More Than Paying Back


A family displaced by the political turmoil and the armed conflict in the early 1990s returns to give their ancestral village, a dream-school. A daughter of the Haji family is committed to raising the educational standard of her village and has managed to rope in friends from countries afar, reports Mufti Islah

Sabbah Haji teaching in the class.

Breswana is dusting off its inertia and making a new connection. A frail 30-year-old woman is its link to the outside world. 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 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 slopes of the difficult mountain 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-medium mid-standard institute. And Sabbah is holding out a promise to them.

“This is my home, this is my family. These are my friends and their kids,” says Haji, adjusting her hijab. “I am just returning the favour.”

Three years back, she created something simple but unthinkable here hitherto – 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 and women all watching in awe and glee.

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. Until Hajis made an intervention.

“We have a family trust set up and I thought I will come back and do something for these people. Since I have the capability and opportunity we thought let us come back and start something.”

The institute today has 15 odd teachers, drawn mostly from the downhill Prushulla hamlet. Though a few government-run schools exist in the mountains, 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.

“The kids are at ease with solving sums and putting together the pieces of jigsaw puzzles. It is essential learning,” says Tasneem, Sabbah’s mother.

“We charge a nominal fee of Rs 100 but many are taught for free. They are our responsibility.”

Since the school started in the spring of 2009, the two grades have gone up to four. More furniture, classrooms and washrooms 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 instead,” suggests Sabbah. “We need to contribute and innovate all the time.”

And innovation indeed has made the school different. Like its volunteers and the way, they get into the village. 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 Sebastian, a software engineer to brush up the kids’ English, Maths and History.


A non-local volunteer in the school run by Sabbah Haji.

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 living on maize rotis and noonchai are soaking in the love of the village.

“I will be with the school for a couple of months maybe till September. I teach English and Environmental Science, says Linhares, twitching his beard.

Linhares’ misadventure of the first morning has become a butt of all jokes in the village. “I went hiking uphill and lost my way down. Sabbah sent the herdsmen up to fetch me. I was lost like a fool for 10 hours. Luckily the bear was not there.”

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.

“The clot I have riding a horse uphill is still there,” he says embarrassingly.

Though the idea to set up a school was always on, the Hajis had to wait for two decades to make it a reality.

In early ‘90s when militants and army were looking out for each other in the deep forests of Doda for  a kill, Breswana too was not insulated. Its small population did endure what Hajis could not. The Hajis fled, set up their shop first in Dubai and then expanded their business to South East Asia. The family branched out and did well.

“We had to flee from this place. There was so much pressure on us from both sides. Our house was burnt. We just ran away 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.”

With the money they could bring comfort but not contentment. The family that had never lost sight of their village was coming home after many years.

“I could not sleep well in Dubai. This village would come before my eyes. And then one morning we decided to pack our bags and found ourselves in the village,” says Haji Saleem, Sabbah’s father.

Their house redone, the family started to work on their dream project – a school that will make a difference. Sabbah, the second daughter of Tasneem and Saleem, who had in the meantime shifted to Bangalore for studies and later taken up a job, joined her parents for the endeavour. Some land from the family’s vast ancestral orchards was spared for the school.

“Before the construction could begin in 2007, we had to toil for paperwork and do a lot of running around. We hit the red tape but remained defiant,” says Sabbah.

Soon, the village joined the 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.”

Within a few years, the building stood out from the jagged thatch-and-wood houses. The line of the peach and apple trees in flower – a deliberate add on – came up last year.

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 students. She is getting both money and accolades for giving the deprived children of her village a good start.

“The main person behind this school is my uncle Nasir Haji who is based in Singapore. He is the money, he is the idea, he is the motivation behind the school.”

The funds are no problem, the terrain is. But at Sabbah’s school, learning will be steep here on.

(The writer is Srinagar-based bureau chief with CNN-IBN.)


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