“Do what you can, with what you have, where ever you are.”
“I once set up on a beach. The children worked at a clothes factory, 8-12 year olds, smoking and chewing tobacco. I offered markers to one of the children and asked him to draw eyes on the doll that he had just made out of wire and wool.
“I don’t know how to, I have never held a pen before,” he said.
This was my first attempt. I had asked a rickshaw-wala to take me to the beach. He explained to me that “There is a basti (small colony) nearby in Sandspit. There will be lots of children there.” I thought of the beach, because that was the only place where I would be in an open space safer than the street.
My second attempt was in a hockey stadium. The sports teacher in our school told me that they get the children from schools which cannot afford things like extra-curricular activities. “So we provide a small hockey camp for them and train them so later on they can play for Pakistan.”
We have carried out a class in a church as well. Now we work on the streets.”
Meet Salma Habib. She is most at peace with herself when working on the streets of Karachi, alongside dozens of street children who become her pupils for a few hours. All she carries with her are her art material and a steadfast resolve to add colour to a Sunday morning for another group of 25 to 30 children.
A picture is worth a thousand words. This is exactly how I felt when I came across Salma Habib and Taleem Ko Aam Karo in one of my many Facebook prowling sessions. “Wait a minute, what’s this?” I thought to myself, as I pressed the BACK button on my smartphone. Immediately, my attention was caught by images of street children sitting cross-legged on the roadside, sketching, painting, making crafts and, most importantly, smiling.
“How awesome” I thought! Look at these children, I found myself wishing I was there, and I could be a part of this. I wished I had the courage; that the woman sitting in the midst of all those children, cutting, pasting, helping, supervising the entire colourful Sunday morning was me; that I got the satisfaction of adding colour to the lives of these children who have known so little of it.
In the early hours of the weekend, in a city that is home to millions of street children who might never get a chance to see the inside of a classroom, let alone hold a pencil or a paint brush in their hands, these children were learning that art can be a medium, a reprieve, a chance to make something out of nothing in just a few hours; a chance to let loose and play.
What does it take for someone to decide to go out and start something like this? In Salma’s words “I have been teaching for 14 years now and have used art to communicate and heal. What inspires me? Life. Everything. Because everything is art to me. The relationship between a teacher and her students is very unique here. I wanted to do something that gives me satisfaction; that entails passion and resilience; something that tells me that I am on the right path.”
Does she meet any resistance?
No. I just go to any random place every Sunday morning, sit with my material spread out and, within 10 minutes, I am surrounded by children from the area. We leave at 8:30 am every Sunday and we wrap up by 12:30.
We can see the children have learnt about art, and what it can do … Has this been a journey of discovery for Salma as well?
Yes it has! Every time I plan an activity, I think about whether I will be able to communicate with them, whether they will follow the instructions. And, every time, the children have left me speechless with their beautiful thoughts and pure hearts; their ability to make the most out of a situation … not taking anything for granted.
To Salma, these sessions, these experiences for the children, they’re a one-time thing. She plans an activity, goes to a random slum area and works with the children there for a few hours. Whatever they make, they keep. A large part of the idea is that Salma and the children will not meet again, and so she never knows whether the art has brought a change to their lives or not, but it is worth a shot to her regardless.
“I want them to experience a slice of colours to brighten the light in their minds. What little I do, it might just be a lasting memory, or it could trigger them into a path better than the one they are already walking. The candle of hope flickers and burns in the heavy winds.”
Wouldn’t this one-time experience be like teasing a child with a candy or lollipop once, giving them something they cannot experience again?
“Karachi is huge, and, unfortunately, there is only one Sunday in the week” she says, smiling, then adds, “That is the only day when these children are not working. I can’t reach more children if I keep going back to the same place.”
And what if someone wants to help or contribute to Salma’s efforts?
“Presently, I am trying to understand the basics better, and how the children can benefit from all this. The bigger plan is to have a space for the children. While planning a project I keep that particular area in mind so that the children can make the most out of the activity. For the football theme, we found some older boys playing football in a ground under the bridge in Baloch Colony; but the little ones play right after Fajr (sunrise), so we came back the next day at 5:45 a.m. for the activity.”
“I want to play like Messi!” says 11 year old Hussain.Little souls with big dreams at Baloch Colony Flyover, Karachi.
Dolls at the Issa Nagri. At the fishing colony, we made boats.
Pen and ink on canvas at Ibrahim Hyderi fishing village, Karachi.
The young man who takes photographs of her work is 18 years old, and is from Issa Nagri. He takes pictures from the iPad, teaching himself about light, shadow, colour saturation with every new photograph he takes. This is some of his work:
Building homes and making memories at Lyari Expressway, Karachi.
“Come fly with me!” at the Gulshan-e-Iqbal railway crossing, Karachi.
At Gilani Railway Station, Karachi.
Super morning with Super Children at Lyari Express Way, Karachi.
And the most memorable picture that really touched Salma, or made her say “Wow!”?
Taleem Ko Aam Karo
I wondered how she managed with the unstable political situation in a city like Karachi.
“The thing is a lot of people are doing so much on their own for Karachi. It’s not just me. No place in Karachi is safe, but you can’t stop living your life. Something has to be done. At first, I wanted to bring the children home, but that was not practical. I have never encountered badtameezi (misbehaviour) to date; no threats. So far nothing has happened that will take my spirit away. My family doesn’t have a choice; neither do I. We all have to do what we can do. Change is not possible unless we step up to it.”
Taleem ko Aam Karo (Make Education Common) is a Facebook Page set up by Salma Habib. Why would she start a Facebook page?
“I want people to see it’s no big deal. I can; you can; we all can.”
One person can make a difference – we have heard this sentence many times. We dream big, and wait for that day to arrive when we get the chance to make a difference. Salma Habib teaches us that now is the time, today is the day, this is the moment, all we need to do is get up, start, and as she says “leave the rest to God.”
“It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.”- Moliere
Note: The photographs and their captions in this article have been taken from Salma Habib’s Facebook Page, Taleem Ko Aam Karo
Salma Habib is currently working as a freelance artist / educator / therapist for street children and teaching O’ Levels Art at a private school. She has also worked as an Art Therapist for autistic children at Ma Ayesha Centre, a Neuro-muscular Rehabilitation Facility, and at the Institute of Physical Medical and Rehabilitation Centre, DUHS, and at the Autism Unit for Children.
“So I took a year-long online course from Texas University. Later I was told that they couldn’t enrol me in a Master program as I don’t have any Art Therapist work experience. I needed to study and work at the same time, but there was no listed Art Therapist in Pakistan who I could work with. So I thought, I can’t just sit back because I don’t have a degree. Why not start something on my own and work with children who need help? Now I just want to carry on with this, I’m not even bothered about the degree. I am not an Art Therapist, my rightful designation is an educator.”