Focusing on an abode where society’s neglected and abandoned children are provided with care and attention
Twinkling eyes filled with a strange mix of hope, melancholy and innocence stared at me. “Asalam-o-Alaikum Baji, Asalam-o-Alaikum Aunty, chirpy greetings of about a dozen children welcomed me warmly. I was standing in the lounge of one of the nine homes run by the SOS Children’s Village in Karachi.
These homes are unique in many ways because they are built with sincere efforts, generous support and love irrespective of blood relations.
Each house is designed to meet the needs of a family and has three bed rooms – one for boys, one for girls and one for the foster mothers who usually share their room with toddlers. Besides each house has a kitchen, a lounge and a beautiful small garden.
These homes are unique in many ways. Even if Khatiji, Farzana and Mariam are not the natural mothers of the children, they are rearing them with affection. The siblings living in a family have no blood relationship, their skin colour might be different, their race and even dialects might vary, but they are closer to each other than many blood relations.
Contrary to the traditional orphanage concept, SOS was started in Austria by Dr. Hermann Gmeiner to provide shelter for children rendered homeless after World War II. The main idea was to give them a home with a warm family environment.
The approach has proved so successful that today SOS claims to be the largest social organization in the world, with projects in 125 countries, offering facilities like community schools, medical centers, vocational trainings and production centers.
SOS Pakistan started its journey 22 years ago from Lahore – still the head office and nucleus of all SOS activities. The six SOS Children’s Villages in Lahore, Karachi, Fiasalabad, Rawalpindi, Sargodha and Dhodial (Abbottabad) are supporting hundreds of children and plans for more villages in other parts of the country are being pursued vigorously.
Walking through cemented passages lined with green patches, the Director Karachi Village, Sarwar Zemani told me, “ Presently, we have 104 children but we are planning to increase the number to 150 as six more homes have been built recently. We try to provide our kids all kinds of facilities in the centre – a community hall, administrative office, nursery school, mosque, playgrounds and vegetable gardens.”
What we badly need are literate, trained mothers. Such single women or widows without family ties who can commit themselves completely to the responsibility of living in the village and looking after the kids. It’s really a tough task to find out good, educated women as mostly illiterate women are available who often mistreat the children if trusted. ”We entered in a house at the SOS village. Ms. Zemani greeted the mother of the house and inquired about the children’s studies individually. “Gul Zaman, Umar and Farrukh, Your teacher complained that you are not taking interest in your studies at all. Be serious, otherwise I will put you in motor-khana to work from dawn to dusk,” she warned the naughty-faced kids with love.
“How could you remember each child’s name”, I asked anxiously. “It’s important to make them realise their importance as an individual and that there are people who love and care about them .” she said while introducing me to two teenage girls who were brought their as babies and are now preparing for their ninth class exam.
Every Saturday, children have an informal meeting with Ms. Zemani in which they are encouraged to speak openly, discuss their problems, complaints and give a presentation, either a naat, song, poem, tableau or anything else. The aim is to give these suffocated souls a chance of self-exposure and expression.
“Most of the Karachi village residents are orphan, some are from broken or incomplete families deserted by parents and rejected by society. In many cases, relatives and often mothers themselves bring them here. They are allowed to visit their families on special occasions and spend holidays with them to develop ties. Children who have no visitors are sent to other SOS centres during vacations for a change of environment and company.
Good education and professional training for all kids is the motto of the organization. The community schools run by the SOS encourage outside admissions along with students from the centres. The idea is to enable SOS children to develop an understanding of the world through interaction with children coming from different areas. Both boys and girls are encouraged to go for higher studies if they display interest and ability.
It is not an all work and no play situation here. Equal importance is given to entertainment (there is an hour of TV viewing) and extra-curricular activities. A number of events are arranged annually including sports festivals, cricket matches, carnivals, fun fairs, music and drama contests, field trips and camping with the cooperation of volunteer organizations and individuals.
SOS also helps its children to settle in their lives, get good jobs and life partners. Boys leave the organization only when they are capable of earning their own livelihood. On reaching adolescence, they are shifted to the youth homes working under male directors in conjunction with all SOS villages. Here they are educated and technically trained according to their aptitude. Girls continue to live in the village, learn various professional and household skills, until they are married or taken back by their relatives.
Ms. Zemani proudly informed me, ”Some of our children have really done well. AZ few have joined the armed forces and reached high ranks Some have made their career as technicians, engineers and computer programmers, while many others are working in different factories and offices.”
“Besides, more than a dozen of our girls are happily married and settled in good families. In one such case, a well-settled boy from a good family came to SOS for some official work. Visiting the place, he was so impressed that he decided to marry a girl from the village. “
Do these lucky SOS kids who have got respectable status in society ever bother to visit the place they grew up in? Many do visit the place. But there are some who never return. The girls consider SOS their maika (parents’ house) and visit it frequently. Some of them even stay here for deliveries for which the centre makes all arrangements.
There are many generous souls who have formed `Friend of SOS Villages of Pakistan’ both within the country and abroad. These friends lend the organization all kinds of support – from financial help to a considerable supply of goods and moral backing for projecting its work.
Ms. Sarwar Zemani is a caring soul. Having worked for several NGOs, she believes that as a community, it’s our responsibility to give the orphan and abandoned children a mother, a family, a home, a school, a skill and, above all, hope for the future.
It is a pity that our people do everything for their own children but never giver a thought to these underprivileged kids. The elite class is willing to donate money but have no time or energy for them, while the middle class doesn’t consider it their headache as their own problems keep them busy.
Leaving the SOS Village, I looked back at the community hall. Colourfully attired children were taking lessons from Quran – our holy book in which Allah (SWT) says that orphans and widows are a society’s responsibility. They seemed just like the delicate flowers and tiny plants growing nearby. Both need love and shelter to grow.