In 1986, Mohammad Ayub left his village in Mandi Bahauddin to seek employment in Islamabad. After a few false starts he eventually found a job as a civil defence worker, becoming a fireman. The year 1988 marked the Ojhri Camp disaster in which an ammunitions depot in Rawalpindi exploded, killing more than 1,300 people. As a fireman, Ayub saw the human face of this tragedy and his view of the world was changed forever.
Living in the nation’s capital, Ayub saw poverty all around him and vowed to make a difference, however small. “Even though this is a VIP city with so much money, I saw small children collecting garbage and begging,” he recalls. So one day he went to Supermarket, an elite shopping district in Islamabad, gathered up a few children, and decided to teach them how to read and write. “At first it wasn’t easy,” he says. “People were sceptical of my motives.” But once a few children were reading and writing fluently, parents began to approach him, asking him to teach their children.
Next on his agenda was finding a place to set up his informal school. “I got my students and together we went to a park in F-6/3 that was filled with trash and filth,” he says. “We cleaned it up together, and set up a makeshift school.” That park, located in one of Islamabad’s most prestigious neighbourhoods, is where he continues to teach to this day.
As with many such neighbourhoods in the nation’s capital, F-6 is home to elite mansions and shopping centres as well as crushing poverty. Across the road from the park where Ayub teaches is a large informal settlement, one of many in Islamabad, home to Christian families who are among the poorest of the city’s residents. Children from the colony were Ayub’s earliest students and this remains the case today. But these days, instead of a handful of children, Ayub’s informal school accommodates between 200 and 300 students each year.
Ayub recalls the struggle to continue his work. As his school grew, the Capital Development Authority attempted to shut it down, telling him he was not allowed to use government property. But the poet Ahmed Faraz helped convince officials to allow the school to continue operating. Even so, for many years Ayub maintained a low profile, for fear of attracting negative attention. Only recently has the media begun to take notice of his work, but this has not brought him official support. The government is yet to recognise his efforts.
Over the years Master Ayub, as he is known, has taught thousands of children from the most impoverished families in Islamabad. “I don’t charge a single rupee from anyone and I don’t discriminate based on class, faith, or anything.” He is happy for others to contribute to the cause but does not actively solicit financial assistance. “If someone donates books or stationery, or wants to give a small donation to pay for electricity, then I will accept. I have 2-3 computers now and the biggest expense I have is electricity.” So useful is the service he provides that even children who attend school come to him for tuitions.
Without support either from the government or philanthropic organisations, Ayub bears all the costs himself. He is employed as the Chief Fire Officer at the Pak Secretariat and splits his salary three ways: one part goes to his wife who also runs a small school, one portion goes to pay for his basic needs, and the remainder supports his school. Whenever possible, he also helps the children with medical expenses or by providing other necessities. “I don’t have a house or car, I just have a bike,” he says. “I don’t do this for myself, or to gain recognition. I do this for Pakistan.” Ayub’s dream is simple: “My hope is that one child will join the army, one will become a doctor, one becomes a policeman, and so on. This is how I can make this country a better place.”
Ayub encourages his own students to adopt a similar approach. “I make my students teach others.” After they have graduated, Ayub asks his students to give an hour of their time to the school. It is not mandatory but there are more than enough people who volunteer their time to make sure the school has enough teachers. The school currently has 270 children who are taught with the help of 6 or 7 volunteers. About 70 per cent of the students come from families living in extreme poverty, while the remainder are slightly better off.
At the age of 65, Master Ayub is determined to continue his work. “I am not the diamond,” he says. “These kids are the real diamonds. There will always be people who need me and I will keep doing this until my last breath.”
While many individuals across the country are working hard to make sure that Pakistan’s children have a better future, few have done so as tirelessly for so many years and with so little support. Master Ayub is an inspiration to us all, and a reminder that all it takes to transform the lives of thousands of children is one person with a dream to help others.