Creating A Cushion

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A few students were desperate to find an option for getting a few minors out of child labour. They chipped in with their pocket money. As the society saw the boys concerned and struggling to help the needy, they joined the effort and that is how FETO was set up, reports Saima Bhat on the charity’s silver jubilee

KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

A day, sometimes, is a long time. Every morning, Sajad, 6, would be a blond boy, neat and clean. By evening when he would return home, he had black stains of diesel, grease and other oils on his fair face and clothes. This situation compelled Sajad’s neighbour, Shafeeq, then a first-year student in Srinagar’s Medical School, to think about the means that can help Sajad.

“His face kept me haunting for days together,” Shafeeq said. “It was this face that forced me to think on the lines about how to stop children from getting into child labour.” Shafeeq spoke to his four friends, also students. They had set up a Darsgah in the memory of their friend Firdous, Darsgah Madras ul Firdous in Bazaar Batamaloo in 1989. Firdous had died of a brain haemorrhage after fighting brain tumour for years.

Eventually, the five friends decided to contribute Rs 15 every month to bear the educational expenses of children who could not afford to go to school. That was March 1994. They could make Rs 75 every month. And finally, in August 1994, they set up FETO (Firdous Educational Trust for Orphans). For a start, these five students started paying monthly school fees of two or three kids in their locality in Batamaloo.

Before they could start formally, Shafeeq went to Sajad’s residence to meet his family and seek their permission to send Sajad back to his school. Sajad had a desire to continue his studies but his father, a marginal vegetable grower and his brother, who was differently abled, could not work to bear the expenses of the family. So, it was Sajad who finally had to drop out of school and start working. But when Shafeeq spoke to his father, he agreed to send Sajad to school only if Shafeeq’s group will bear his educational expenses.

Besides, Shafeeq had another boy, an orphan, who was a tailor apprentice. When Shafeeq contacted his mother, she clearly said if the studies will run the family then she can allow him to go to the classroom. The family had literally no source of income.

Shafeeq dropped the idea and continued with other orphan students in the locality.

Darul Manan. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Darul Manaam. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

With FETO help Sajad was in the ninth grade when he met an accident and fractured his leg. He had to undergo multiple surgeries as his leg contracted infections. It took him a few years to recover but finally, he resumed his studies and passed his matriculation examination. “When Sajad passed his class tenth class, it was great news in our locality and everybody celebrated his happiness. It was no less than Eid that day,” Shafeeq remembers.

The contributions of five friends continued for a year. Later, the friend circle expanded and more people started to contribute, including the locals. In 2019 – 25 years later, FETO has around 1000 basic members who contribute from Rs 15 to Rs 100 every month. Other than that they also have 300 to 400 donors who fall under either monthly or yearly contributors. But over the years, FETO has lost a few of their regular contributors as the volunteers couldn’t reach them for receiving donations in time.

“The dream I weaved imagining FETO should be in everybody’s mind and talk of the town, is a reality now. I proudly say that I lived that dream. It became like a tehreek in this locality which had its impact that I had never dreamt of,” said Shafeeq Bakshi, a medical doctor. Gradually FETO started increasing its budget as it extended help to more. Now its budget is more than Rs 10 lakhs, most of which comes during the holy month of Ramadhan.

FETO receives all the donations through banks and maximum of it comes from their extended friend circles under sadqa/zakat, monthly membership fees and local donations. “Last year, we got Rs 26 lakhs in Ramadhan and it was contributed by our own locality,” Shafeeq said. “On Eid ul Adha, we receive sheep hides, the trend we never stopped. This year we received 1500 hides, otherwise, we used to get only 1200. We get them because it helps in connecting to more people otherwise the factories processing the sheep hides have mostly closed.”

So far, Dr Shafeeq said, FETO never received any government or a foreign donation. They did not go for any fundraising drives as well. “Whatever money we receive comes to us directly,” Shafeeq said. “We don’t have to move out. We don’t have any plans to go for foreign or government donations either because we consider that equal to begging.”

