there that I learned how to write, to do math, to speak English and to make friends. It was from there that I could then apply for a scholarship to study in Hong Kong and my eyes opened up to a world beyond Pakistan. Today, I am an engineer, living in Norway- living the life my parents had dreamt . Their sacrifice paid off.
There are many in Pakistan who are less fortunate. Like, the lady who comes to clean my uncles’ house every day in Islamabad. She brings her two kids with her, one is hardly under the age of two. They hide under the chair, shy and playful with their smiles as she wipes the floor. I ask her if they will go to school and she says ‘ I want them to but we don’t have the resources and my husband says we will get more out of them if they work.’ I turn away as my eyes tear up looking at the adorable faces under the table. They too deserve a better future.
When Fredrik and I got engaged last year, we made a vow to build a school in Pakistan so that hundreds of more parents can go to sleep without worrying about their children’s future. It made sense for us to partner with an organization that’s already doing great work in this area, The Citizens Foundation.
This is our way of showing commitment to one another and to Pakistan- a country that despite its fallacies has its splendor and magic. For me, it’s never forgetting where I come from. For both of us- it is time to give back.