Rebuilding Pakistan: The journey of two boys

Published: November 10, 2014
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Imran Sarwar and Aneeq Cheema realised that one reason we rush so quickly to our own righteous judgments and assumptions is that we are never wired to react in any other way. PHOTO: MEHREEN OVAIS

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

Too often we underestimate the importance of empathy and compassion. We find faults in others, criticise them for their behaviour, and often turn a blind eye to their suffering when it should actually be much easier to try to understand and relate. For two fresh graduates, the message was loud and clear. Imran Sarwar and Aneeq Cheema realised that one reason why we rush so quickly to our own righteous judgments and assumptions is that we are never wired to react in any other way. And herein lies the problem. They began to understand that empathy can only come through connection, and through education. If we can see from the eyes and think from the minds of others, we will be less quick in our hatred, bias, and indifference. For them, this was a much-needed solution to all of Pakistan’s intercommunity, interclass and ethnic tensions.

“It all started during our senior year of college. I had volunteered at a three week training session for NOP (National Outreach Programme) at LUMS and what I experienced changed me forever. As I spent time coaching these students, I realised the power of personal human connections to not only inspire meaningful change, but also to enhance greater understanding for people who are different to oneself,” says Imran.

Aneeq went through a similar experience while at a camp for Seeds of Peace, an initiative to bring children from conflicted countries together and move past stereotypes and resentment through developing personal relationships. Fate and vision brought them together and an idea was born.

“We were inspired to think that if only people would try to really understand and connect with each other and think critically, rather than follow existing trends of hate and bias, Pakistan could really move forward. We realised this could only come through education, not the confined kind of learning that we receive through our textbooks, but a system where personal connections are formed and critical thinking is developed, where it is more important to ask questions than to know the answers.”

For them, tolerance and empathy for others were seeds that had to be planted and nurtured over time; but in order to do enable that, the soil had to be refined.

“We began a critical investigation into the sort of curriculums that majority of students are taught and it was shocking to see the textbooks filled with stereotypical, detestable and prejudiced material, which limits their thought processes. Impersonal classroom teaching means that there is no opportunity to impress upon young minds powerful ideas and positive thinking.”

This comprehension inspired them to set up Rabtt, a platform where volunteers and mentors interact with students from high schools in an effort to make their education experience more holistic, fostering the ability to question, analyse, and empathise with different worldviews. The spirit of Rabtt, which literally means ‘the connection’, is to weave the threads of empathy through a desire to understand, to analyse and be critical. The young founders explain,

“We incessantly build barriers and categories in the society, between the elite and the underprivileged, the educated and the uneducated, the teacher and the one being taught, the others and us. Rabtt is an attempt to understand the ‘other’, to break the different barriers that we have constructed in the learning space, and consequently in society. Rabtt brings together students and mentors from different walks of life and creates a space that is conducive to mutual learning and respect.”

Rabtt’s two flagship programs, the summer camps and the workshops, work with high school students from public and low-cost private schools. Through these programs, these students engage with highly trained mentors from local and international universities to get well versed in courses such as English, world history, arts, public speaking, and sports. The idea is to bridge the gap between these two social classes, and allow these students a chance to ‘experience learning’ beyond their textbooks.

“To date, we have reached out to over 800 students and 100 mentors. It is inspiring to see how many of these mentors from elite private universities want to help out. At the same time, the motivation is huge for the public school kids. These students, who often have low attendance at their own schools, never miss a day at Rabtt. They are always so eager to learn and are so very happy to be given the opportunity,” shares Imran.

Imran and Aneeq have truly set up something that can fill the quality gap that exists between private and public education. What is truly aspiring about these two individuals is they managed to put their finger on the one of the major problems of our country, and decided to jump in with a solution. They have picked a battle and they are fighting for it with all their heart, strength, and mind. Being LUMS alumni and Fulbright scholars from leading universities in the US, they could have easily been swayed by the temptations of high-paying glamour jobs, or subdued to family pressures to do ‘something meaningful’, which is often equated in Pakistan only to a stable job with a six-digit salary and boast-worthy perks. Instead, they gave their full time commitment to a cause they strongly believed in.

“We fight off challenges and opposition on a daily basis, but no problem is as big for us as the motivation to enable a truly connected and united Pakistan. Our vision is to take this forward on a much larger scale than it is now, and spread our message across the entire country.”

This post originally appeared here.

Mehreen Ovais

Mehreen Ovais

A graduate from the Manchester Business School with an MSc Marketing degree, she is currently working in Geneva, Switzerland and is passionately engaged in writing about a whole host of varying issues. She tweets as @mehreenovais (twitter.com/mehreenovais)

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