Kids at Darul Manan. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Kids at Darul Manaam. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

His other partners include Kaiser Ali Shah, a government employee in the forest department, Muhammad Saleem Wani, working with an NGO, and shopkeepers Muhammad Shahid Yatoo and Muhammad Ilyas. The latter is a full-timer with FET now.

Started with helping five students, FETO is presently helping 210 students. But all operations of FETO were handled from the Madras ul Firdous till 2012.

In 2001, they purchased land of around 1 kanal, 4 marlas for Rs 4 lakhs in Firdousabad Colony, Batamaloo, for building an orphanage which was completed by April 2004. The payment for this land was done in instalments and Batamaloo contributed generously.

The foundation stone of this orphanage was set by an orphan student in 2001. “We had no plans to start an orphanage but the circumstances were such that we had to think on those lines as well but our office continued to function from Darsgah office,” said Dr Shafeeq. The FETO volunteers decided against running FETO from Darsgah and purchased a different premises part of which was used for skill development. This building was purchased in 2012 for Rs 20 lakhs.

This building has now become a tailoring centre as well, where deserving females are trained in cutting and tailoring. One part stands converted into a computer institute as well. They have around 30 females in the 15-45 age group who come to learn the art so that they can start their means of livelihood.

A FETO beneficiary Shabana (name changed), a widow and a mother of two children was living with her in-laws in Batamaloo. They did not own the house and were living on rent. Her husband, a traditional baker, was a resident of a Budgam village. After his death, Shabana, 22 then, had no source of income so she sought help from the FETO.

“It was her father whom I met once and we started talking about Shabana who was quite young when her husband passed away,” the young medico said. “Her father desired that she should get married. But the only problem was of her two kids.” FETO volunteered to take care of both her kids and finally she got married. Her two children are enrolled in FETO’s orphanage, Dar ul Manaam (a house of good dreams).

In Kashmir society, Dr Shafeeq believes children from the first marriage are mostly not accepted. “I have seen many of the widows willing to remarry as they were young but they could not because of their children. Besides, there is less acceptance for second marriage in Kashmiri society.”

At Dar ul Manaam, FETO runs two educational programmes. Out of the 210 enrolled students, only 30 (only boys) are living in the orphanage, the rest of them are helped while being in their homes. These students living in the orphanage are not all orphans; some of them are poor and destitute. “We preferred them to be in their schools at respective places, we just pay their school fees.” Dr Shafeeq said up to 1999 they were against the culture of orphanages, which according to him, means uprooting of a child but then a need arose and they set up one.

“One NGO from outside the state had come in Kashmir and took some Kashmiri orphans for studies,” Shafeeq said. “We realised that it was our responsibility to help these students. The other reason was that some of the widows wanted to remarry but because of their children, they couldn’t. So we started the orphanage.”

FETO has students from across Kashmir including Banihal, Kupwara. In Srinagar they have 180 students (both boys and girls) enrolled in 75 private schools, whose monthly fees are paid by them and their volunteers go in person to all these schools every month. For orphanage, they say the intake of students is deliberately kept low so to provide them with better services and better attention.

After starting the educational programmes, Dr Shafeeq said a need arose as some of the mothers requested them to give them their wards something in cash so that they could purchase food. “In 2002 we had to start the monthly rasad programme in which we provided kits of groceries to these families for free. And we have at least a hundred families registered under this programme.”

Besides, FETO started a blood bank Jannat ul Firdous Blood Bank in 1997. Yearly, they do blood donation camps and have around 50 voluntary donors. “We provide medical aid to some deserving people, a few of our sisters need help in Nikah as well so we tried to help them. We go for one-time assistance for natural calamities or accidents help as well,” said Dr Shafeeq.

In 2019, FETO has five employees including a warden, cook, sweeper/helper, deputy warden and a lady helper who comes on a daily basis for cleaning and washing clothes. At Trust office, they have two people: one manager and a runner.

