From street to school: Helping children learn

Non-formal basic education centres are helping street children change the course of their lives

Fatima Shahryar
Mohammad Shah with his teacher Samina
15 March 2019

Karachi, Pakistan - 15 March 2019: “These children are not just out of school, they are also out of their homes,” says Samina Khan, a teacher at the Non-Formal Basic Education (NFBE) Centre in Ibrahim Hyderi, a very underprivileged area outside the megacity of Karachi.

A fishing harbour located along the Arabian Sea, Ibrahim Hyderi is home to several ethnicities. A majority of the population depends on fishing and boat-building as their main source of income. Men and young boys spend days, sometimes weeks, at sea to eke out a living.

Living along a jetty, with limited access to basic services, they and their families live a difficult life. Many children are exposed to the risk of child labour, petty crime and, sometimes, drugs abuse -- with possible tragic outcomes.

Teacher Samina Khan, who grew up in the neighborhood, is the daughter of a fisherman.

“I know exactly what kind of threats these children face,” she says. “Being selected as a teacher at the NFBE centre is my chance to help them turn their lives around.”

One of these children is thirteen-year-old Mohammad Shah, who dropped out of school several years ago, when he was about seven.

“I was enrolled in a school but I did not like it. The older boys in my class used to bully and beat me. One day, I told my teacher about it. Instead of asking them to stop, he started to beat me as well. I stopped going to school and instead, I joined my father and went fishing at sea with him.”

Mohammad Shah plays football
Mohammad Shah (13) practicing football with trainer Mehr Ali, one of the street football champions from Pakistan.

Many children in Ibrahim Hyderi have dropped out of school. When asked why, they mention corporal punishment, limited financial resources in their families to bear school-related expenses, or pressure to work with their parents to help them make ends meet.

To ensure that every child can access their right to quality education, UNICEF works with the Government of Pakistan to develop non-formal education in the Sindh province, including in urban slums. The project, funded by the Government of Japan and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), aims to establish 150 NFBE Centres and make it possible for 4,500 children, the majority of them girls, learn.

The Centre’s facility in Ibrahim Hyderi is provided by the community. Teachers, teacher training and educational supplies are funded under the UNICEF project. This made it possible for Samina to start teaching at the centre a few months ago.

“Every time one of the children tells me what they have been through, it breaks my heart,” she tells.

“No child should be forced to drop out of school and work. It is a daunting challenge not only to bring them back to school, but also to inspire them to stay in school. Many are tempted to go back to the street and work.”

Samina does her best to keep the students engaged through learning but also co-curricular activities, in a bid to keep them off the street and to make a difference in their lives.

“My prime responsibility is not only to teach the students, but also to make sure they overcome their fears and inhibitions. This will help them get used to school life, acquire skills and start their lives afresh, with better hopes for the future,” she says.

Muhammad Shah with his teacher and football trainer
Mohammad Shah (13) with his teacher Samina Khan and football trainer Mehr Ali, at the Non-formal Basic Education Centre.

"Many children in the neighborhood do drugs. I tested some in the past but I don't do them anymore. Now I study and this makes my father proud."

Mohammad Shah, 13 year old student

After dropping out of school, Mohammad Shah still cherished the idea of studying, but he was adamant he would not go back to his old school. A neighbor told him about a teacher looking for children who had dropped out, and who could go and learn at the neighborhood NFBE centre – Samina.

Mohammad visited it and decided to give it a try by spending a few days there.

“Once at the centre, I immediately started making friends and felt safe,” the boy tells. “I like the place. We study and play, and even if we play tricks, the teacher neither scolds us, nor beats us.”

Mohammad now attends the NFBE centre every day. After class, he goes and helps his older brother clean cows and buffaloes in a nearby pond. This way he still makes a bit of money to assist his family -- 300 rupees a day (about US $2). He says that studying at the centre has been a life-changing experience.

“Many children in the neighborhood do drugs. I tested some in the past but now, I know it is not good for me, and I won’t do it anymore. This makes my father very proud. Now I can study and become a successful person.”

Muhammad Shah poses with a football
Mohammad Shah (13) poses with a football at the Non-formal Basic Education Centre in Bin Qasim Town, Karachi, Pakistan.

The NFBE centre offers an accelerated curriculum, which enables children to complete primary school faster, even if they are over-age. It also offers co-curricular and recreational activities. This enables students like Mohammad to complete primary education and, when possible, join back the formal education system at post-primary level. This way they acquire the skills they need to build their future, and that of the country.