By Sonya Rehman
In a village in Raiwind, Lahore, a little boy would sit in a basket attached to his father’s bicycle and repeat mathematics multiplication tables that his father would chant aloud for his son to memorise.
In the evenings, after a long, tiring day in the fields herding cattle, the shepherd would ask his son to repeat each table.
This was the beginning of Ghulam Dastgir’s education: multiplying numbers under a hot sun, the air thick with the scent of earth, scarcity and not-yet ripe dreams.
“My father was very bright but could not get the education he always wanted,” Dastgir says, “That’s why he wanted for us what he could never have.”
We’re sitting at The City School’s Alpha campus in Lahore, and amidst the intermittent ringing of the school bell and hyperactive footfall in the corridor outside the O’ Level office, Dastgir is a live wire. Witty, energetic and extremely chatty, the young educationist exudes positivity – no wonder Dastgir’s popularity soars amongst his students.
Having studied at a ramshackle government school in the village, Dastgir states that he would often win first prize (usually a single pen) during the school’s prize distribution ceremony; a humble affair held in the institution’s ground. Thanks to his father’s upbringing, the hunger for a sound education and a better life was instilled within Dastgir at a very young age.
In 1995, Dastgir’s family moved from the village to Raiwind city in search of better opportunities. But money was tight and the transition was traumatic and painful. “We were Punjabi speaking,” he says, “We didn’t know anyone. The neighbours never accepted us and kept a distance.”
Enrolled into another sub-standard school in the area that was more concerned with profit-making rather than delivering quality education, Dastgir’s basic education continued to suffer. Not knowing even a word of Urdu (or English), he was consistently victimized and bullied for being different, crude and awkward.
However, fate had different plans when an English teacher, Malik Khadim Hussain (who taught at the same school that Dastgir was enrolled in), took the 8-year-old under his wing, changing the course of Dastgir’s future.
“I’ll never forget my first English lesson,” he grins, “I recall reading a story called ‘The Dog And His Shadow.’ Imagine, I was so poor at English that I couldn’t even comprehend what the word ‘the’ meant. So what did I do? I memorized the entire story without understanding it.” Dastgir laughs good-naturedly without a trace of self-pity. “What drove me was fear. I just couldn’t let my parents down.”
With his teacher’s unyielding guidance and tutelage, Dastgir flourished as a student and soon bagged a full scholarship to a better school where he eventually trail-blazed his way through his O’ Levels with nothing less than eight straight A’s on crisp report card.
What followed next was another full scholarship, but this time for his A’ Levels, where Dastgir was the first student in the history of Lahore Grammar School’s Johar Town campus to receive a 100% scholarship.
Not one for taking his success for granted, he continued to burn the midnight oil. Too much was at stake, one bad grade and he’d be on shaky footing vis-à-vis his scholarship. He simply couldn’t afford to goof-up. And for what? To return to a life that was average, without ambition and purpose? “During my O and A’ Levels I was up against kids from privileged backgrounds whose fathers were bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen, etc,” Dastgir states, revealing that it made him all the more determined to ace his classes. Taking second place was never an option for him.
Today, apart from being a successful full-time teacher, Dastgir also heads Jehaad For Zero Thalassemia (JZT) in Pakistan, a student-run drive that he spearheaded in 2010 during his undergraduate program at the University of Central Punjab (UCP).
Working closely with the not-for-profit, Fatmid Foundation, JZT currently has a presence in 80 districts across each province, has adopted 450 children battling thalassemia, made a donation of over 20,000 blood bags and contributed roughly 3 million rupees towards the eradication of the disease in Pakistan.
In a country where over 5,000 babies are born with the inherited blood disorder, a majority of whom cannot receive proper medical care due to Pakistan’s practically non-existent healthcare system, Dastgir mentions that the initiation of JZT happened by chance when representatives from the Fatmid Foundation visited his university as part of an awareness drive.
“Since we were an engineering class, no one knew anything about biology, save for me (given that I’d studied the subject in my A’ Levels),” he says, “So I spoke about the disease at length and one of the representatives was so impressed that he took me to the Principal in a bid to request us to initiate our own awareness drive on thalassemia in the university.”
The rest was history and till date, JZT has approximately 5,000 volunteers (and counting) spread out across the country. “It really took off; I remember we had a lot of students at university wanting to donate blood, while others wanted to raise money for kids battling thalassemia. It was meaningful work and it resonated with all of us.”
With a goal to establish a JZT presence in each city in the country, Dastgir declares that their mission has not been without its fair share of troubles. For instance, their Karachi team was once held at gunpoint by workers from a political party. “They told our volunteers that if you want to work here, declare your support for our party. They don’t want any organization to rise in their presence,” Dastgir says, “A similar incident happened in FATA too, at the hands of the militants.”
However, surprisingly, Dastgir mentions that so far, FATA and KPK are currently in the lead vis-à-vis JZT’s ongoing mission against thalassemia.
“JZT was never the dream, it grew out of nowhere and happened completely by chance,” he says, clarifying that while he will continue to front the movement, his heart, at its core, remains in education.
“My dream was to always be an educationist. Even though I had to struggle against all odds, I was lucky. There are so many more Ghulam Dastgirs like myself in Pakistan. I hope I can help create a new educational system in the country where children like myself can change their circumstances.”
A story of grit and perseverance, Dastgir’s story is one of many that defied the odds amid overwhelming limitations.
With a youth bulge of roughly sixty percent, one cannot help but imagine what a different Pakistan we’d be living in if our young, promising populace was only just given a chance.
The Friday Times