Here’s a radical idea: imagine your son and your driver’s son going to the same school and getting the same standard of education throughout their life. One man — Omer Mateen — is quietly brewing a mini-revolution in the heart of Karachi’s Khadda market to accomplish exactly that. “Everyone around me was so negative and used to complain about Pakistan all the time,” shares Omer, as he explains how it all started. “The funny thing is that these were people who actually had the power and resources to make a difference, but instead, they kept complaining. I was so angry at them for not doing anything that I actually began as a rebel. I asked myself, what can I do?”
“I quickly realised that I can’t start a revolution but I refused to be helpless,” reveals Omer. “So I decided to start something small and result oriented.” This thought has morphed into theOrange Tree Foundation, an organisation that fundamentally transforms the lives of the people it touches. Orange Tree provides Montessori education to children from low-income families for one year before helping them get admitted into mainstream schools like St Michael’s, Reflections, St Patrick’s, etc. with full funding and support throughout their educational career, including university education. Imagine your masi’s child having the opportunity to study in a mainstream school and the impact on her family this intervention can have. Orange Tree doesn’t just educate children, but also grooms them and their mothers to both survive and thrive in mainstream schools. “If we teach a child how to brush their teeth, we teach the mother the importance of the same thing so that the child is encouraged when he introduces new behaviours in his or her household,” Omer said. “Educating one child kick- starts a chain reaction that transforms a family for generations to come.”
“I quickly realised that you have to be cruel when you want to help others,” Omer says. “Education is everyone’s right so how should we choose which child to educate. If you try to help everyone, you will end up helping no one. We had to put in place a strict criterion to determine which families we could help. First, families must value education and both parents must, at least, be educated till fifth grade. The first year acts as a good filter for discipline and we’re able to screen out families that aren’t seriously committed to educating their children. We also make sure that we either take all the children from a family or none. We don’t want to be in a position where one child from the family ends up becoming a doctor while the other is a mechanic.”
When I ask Omer how he manages to do all this while running his own business and taking care of his family, he is all praise for his brilliant team. Omer insists that it’s his team — not him — that has accomplished all this. “All we hear is bad news about Pakistan, but we actually have many good people around us who never get the limelight. A great team of college students from SZABIST volunteer and run Orange Tree, I simply mentor them. They’re part of a group called Jaag Meray Talib-e-Ilm which leads lots of impactful social projects. Beemisal Iqbal of Jaag Meray Talib-e-Ilm was a driving force of energy behind this project and Arfa Hasnain gave up everything and joined us full-time right after graduation. We raised funds for Orange Tree by tapping into existing networks of family and friends without any major problems. Another major inspiration and help is the incredible Sabina Khatri, who runs Kiran School in Lyari and pioneered the holistic education model which Orange Tree is using. Last but not the least, there’s my wife and parents, without whom I wouldn’t be able to do all this.”
“What makes me happy is when I see Orange Tree children standing a few feet away from my own children in lines at their school,” shares Omer.
The purpose of this article is to find and share inspirational stories about everyday Pakistani heroes (if you know someone who should be profiled, send me a Tweet @Mbilallakhani). If we don’t share these stories about Pakistan, no one else will.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2014.