“No thank you, I actually don’t like cakes. Now if you excuse me I will have to get back to work”, exclaims Abbas articulately. He is wearing a trendy jumper with the name of his school, Aitchison College, printed in italics on the back.
His eyes light up when I discuss life at Aitchison and he tries to sharpen his wits on me while observing me with a mischievous grin. I’m intrigued, both by the fact that we share our first name and by the formidable confidence and maturity that he exudes for a boy his age.
Abbas is one of the residents of the SOS Children’s Village, an orphanage located in Lahore that shelters hundreds of desolate children at the mercy of circumstances that render them shelterless. Every year a fixed number of students from this place are registered at Aitchison College, one of Pakistan’s premier educational institutions, based on a competitive selection process. Abbas has managed to attain the requisite grades for the admission and is now completely consumed by the challenging academics of his new school.
One would imagine that the children who are taken in by SOS would be distraught and scarred due to their troubled pasts, but their beaming faces and sparkling eyes tell another story. The vulnerable children adopted by the organization are nurtured into refined, responsible and independent young individuals with a great sense of self-worth.
Abbas’ housemate Atif excitedly directs me to his house which is a stone’s throw away from the main office of the children’s village. “Why don’t I show you our room! This is where we sleep, and right there is our kitchen where our mother cooks for us every day.’’
Every house is home to 8 to 14 children who live together like a family. The children abide by a fixed routine of meals, homework, playtime and sleep. Most importantly the residences are not clinical accommodations but provide the comforting environment of a traditional home.
From the kitchen emerges a middle aged woman, with a kind smile and strands of salt and pepper hair protruding out of the khaddar shawl draped over her head. Sidrah, known as Amma to the children in this home, is the foster mother in charge of looking after the children and the house. She is truly the mother hen, the care-giver who will cater to every need of the children under her wing and ensure that they are sheltered from the minutest trouble. Today she seems to be in a rush. One of her children is under the weather and she is determined to take him to the nurse though he doesn’t show any major symptoms of ailment. “He is my baby and he says he feels feverish. I have to ensure that he is examined at the right time before his symptoms get worse’’. The nurse records the boy’s temperature and it’s just slightly above normal. “Thank God, now my job’s done”, utters Sidrah through a sigh of relief and a beatific, toothy grin.
Everything adds up now. Only love and care of this kind can heal the deep scars left by the ultimate tragedy of being abandoned and desolate. It is this meticulous attention that enables a child to emerge as a vibrant and healthy individual.
The words of Shahida Faisal, who lived a greater part of her life at the children’s village, add credence to this supposition. She is filled with gratitude as she recalls the fond memories of growing up in SOS village. “I sometimes think to myself that perhaps I wouldn’t have had so much fun during my childhood if I had lived with my biological parents. We used to go for picnics, field trips, hiking and played sports regularly.’’ She goes on to say emphatically, “SOS has inculcated values in me which define who I am today. We were, for example, always discouraged from littering. Till today I don’t dare to dispose of even the smallest wrapper anywhere except for the waste-bin, even if it means stuffing my handbag with wrappers, which is something that I have often done.” Shahida’s education was funded by SOS and today she is working at the head-office of a prominent private school where her children are also enrolled.
Till a decade after its establishment the NGO enrolled children in private schools around the city. Thereafter, SOS constructed its very own school called the Herman Gmeiner School, consisting of a purpose built campus in its vicinity, offering classes from the primary school level all the way to high school.
Education is the key goal of the people behind SOS, to carve a bright future for the orphans adopted by them. The success stories of students are a testament to their talent and drive to achieve excellence.
Amanat Ali Khan moved into SOS with his brother when they were aged 5 and 6 respectively. While Amanat ended up working as a credit analyst at a well-reputed bank in Pakistan, his brother was offered a job in a software house in the United States. The latter eventually got US citizenship along with his family.
The bonds of kinship between the students of SOS remain even years after they move out, and the ties which have been nurtured at the orphanage are deep-rooted. Amjad Ali, who belonged to the first batch of students from SOS, is now well settled both professionally and personally, but asserts how to this day he remains very close to his batch-mates whom he regards as his family. “My kids have numerous aunts and uncles,’’ he laughs.
Likewise, the administration at SOS doesn’t ever break its umbilical cord from a child who has once lived in the orphanage. The organization continues to be of help to those who encounter difficulties in adulthood; like a parent, it stands by its alumni. For example, one of the girls from the children’s village who had gotten married after completing her education, had encountered some personal difficulties including a custody battle with her former husband over their children. SOS intervened in the matter and united the mother with her children after the husband illegally took off with the children and refused to let the mother meet them.
Apart from educating the children, the organization also takes it upon itself to get the children married off once they come of age and are ready to entertain the idea of commitment. Like the lavish birthday parties every year that commemorate the birthdays of the children, wedding functions are celebrated with equal fervor.
SOS truly is a beacon of hope for scores of children who would otherwise be festering in dire straits; in essence, it gives them a new and meaningful life. It lives up to its title for not only does it save souls but heals, nurtures and blossoms them.
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