the journey to “real”

Much of the work for Cities for Children has been invisible for almost a year, involving reading, learning, listening – and emailing. So much emailing, and so much Whatsapp calling at odd hours of the day and night. Those are the challenges of running something whose heart is in one place, and body in another.

We’ve been careful about sharing too much from the teacher workshops, for multiple reasons. There was a series, it happened, it was real. We’re going to follow up and do many new, fun things with the PK schools. And now that our steps are becoming a little surer, it might just be okay to share more.

workshop pic

real handout for real workshop with real teachers

So this winter, we explored. And again, made new friends in new cities across the country – from Islamabad to Peshawar to Karachi. Just like the microcosms discovered in the first phase of the gypsy life, each urban context was different, with an entirely unique set of challenges. The theory, however, is that there is a spark that can be found and kindled in every child, no matter where.

Islamabad/Pindi – SPARC

Quick notes – SPARC is doing an amazing job. The Drop-In Centre in Pirwadhai was a happy, child-friendly space, with bobbing birds and brightly coloured walls. The in-house psychologist was both gentle and capable – that much could be seen even in our few minutes of conversation. What matters most is concern for the individual child, and it doesn’t take too much time to gauge that one.

The DIC was located close to a major bus station, which is a magnet for mobile children. Now, the bus station officials are able to identify those who look like runaways, and to refer them to SPARC as well as the government-run National Child Protection Centre. Each has certain protocols, and if all goes well then the idea is to facilitate reunification with families, wherever they may be.

Most children at the centre, however, live with their families relatively close by. Many among them are internally displaced Pashtun families – or, as the government likes to call them, “temporarily displaced.”

(Side note: TDP is NOT a thing.)

Families displaced by conflict or disaster often do view their own situation as temporary, which was why many of the children at the DIC had not been enrolled in formal schools. The DIC represented something of a half-way house – a bridge between their former lives and the ones they could/should have in future.

Favourite picture of the day: children settling down for lunch without letting go of their bagpacks – because they were theirs.


Peshawar – Dost

The mention of Peshawar makes a lot of non-Pashto speaking people a little nervous. Perhaps it is simply because of the fear of the unfamiliar, and the terrible headlines that have dominated its identity in the past few years. Driving there in December, a week after the “anniversary,” it was only natural to be haunted by thoughts of the Army Public School attack.

The Dost Welfare Foundation runs a massive, state-of-the-art drug rehabilitation centre in what a friend described unapologetically as the “posh” locality of Hayatabad. The incidence of substance abuse is alarmingly high on the streets of Peshawar – we won’t get into history or politics here. Our primary interest, however, was in the far smaller shelter home – the Dost Guloona Centre.


This, too, was by the Daewoo bus station on the outskirts of the city. Even though the principle was similar, the reality of the area was radically different from Pirwadhai station. Peshawar has a much higher number of children “of” the street, who do not return to their families at night. Here, too, there is a huge problem of runaways. But the challenges they face are greater – evident through the large number of sleazy motels with beds for Rs. 30 a night, and the spectres of predators passing through the station.


It’s a difficult job, handling the boys at the shelter. Hope to stay in touch with the strong and wonderful people at the helm, and to offer something of value to those drifting through the centre.

Karachi – Imkaan/Khel

We had the best time in Karachi, with our new friends at Khel.

Karachi is the biggest, baddest city of Pakistan. The streets have their own laws, governed by the politics of ethnicity – and business. The average Karachiite will have a curated collection of stories to tell (from both personal experience and hearsay) about land mafias, drug mafias, petty criminals, youth gangs and the chasm that separates the super-elite from the teeming “colonies.”

There are no pictures of the drive to Macchar Colony (literally translated as “Mosquito Colony”). There was a bridge, over what seemed like a river of sewage. The streets were narrow and congested enough for people to be peering into our Suzuki Dabba, and it didn’t seem right to whip out an iPhone there. But it was true, what Imkaan said, about children standing in alleyways and gambling with bits of paper during the hours that others were in school.

And then we entered Khel – a little space, full of potential, that is the new recreation centre for the children of Macchar Colony.

Our host from Imkaan, the Programme Manager of Khel, was one of those people who you know are capable of magic. Twinkling eyes, booming voice, reaching out to a hundred children at once. It was quite a feat because these children were an independent minded lot, many of whom did not attend any form of school and had therefore been exposed only to very specific forms of discipline in their homes. So it was unsurprising that at Khel there was only one rule – articulated often, and in unison:

Apnay Haath,
Apnay Paas!

(Our Hands, To Ourselves!)

Unlike Peshawar, the gender balance among the kids here was actually quite even. The giggling girls had as much spirit as the boys, and they clearly saw their new mentor as an object of wonder. To their bemusement (and amusement), the days started with Om-based meditation and breathing exercises. But slowly, hardly known to themselves, the children were becoming accustomed to a routine.

There was much to observe during the colouring exercise – the hoarding of crayons,  the effort it took to have them returned, and the ways in which individual children interacted with one another and with newcomers. It has only been a few months since Khel opened, and it will be a while until systems take hold.

But we will continue to watch with interest, and do our best to lend a hand.

As we return to a different reality, there are lots of notes to organise into jargon and plans. In the interim, the mental snapshots of real people and places give meaning to the invisible struggles, and make them all worthwhile.



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