Helping street children dream big in Karachi


Every day at 6:00 AM a footpath near the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, converts into a school—with red tables and chairs, students and teachers, microphone and blackboards, pencils and books. As the sun sets—the students disperse, teachers go home, and the table and chairs get packed into trucks—only to return a day later.

The Footpath School— is a unique idea to teach street children in their comfort zones—the menacing streets where they otherwise spend the day selling goods and services—and often getting shelter through gangs involved in crime and drugs.

Asniha, 13, worked with her mother in a nearby bungalow. She would sweep floors. Now she is one of the brightest students at the Footpath School.

“Every day on my way to work I saw these children study. I asked my mother to place me in the school. And she did. I don’t want to go back to the bungalow now. I want to study. I want to become a doctor,” Anisha said.

Sameer Ali eked out a living by selling shopping bags at the nearby Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. When night fell he slept there. Now he spends his time doing Math and English at school. “I sell my shopping bags after school,” he says.

The school has changed many such lives. Children have gotten off drugs. Given up pickpocketing. They have learnt to dream big.

The woman behind the initiative is Anfas Alisha. Once she had a construction business. Not anymore. “Business took a setback. Now all my time is spent with these children,” she says.

She says the Army Public School attack in 2014 deeply affected her. “I thought I needed to get out of my house and do something.”

She started with placing a mat underneath the Clifton bridge, and teaching street children. She was surprised, contrary to popular belief so many of them wanted to study.

Her students increased. The mats were replaced by tables and chairs. She hired teachers, a guard and helpers. Black boards and mircrophones. Her students’ tattered clothes were replaced by crisp blue and white uniforms.

In two years, the Footpath School is imparting education to 400 street children, Anfas Alisha says.


On a regular school day, the footpath is packed with children. The din of the traffic outside drowns inside the make-shift school with students screaming out their lessons on the microphone. They can read English sentences, Urdu stories and do simple math— remarkable progress considering they’ve been in school for only two years.

They get lunch, and Rs50 every day. Something that Anfas, says she has to arrange herself. “We don’t get much help from people,” she explains.

1.2 million on the streets

An estimated 1.2 million children are on the streets of Pakistan’s major cities and urban centers constituting the country’s largest and one of the most ostracized social groups, a 2012 study titled ‘Surviving the Streets’ by Society for Protection of Child Rights (Sparc) points out.

Most such children are between the ages of 9 to 15 years, it adds, and earn a monthly income of Rs 4,000 a month.The term ‘street children’ include children who either spend the night on the streets, or those who earn a living on the streets and then return to their families in the night.
Estimates suggest 25 million children in Pakistan are out of school, education advocacy campaign Alif Ailaan states.
-Originally published here

The language of the streets



Bilal acts as my guide as I drive through the jam-packed streets of Saddar. When we reach Daudpota Road he asks me to head towards ‘Laal Farsh’ (Red Floor).

I must have looked confused, because he stops, laughs, and then corrects himself: “I meant Hong Kong Shopping Plaza”.

Bilal has spent eight years on the street, and has spent this entire time fighting for his survival: food, shelter and societal predators are just some of the things that he has to look out for on a daily basis. He is 18 years old now, and works for an NGO that helps street children. But, he says “old habits die hard”.

The street children are completely alienated from mainstream society, as the mainstream society has alienated itself from them. They have their own form of communication, their own process of identification, their own culture.

City landmarks are given names based on their personal interactions and understanding of the place—their reality is largely defined by the social and personal context through which they interact with the external world.

For them Zainab Market is ‘Thanda Garam’ (hot and cold), as there are shops with generators and shops with out them. As they walk around the corridors of the market, they can feel a significant change in temperature as they flit from one shop to another, hence the name Hot and Cold.

They call Bolton Market ‘Daal Chawal’, because the place is known for its ‘langar’, free food distributed among the poor.

Then there is Kala Pul, where they get Biryani for just seven rupees. They call it ‘7 ki biryani’.

The older lot, who have been introduced to mainstream society, often laugh when they look back in retrospect. Tanveer, an 18-year-old who has lived on the street since he was six, chuckles: “For a very long time our little gang had no idea that clothes could be washed. When our clothes got dirty we would just throw them away and steal fresh clothes.”

Drugs are a norm for them—they do it for recreation, but maintain that “a little bit does no harm”. But when they are caught red-handed using such substances, they seem unable to hide the fact that it makes them lose their senses. “I just woke up from a deep sleep,” says a six-year-old child, whose head bobs like a helium balloon tied to a string. His friends tell me that he just sniffed a large amount of Samad Bond.

But with awareness campaigns by the civil society, glue has become hard to access for these street children.

They stick together for survival and fend for each other, often forming groups of four or more. They give these groups names like ‘Chota Group’ and ‘Cheeta Group’, and assign each member with a job.

Tanveer, who once headed the Chota Group, shares how they would all care for each other like a family. “Each of us had a task, I would clean cars, and every day we would gather our money together and decide what to do with it. Those were good times, Rs250 were all we needed for a day,” he says with a smile. He harkens back to when he was fourteen, when political workers from the area captured and lashed him. “When I came back I was bleeding profusely from the cuts. My friends lit a fire from tree branches and used the fire to keep my back warm overnight. They took turns, and fed me for five days, till I had the strength to stand up.” He pauses, and then adds: “They cared for me, like a mother for her child.”