In a narrow lane, ridden with potholes, you will find a school with a deceptively small, black gate. Outside, a friendly looking watchman opens this gate, after hurriedly peeping inside to make sure all is well. Inside, the ground is large and packed with little girls in powder blue uniforms and white headscarves, scurrying around with packets of chips and other snacks.
This is break-and-snack-time at Jufelhurst School in Karachi. The thick foliage from some hundred-year-old trees shelters the girls from the hot summer blaze of an impregnable sun. This day, however, is cool and the greenness of the area makes one feel tingly and excited. Some teachers are going about their daily chores, happily, while to the left of the playground sits a grave-looking principal, one eye on the students and another on the papers before him. His teacup hasn’t been touched.
The setting is perfect for a story: the kind which could have magic or from which a superhero could emerge at this point in time — a dark hour for a school whose story began back in 1931. Sybill D’Abreo, a Goan Christian woman, once called these premises home, and converted them into a school, dedicating the rest of her life to the cause of educating children.
Today, it is home to 1,700 students — at least 400 are girls who attend classes in the morning. The school has always been considered to be the best in Jamshed Town and in its heyday was given ‘the best uniform award’. Despite the fact that the medium of instruction was changed to Urdu under Ziaul Haq’s era, it has maintained its quality of education, explains Mohammad Shafique, the principal, adding that English Literature still remains its strongest subject. He says the school’s strength lies in community support.
Accessible to neighbouring localities such as Gul-e-Rana chowk, Lasbela, Garden East, Patel Para and Soldier Bazaar, the school has a healthy mix of Pashtoons, Baloch, Ismailis and those from the Urduspeaking community. Children come together to simply study, unaware for the moment of these pre-ordained differences. It is like an oasis in the midst of a city known more for its insecurity and gloom.
But, as is the case with every story, there is a moment of deep adversity. The building where the school was once housed has now been vacated because of its crumbling structure; its yellow stone facade faded and its entrance from one end completely blocked by a dense, unruly thicket.
The beauty of the school and the overwhelming sense of erudition, of science, of lore are marred by freshly-washed shalwars and kameezes hanging from a wire to one side of the playground. In the centre, and away from the protection of a bent tree whose leafy branches cover a large area of the ground, is a natural dip in the earth. Here, water from the recent monsoon rainfall has collected, turning it into a dirty pit. It’s not just the rain, says Ather Aslam, a former student and a contractor, hanging about to make sure the school operates smoothly, “this water collects because the blocked pipelines in the area won’t allow sewerage water to pass through.”
The many problems that it was beset with, brought the school perilously close to being shut down. Staff members say that in such a situation – as most parents would not have sent their daughters too far away to study – the girls would have nowhere to go. While two years of running around for assistance, including efforts by alumni such as Aslam, has resulted in the school building waiting to be placed on Pakistan’s Heritage List, and the Endowment Fund Trust has approved a budget for rehabilitating the building, the matter of it continuing as a functioning school remains.
It may have been D’Abreo’s original dream, who chose to give up this structure, her beautiful home to turn it into a school. Now, it is not simply about the structure alone but about allowing a legacy of education to continue.
D’Abreo’s story still awaits an ending; a twist in the tale that sees adversity turn into triumph, just when there appears to be little hope. It is an ending left open due to the absence of that pivotal protagonist — in this case, the education department.
At the turn of the year, the school’s alumni hosted a gathering of concerned ministers, including then education minister Pir Mazharal Haq, and officers to ensure that adequate measures were taken to preserve the school. But Haq was absent because of a family emergency. The school staff says that they never heard from him again. Today, no one is willing to comment on the matter, and D’Abero’s story awaits an ending.
This article was originally published in the Herald's September 2013 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.