Shabina Mustafa is no stranger to adversity. Widowed at the age of 21 and unable to provide for her child on a meagre government pension, she found a job and worked hard to give her child a good start in life. But if that were the end of her story, Mustafa would be no different from the thousands of single mothers who struggle to support their families. What makes Mustafa unique is that despite her personal misfortune she did not lose the desire to help those less fortunate than herself.

The year was 1999 and Mustafa was moved by the plight of a young girl denied the opportunity to benefit from vocational training because she could not read or write. Mustafa decided to use the space in her garage to set up an informal school for underprivileged children, starting with about a dozen students and the generosity of friends and family who donated benches, desks and a blackboard.

The school grew rapidly and the garage eventually became too small to accommodate all the children. Seven years later, The Garage School moved to occupy three floors of a rented building in Neelam Colony, a low-income area in the heart of Karachi’s elite Clifton locality.

Students from the school, most of whom are the children of domestic workers, have gone on to find good jobs and many are pursuing higher education. “We now have one student who is going to SZABIST [Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology] and another who is in NUST [National University of Sciences and Technology]”, Mustafa says. “We have young women who studied in our school and have returned to become teachers as well.”

Today the school has 382 students and 20 teachers. Moving to the new premises gave Mustafa the opportunity to expand her work, and the school currently offers regular classes from nursery up to Class 10 in the morning; vocational training for women, adult literacy classes and a literacy programme for street children in the afternoon; and preparation for the Matriculation board exams as well as classes for working men in the evening. All children study for free, get school meals, and receive medical check-ups and vaccinations.

As with many such endeavours that begin small and grow exponentially, The Garage School now faces issues of sustainability. “We are bursting at the seams,” Mustafa says of the success of her school and the demand from the community. “We pay 140,000 rupees a month to rent our premises and don’t have any official sponsors to help us long term.” Staff at the school include professionally trained teachers as well as volunteers. “We don’t want just anyone who is literate to teach our children,” Mustafa explains. “We need teachers who are qualified. We want to set up a programme to train our teachers.”

But Mustafa is not deterred by these challenges. “It is our job to find these children and educate them and polish them until the diamond starts to shine through.”