"Afrad k hathon may hai awam ki taqdir, har fard hai millat k muqqadar ka sitara". These words by Allama Iqbal are what truly capture the essence of Seema Aziz's mission at CARE Foundation Pakistan.
These words are what drive Seema Aziz and reinforce her belief in every child's right to education. What began 26 years ago, as a noble initiative to help flood affectees, soon transformed into a dream to educate and empower the masses. And today, she has received the honorary 2016 Barclays Women of the Year Award for her devotion and contribution to the field of education.
As I sat across from her, I failed to fathom how she manages to run a world-acclaimed non-profit organisation without a hint of arrogance or sense of entitlement. On the contrary, she exudes an air of humility and strength, with nothing but joy on her face at the mere mention of children from the countless schools she runs.
I watched her eyes light up, and her smile stretch from ear to ear, as she spoke fondly of the joy that these children add to her life. "People have two, three or even five children and those children become their reasons for joy. And I feel like I have 200,000 reasons for joy. Imagine how much happiness they bring to me." The simplicity and candour of her words reflected through the light in her eyes. I have to be honest, I have never seen such joy before.
I had expected to hear some beautifully concocted, idealistic story of how her mission began. But what I received was an honest account of how she had never envisioned doing this when she first began the rehabilitation process of those affected by the flood. She recalls that she had never seen such "devastation and poverty at close proximity" with hens, hookahs and ceilings of hundreds of houses afloat in the flood hit areas. And once she interacted with the people, the noble act of rebuilding their houses just didn't seem enough. Life, as we know it, was never the same again for Seema Aziz.
She recalls wondering why children were roaming the streets freely. She also asked why the children followed her wherever she went. "What else should they do" was the response she received, and it dawned on Aziz that the village did not have a school.
She opened the first school in 1991. Around 250 children lined up outside, half-naked, with runny noses and matted hair. She paid for the school with her own personal funds as well as help from friends and family. The following year, 450 enrolled. As demand grew, which was a reflection of the school's success, Aziz was even offered to take over 10 of Lahore's schools by the city government. With this, CARE Foundation Pakistan launched its public-private school partnership programme, because "it helps bring the strengths of both parties to the table". This school partnership programme has rapidly expanded now that the non-profit has more than 600 adopted public schools under its wing.
Today, she has over 200,000 children enrolled in 716 schools nationwide - so many that she runs double shift schools to accommodate the increasing number of enthusiastic children ready to learn.
One would think that this number would be enough to satisfy Aziz's fervent aspiration to educate the youth. On the contrary, she believes this isn't enough. "This is just the beginning".
Her humility and impassioned words struck a chord with me. The people are the real strength of the country, Aziz argues. "It's the people of our country - illiterate and un-empowered. We are weak. Every chain is as weak as its weakest link and we have so many weak links. Educated and empowered, we can be a powerful country."
She is still astounded by our societal narrative that argues that parents from underprivileged communities don't want to educate their children. "How come I have never met such parents" she asked as she shook her head at the indifference and ignorance of the educated in our society. She is a treasure-house of stories of parents that eagerly asked her to set up schools to educate their daughters, most of whom were even willing to bring them in for second shift schools - anything for the opportunity to receive a decent education.
She has personally drafted the syllabus and the curriculum of the schools that she runs, and wouldn't allow anyone to teach class unless she has seen the lecture first. Such devotion and dedication to the cause of empowering our people through education is truly heartwarming.
What breaks her heart is that prioritising education is the need of the hour, and as a community, we are allowing our children to slip through our fingers, as they forego their rightful chance at life. She believes there is no disability like illiteracy, and it would plague our society if nothing is done about it.
Today, children that have graduated from her schools have grown up to be dentists, doctors, engineers, army officials, and successful professors. For Seema Aziz, that alone is the reward of her zealous efforts. But, she believes "there is more to be done". She truly believes that Pakistan is the land of plenty, and can be self-sufficient in providing for the means of educating our own people. The civil society holds the primal role of coming forth and taking part in this movement for education. Youngsters and adults are encouraged to come forth with their expertise and devote whatever they can, in terms of monetary contribution or skills, towards spearheading this movement. After all, it's the people who are the real game changers in the bigger picture.
Sitting across from a woman of substance, as wise and empowered as her, one can't help but wonder how many more people like her could come forth as the movers and shakers of society, if only they weren't stuck in the shackles of illiteracy. There could be many more game changers like her, if only the minds of our people were given the chance to flourish, through the provision of quality education. There is indeed so much more to be done.