Growing up in the 1980s it wasn’t uncommon to hear the racist slur: “Go back to your country!” In fact, with the rise of the far right, the infamous words are sadly making quite the come back on our streets. The strange thing for me, as a British Muslim of Pakistani origin, was that home was always Yorkshire. Going ‘back home’ for me was really just a short walk from the playground to my house!
As I began to come of age, I saw amongst my friends and family a diverse set of responses to how they understood the fusion of identities. On one side there were the die-hard, Pakistan-flag bearing patriots; they only ever spoke about how great their nation was and how every other country was inferior (especially India!) On the flip side, there were those who wanted to rid themselves of every possible connection to their motherland, right down to staying out of the sun to avoid further-browning their naturally tanned skin. Ditching curry for crumpets, they were more British then the Brits themselves! Then there was me, somewhere in the middle and somewhat confused.
I grew up with enchanting stories of Pakistan, however having lost my father when I was 8 years old, I think I also lost a big part of my connection to the country too. After that, we focused mostly on getting by as a family and it was only many years later, as my business endeavours enabled me to look more outward, when I began to consider again what it meant to be Pakistani. I thus set off to visit the village where my father was born, hoping to meet estranged family and explore my roots.
Never did I realise the life-changing journey that trip would take me on. I saw a piece of me reflected in the people I met; they spoke the same distinct pothwari dialect that I spoke at home, they ate the same food and like me, they were surrounded by strained circumstances. However, unlike me, they didn’t have the opportunities available to transform their circumstances, they were trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. I realised what I considered to be small change could mean a big difference to the lives of the people I met and so there and then, I made a pledge to myself to help the people I met and that was the birth of Penny Appeal.
Fast forward ten years and after £60million+ of incredible causes supported worldwide, I find myself once again back in Pakistan. This time I was honoured to visit one of our “Mera Apna Ghar” (literally translates as ‘My Own Home’) Orphan Complexes in Chaksawari, Mirpur, North East Pakistan. On my first trip to the region I was a bona-fide bachelor, avoiding the infamous aunties at all costs, now as a father of four, Penny Appeal’s orphan welfare and education work in Pakistan has taken on a whole new meaning for me.
Al-Shukr Apna Ghar Orphan Home Complex is made up of three homes for 25 girls aged from 3 to 16. Most of children hail from unspeakable backgrounds, but now, through the generous support of our donors, they enjoy fully furnished homes with dedicated study and play areas. It was important that we created an environment that the children could call their own and be proud of, somewhere where we would be proud to send our own kids. Visiting for the first time, I was met with happy and healthy children, with beaming smiles, keen on showing off their games and toys, not unlike my own!
Built in the loving memory of late Mohammed Al-Shukr, the complex includes a specialist school, founded by The Read Foundation, that serves the wider area, admitting almost 300 students and ensuring the orphans we care for are well integrated with the wider society. Also on site are residential facilities for the teachers, the rent of which sustains the day-to-day running of the complex. I was pleased to see Al-Shukr Apna Ghar employs 24 hours security, 3 full-time foster mothers, 2 on site tutors and as well as a full-time coordinator. In addition, on the edge of the complex is a mosque that has become quite the local landmark and serves the wider society.
As I have delved into the world of development and poverty alleviation I’ve learnt how crucial it is to understand the poverty cycle and thus each of Penny Appeal’s programmes are designed to disrupt this the cycle at different stages. One of the most fundamental is education, or as the UN Sustainable Development Goals put it: achieving inclusive and equitable quality education for all. Education is as passport out of poverty, just as school provided me with the opportunities to transform my life, the education our orphan children receive on their secure complex is helping to transform theirs.
On this trip I was blessed to meet two delightful and intelligent girls named Alisha and Qurutal-Ayn, who were among the first children to be enrolled into our Orphan Complex over three years ago. Today both girls are A* students, having achieved over 90% in their most recent exams, including science and maths. They both dream of becoming doctors in the future, hoping to help others just as they were helped. Had it not been for the on-going support of our generous donors, these children would have remained a burden on their society and could even have found themselves exploited in the worst of ways. Instead, they sleep sound and dream of shaping their society and country for the better.
Speaking to the girls about their dreams and ambitions was a stark reminder to me of why I had founded Penny Appeal in the first place and why we work so hard each and every day to build stronger, empowered communities. Our small change has transformed the lives of these children and they will in turn transform their society – that’s what I call a big difference. This is why we exist, so children like Alisha and Qurutal-Ayn are free to dream big and beautiful dreams and have the opportunity to turn those dreams into a reality.
Al-Shukr Apna Ghar is just the tip of the iceberg, we now have Oprhan Home Complexes across Pakistan including in Muzafarabad, Sohawa, Islamabad and Khanewal. Growing up I never knew these places exist, let alone feel much of a connection to them, but now when I think of Pakistan, these thriving Oprhan Homes are the images that come to mine. It’s more than bricks and mortar, they are the seeds that we have planted and that we water for a better tomorrow. They say a house is made of bricks and beams but a home is made of love and dreams and this is what we have built in Pakistan.
When I arrived at the complex, I was greeted by a group of children holding a banner that said: “My world is brighter and more beautiful because of you”- In reality, it’s my world that has become brighter and more beautiful because of them, it’s in their hearts that I have truly found a home from home.