A group of brave and dedicated priests in Pakistan have described their struggle to provide education in a poverty-stricken region grappling with an influx of refugees from Afghanistan.
Italian missionary Fr. Peter Zago told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, how the Salesian Fathers have developed schooling for some of the very poorest people in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, in south-west Pakistan.
The Salesians’ educational mission includes working with children from Afghan refugee camps near Quetta who are excluded from Pakistani schools because of their poverty and immigrant status.
Working in a province where about 70 percent are illiterate, the Salesians set up the Don Bosco Learning Center in the area of Issa Nagri – meaning Jesus of Nazareth in Urdu. The school provides basic education for young people – Christians and Muslims alike – who cannot study in other private schools because the fees are too expensive.
Private schools can cost up to 2,000 rupees a month – almost impossible to pay when monthly wages average at 6,000 per family. Many Christian families cannot pay their children’s school fees because they have very poor incomes working as hospital cleaners, drivers or cooks in military camps or government offices.
The Don Bosco Learning Centre charges just 70-100 rupees per month, which covers only a fraction of the total yearly costs. A yearly budget of more than 7 million rupees is needed to cover the cost of teachers’ salaries, school materials and basic meals.
Fr. Zago said, “We started the centre for Christians who cannot afford to go to school, but we thought it was unfair not to open it to poor Muslims as well.” Of the 1,300 students from playschool to year 10, nearly half are Muslims.
Pakistan is home to 2 million Afghan immigrants and about 500,000 live mostly in camps around Quetta. Many refugees are threatened with homelessness amid reports of imminent evictions by land owners planning to construct buildings on their sites.
Fr. Zago told ACN, “Many refugee children attend school in rented houses in their own camp because they do not have a permit and lack the means to enter government schools.” The priest continued, saying, “Don Bosco is helping three such schools, providing funds to pay their teachers and provide school materials and daily meals. But many others are left without education because of lack of funds.”
Refugees fall into two categories, those who fled before 2000 because of the Russian invasion and those who fled after 2001 when the US-led campaign began against the Taliban. Members of various different tribes and ethnic groups – including the Hazara and Pashtun – have crossed the border into Pakistan.
Fr. Zago explained to ACN that the school employs the Don Bosco Educational system, based on “reason, religion and kindness,” to foster mutual respect between different ethnic groups. They are only divided into different classes when they study religion. He said, “When they are put together from a young age and learn to respect one another, it means they can grow up living together in mutual collaboration.”
Fr. Zago went on to say, “If you want to help Catholic youth in Pakistan you need to receive help also from abroad.” He added, “To maintain a good education standard you need good teachers, good resources, good equipment in the school and all these cost money.”
Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan, covering 43 percent of the area of the country, but it has the smallest population.
Christians in Pakistan are a minority of 1.4 percent – 2.3 million among 160 million Muslims.