Initially, they had employed one person and he would get support from various volunteers. They used to cook themselves and help the inmates. But finally, they realised managing 210 students was not easy so they hired an office assistant.

As people saw the FETO working, people voluntarily came with help and support. Only two years back, one building was donated by a local resident, Prof Muhammad Yousuf Khan, a retired professor, in Mahrajpora to FETO Trust. He had his tragedies and FETO had to negotiate with his only daughter, who was compensated for her property share.

Prof Khan’s property was with FETO for last one year. Later, he married a widow, who incidentally, was being helped by the FETO for some time. She had her two children as well. He is now living with his new wife and her two orphan children in a part of the same house that is already donated to the FETO. “The house is worth crores and we had to take it as professor Khan said he trusted only two NGOs and FETO was his first choice. So we had to take it and we are still planning how we can utilise the building in the best way,” Shafeeq said.

As the building gave it additional space, FETO started a computer centre and a tailoring centre recently from the professor’s house. Now the realisation in the FETO suggests that the building might emerge a full-time skill development centre for students, who pass their twelfth grades. “These students, whom we want to make capable enough to earn their livelihoods, are mostly from poor and rural backgrounds and they are not usually that good in studies,” Shafeeq said.

At the same time, however, Shafeeq said they are feeling sort of pressure and may have to start an orphanage for the girls. FETO insiders say they have compelling factors. “One of our orphan students in our orphanage has five sisters and all of them are living with different uncles at five different places,” Dr Shafeeq said.

Other than that the FETO Trust is planning that the 210 students, already associated with them, means there are 210 poor, divorced or widowed women who need to be supported and rehabilitated.

Recently the FETO Trust started smart classes at Dar ul Manaam orphanage on a weekly basis. “We still have some of our students in the tenth class who fail in one or two subjects which ideally should not happen,” Shafeeq said. “In the last session, we had nine students and only six could pass the exams. In twelfth class, we had 19 students and only 14 passed their examinations. This is unacceptable in this era, so we want to give them better learning.”

Prof Khan who contributed his house to FETO years before he married a widow that the same NGO was supporting. Now the couple lives in a portion of the same building that he had donated to the NGO. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Prof Khan who contributed his house to FETO years before he married a widow.  KL Image: Saima Bhat

Some of the students after passing their twelfth standard have shown their desire to compete in competitive exams as well. FETO helps them with getting admitted to better coaching centres. “Last year one of our students managed to get admission in NIT Srinagar. And there must be tens of cases where our students managed to do good in studies and are working at good places. It gives me immense happiness when I see our students serving at better places,” said Dr Shafeeq.

As this year is coming to its closure, their New Year starts with the month of Ramadhan, they have estimated the budget to be Rs 47 lakhs. “So far we have spent around Rs 31.5 lakhs and around Rs 10 lakh cash is in hand, Rs 5 or 6 lakhs pending till January.”

Dr Shafeeq believes Kashmiris are generous in giving charity but are not aware whom to give it. “Dar ul Alooms take a big part of charity money otherwise that money should go to the accounts of Bait ul Maals and it also becomes a factor that the proper share of money does not reach to the poor people.” He believes the Mata Vaishno Devi Trust make judicious use of it in comparison to money collected by the Muslim Wakf Board.

“In Kashmir, many people spend the money collected under Zakat for building infrastructure, which they cannot do. We have set guidelines in our religion how to spend money coming under Zakat, Sadqa or donations,” Shafeeq said. “We don’t do such mistakes and we have made it mandatory that we will not use money collected under zakat and sadqa on building infrastructure.”

FETO has neither applied for Income tax rebate nor FCR registration. “We want everybody should get in with us, the people who think they can’t do anything I want to tell them that their Rs 10 or Rs 15 can also make a difference, everybody can contribute with us. We always wanted that a poor should also feel that he also is a contributory factor to the cause, to this mission,” he added.

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