A young man from Bejbihara quit a cushy job in London to come back for spreading quality primary education in the rural hinterland.Majid Maqbool finds out how a successful retail manager returned from London to find respect and fulfillment in his village.
Before returning home, Arshid Mehraj Khan, 27, was living a comfortable life in the United Kingdom. After his schooling from Delhi, he graduated in commerce from Delhi University. Mehraj shifted to UK for an MBA degree in 2007. After completing his MBA from Business school of Leicelster, Mehraj got a job in London. Away from home, he was doing well and living a comfortable life aboard. But a visit to his native place in Bijbehara in October 2009 proved to be a turning point in his life.
Mehraj didn’t go back to London to resume his work. Instead he travelled around in Bijbehara to the adjoining villages. It brought him close to the ground realities at home. Mehraj felt there was something lacking in the school education system in the villages. The kids he interacted with were talented, but due to lack of good schooling, their talent was lost, he felt. He wanted to do something for them.
He thought of taking an initiative to help the kids of these remote villages. In 2010, dropping his plans to return to his job in London, he purchased a piece of land in Zianapora, Shopian and set up a modern public school and named it National Innovations Public School. He wanted to equip the school with the best of facilities. When people of the villages saw his dedication towards setting up a school, they approached him with their kids. A year into functioning, the school now employs 17 professional teachers and 30 non-teaching staff drawn from the surrounding villages. The school has around 200 students enrolled from pre-nursery to 5th standard. Mehraj hopes to turn it into a high school in future.
Besides hiring non-teaching staff from the local villages, Mehraj hired some of the best teachers who had earlier worked in some of the best private schools in Srinagar. Most of them travel over 50 kilometers daily from Srinagar in the school buses. “I employed these teachers because they are in this profession by choice, and not by chance,” says Mehraj.
Mehraj’s father is into fruit business. He had no idea what his son was up to when he returned after performing Hajj in 2009. When Mehraj shared his idea of setting up a modern school with his father, he supported his decision to stay back and run a school in the village.
“Had I been after money, I would have taken over my father’s fruit business. But I wanted to bring quality education which is lacking in these villages,” says Mehraj, sitting in his newly constructed office in the school. “I wanted to bring the best of facilities that are available to kids in Srinagar and make them available for these kids of villages.”
Having done his schooling from outside the state, Mehraj is aware of the struggle of kids coming from villages. He himself had to struggle when he went out for his schooling in Delhi. “When I went outside the state for my schooling in 5th standard, the teachers and students outside would treat us differently,” says Mehraj. “The kids like me who had come from villages were not able to use new gadgets and computers as we were not taught how to use them in the village schools here.”
Mehraj doesn’t want the kids from the villages to struggle for lack of good schooling. He says he has a mission associated with his school. And when he sees improvement in the students enrolled last year in his school, he feels good. “In one year they’ve improved a lot and are learning fast. It has a positive impact at their homes as well,” says Mehraj.
The school caters to four districts and has kids coming from Bijbehara, Yaripora, Shopian and Pulwama. The school also has a central heating system fitted in all the classrooms. “Besides latest teaching aides, we also have theme based classrooms to facilitate play-way method of teaching,” says Mehraj who spends all his day looking after the management of the school.“We concentrate on the way of living, etiquettes and hygiene of students as well so that they take these things to their homes. We have kids from villages and they have learned things quickly and are very confident now.”
Mehraj is also keen on improving the presentation skills of the students. He is working to overcome the pronunciation difficulties of kids. “Pronunciation was a problem for the kids coming from villages, but we have been able to correct it,” says Mehraj. “It is important to work on these small things which make a difference in the end.”
The students and teachers in the school share a bond. Mehraj says the kids enjoy their time in the school. “They even urge their parents to take them to school regularly,” he says. “They don’t want to miss even a single day.”
Recently, Mehraj brought subject experts from outside the state who conducted workshops with teachers and parents in the school. “Recently a teacher came to me and said that she has stopped applying for a government job as she feels happy to teach these kids who don’t come from privileged backgrounds,” says Mehraj.
One of maths teachers got a government job, but he still comes to the school to teach the kids.“We also have kids whose parents are government teachers and they are happy with the standard of teaching here,” says Mehraj.
He says those interested in investing their time and money in setting up such schools in far off places should have a passion for spreading quality education. “It is not about money,” he says. “You have to take it up as a mission.”
Many of Mehraj’s friends, who are settled outside the state, often ask him why he left a lavish job and a trendy lifestyle in London for setting up a school in a far off village. Mehraj tells them that he’s happy about his decision. The respect he has earned among the villagers is immense.
“They told me why I didn’t set up a school in Srinagar, but we already have many schools in Srinagar,” says Mehraj. “When I came back in 2009, I realized there is dearth of quality schools in the villages. So I took the initiative of opening this school. I feel happy when parents come to me and appreciate my efforts for the education of their kids.”
Mehraj says kids from villages are very talented, and all they need is little polishing and some exposure. “They have good ideas, but due to lack of exposure, they are not able to present them well,” says Mehraj. “Every facility that is available to kids in Srinagar schools, I want to make them available for the kids of villages.”
Mehraj says he feels happy when he sees improvement in kids who were earlier shy of expressing themselves. “Now we have kids from villages in nursery class who have learned all the rhymes and present them so beautifully,” he says. “Even when they go to their homes, people from their neighborhoods record their rhymes on their mobile phones and spread them around.”
At the end of the day, when Mehraj leaves for his home in Bijbehara, some village elders come forward to greet him outside the gate of his school. They always appreciate his work. “That’s my reward,” Mehraj says after paying his respects and shaking hands with them.