By Asif Iqbal Naik , Doda :- Like other parts of the state, in early 90s when militants and army were looking out for each other in the deep forests of Doda for kill, Breswana too was not insulated. Its small population did endure what Hajjis could not. The Hajjis fled, set up their shop first in Dubia and then in South East Asia. The family branched out everywhere and did well. With money they could bring comfort but not contentment. The family had never lost the sight of the village and one morning the family decided to pack his bags and found themselves in the village.
Their house redone, the family started to work on their dream project – a school that will make a difference. A village with no roads and reached only on horsebacks through steep crusty corridors and high-altitude streams, Breswana had literally fallen off the map. It’s isolation with the world was to be had not the Hajjis made an intervention. 30 year old Sabbah Hajji who was raised and born in Dubia before she shifted to Banglore for her studies dedicated herself to fulfill the dream of her parents. The family of Sabbah Hajji, which left a comfortable life abroad to come home to Kashmir and make a difference, has set up a school in a remote village of Doda in Jammu and Kashmir. Situated in the remote village of Breswana in Doda district, the school is the dream and hard work of Hajji Sabbah.
“This is my home, this is my family and we had a family trust setup and I thought I will come back and do something better than your normal 9 to 5 job that I had for many years, very comfortable, very fun. I wouldn’t say I am rotting. These are my people and these are my friends and their kids so more than just returning the favour,” said Sabbah. And the play-way model school was born, the responsibility falling squarely on Sabbah’s frail shoulders. After a successful career abroad, the Haji family returned to their native village to setup the school and it now has around 80 children. “The main person behind the school is my uncle Mr. Nasir Haji who is based in Singapore. He is the money, he is the idea, he is the motivation behind the school and it is a family kind of thing. We work under a trust,” said Sabbah.
With very few qualified teachers available, Sabbah uses social media to reach out to bright and eager volunteers, willing to come up and teach. “A friend of mine knows Sabbah and got a tweet and hooked us also. I am teaching class 3rd and 4th. I teach them English and environmental science,” said volunteer, Azon Linhares, a former Reuters staffer. Sabbah has now set up two more schools in the neighbouring village to teach more children, who would otherwise be deprived of such an opportunity.
The sparkle in the eyes of the kids in the region is a result of the selfless work put up by Sabbah in the village – a village she never lost sight of even when she could have made excellent forays in her care.
Breswana is dusting off its inertia and making connection. And a frail 30-year-old woman is its link to outside. Sabbah Haji is the village’s new hope, voice and inspiration and a key to its future.
A school set up by her atop an imposing but tough hill in the midst of tall conifers is getting all the cheers. Poor kids of maize farmers, cattle-rearers and labourers, who live off lugging building material up the mountains of Doda are calling this two-storey building their own.
Seven-year-old Hashimuddin Gujjar whose father takes sheep and cows for grazing uphill, is a darling among the 80 odd kids who take lessons in this English-speaking mid-standard institute. And Sabbah is holding out a promise to them.
Three years back, she did an unthinkable – a school that would give the kids a decent start was actually up and running, seemingly touching the Doda skyline. It startled everyone: the horseman, labourer, coolie, the sarpanch, women all watching in awe and glee.
The institute today has 15 odd teachers, drawn mostly from the downhill Prushulla hamlet. Though a few government-run schools exist in the mountains, they produce only “degree” churning students. Sabbah calls them hopeless and incompetent. “A sixth grader cannot compete with a kindergarten kid of a private school.”
At her set up, learning is true and serving. The kids have picked a point or two on hygiene, discipline and confidence. Their families have been made part of their progress card and a sense of winning is ingrained in them.
Since the school began operations in the spring of 2009, the two grades have gone up to four. More furniture, classrooms have been added. The management is on a constant lookout to train and recruit more staff and pool resources to take the school to a higher level.
“The system has failed to educate in far off villages in this region. Expect it not to wake up suddenly. Let us not wait and get in here ourselves,” suggests Sabbah. A networking-nut, a Twitter and Facebook freak, Sabbah hooks the best and dedicated lot among the professionals every spring.
This summer she has got Azon Linhares, a former Reuters staffer and Goan Felix Sebastain, a software engineer to brush up kids’ English, Maths and History. Both the volunteers have taken a sabbatical from their work to shape up the “lives of the young boys and girls of the hills”. In return, the duo is consuming maize roti’s, noonchai ( local Kashmiri Tea) and soaking love of village.
“I will be with the school for couple of months may be till September. I teach English and Environmental Science, says Linhares.
His friend Sebastian got to the school following Sabbah on Twitter. He enjoys teaching as much as he dislikes the memories of climbing up to the village.
Though the idea to set up a school was always on, the Hajis had to wait for two decades to make it a reality. “The kids are at ease with solving sums and putting together the pieces of the jigsaw, puzzles. It is an essential learning,” says Tasneem, Sabbah’s mother.
“We had to flee from this place. There was so much pressure on us from both sides. Our house was burnt. We just ran and left everything behind,” recollects Tasneem.
“I and my husband worked very hard in Dubai. I taught for 25 years, raised my three daughters and son there.” Tasneem added.
Sabbah’s father Hajji Saleem said that he could not sleep well in Dubai all these years. “I could not sleep well in Dubia. This village would come before my eyes. And then one morning we decided to pack our bags and found ourselves in the village,” says Hajji Saleem, Sabbah’s father.
Hajji Saleem said that some land from the family’s vast ancestral orchards was spared for the school and skilled labours from the city were got up before the village joined their movement.
“First with kind words and then help, the villagers are there for us and the school. There is hardly anyone in the villages who has not worked at this site.” Sabbah said who joined her parents for the endeavor and took up the job after she finishes her studies from Bangalore. “Before the construction could begin in 2007, we had to toil for paperwork and do a lot of running. We hit red tape but remained defiant” says Sabbah.
Within a few years, the building stood out from the jagged thatch-and-wood houses. These days the school is getting all the attention. Kids from other villages have started to pour in, ready to shun their wooden slate and reed-pencil for computer and mouse. Encouraged with the response, Sabbah meanwhile has replicated the Brewswana success story in two other downhill villages. The enrollment has swelled to more than 150. She is getting both money and accolades for giving the deprived children a good start. The funds are no problem, the terrain is. But at Sabbah’s school, the learning won’t be steep anymore.