Riaz wanted to learn English

Published: June 28, 2011

Riaz’s story is a testament to the fact that our youth is thirsty for education. PHOTO: AFP

It was almost 11 years ago when I stopped my car at the Teen Talwar traffic light to be greeted by the usual herd of beggars, windscreen cleaners and newspaper sellers.

One of the newspaper sellers, Riaz, a total of four feet in height, asked me for a lift to the Marriot signal. Irritated by the commotion around me, I chose to ignore him.

Rather than moving on, he boldly walked in front of my car, locked eyes with me, stuck his teeth out like President Asif Zardari would, if he stared at the sun, and performed a mini-break dance in defiance. His army of four footers was in hysterics.

What a cheeky little fellow!

The traffic light turned green and I drove on only to see high fives being exchanged in the rear view mirror.

About a week later, I was going to pick up my mother from the Karachi airport and once again stopped at the same traffic light. His Royal Cheekiness appeared, but this time he was alone. He politely informed me:

“Sir, signal tak jaana hai.” (Sir, I have to go to the next signal.)

I asked him to come around and sit in the passenger seat. As he sat inside the air conditioned car, he took a huge sigh of relief. He looked tired, worn out and a bit disoriented.

I asked:

“Kya huwa? Naach gaanay say thak gaye?” (What happened? Tired of singing and dancing?)

He looked at me quite confused. In return, I gave him a big smile and subtly mimicked his break dance move from the week earlier. He started laughing uncontrollably for about sixty seconds. “Sorry, sir”, he said to which I replied that Pakistan needs more artists, so he needn’t be.

After about five minutes, we arrived at his stop. He thanked me and asked if I wanted to buy a newspaper. I looked at him quietly for a few seconds trying to picture his entire day from start to finish. Perhaps a little recess was in order. “I’ll tell you what…” I proposed (in Urdu of course). “I’ll buy the entire stack if you give me company to the airport and back”.

It was as if the entire weight of the world was lifted off Riaz’s little shoulders and replaced by the thought of complete bliss, even if it was for just an hour. He agreed, closed the door and sat back down. I put on his seat belt for him (only to receive a condescending look), turned up the volume on the stereo and divided the AC vents between us. Conversation was expected to be limited, but satisfaction immense.

As it turned out, there were plenty of stories that were shared on our journey; some humorous, some serious and some downright painful (at least on his side). I could only offer two-bit advice knowing very well that it was all well and good in the theoretical sense, but too hard for someone in his situation to apply. Instead, we both chose to focus on the green patch of grass that was the present, especially the background (and sometimes blaring) music. In fact, Riaz became quite the fan of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack as suggested by his numerous head bobs and shoulder shrugs.

Upon arriving at the airport parking lot, Riaz jumped out of the car and raced towards the arrival exit as if he was going to receive some long lost friend after many years of separation. Trying to stand tall on the railing he would point towards every arriving passenger and impatiently ask, “is that them?” When my mother finally came out of the exit, Riaz ran towards her and grabbed the carry-on piece she was rolling. In her confusion, she let go off the bag not knowing its fate. To her amazement Riaz came and stood right beside me with the piece. “Er…and who are we?” she asked with a confused grin. “We sell newspapers” I replied with a big smile.

The three of us sat in the car and proceeded towards Clifton. This leg of the journey, Riaz was very formal. Not a peep came from the back seat. My mother and I conversed mostly in English with a few sentences of Urdu mixed in as we usually do, ignoring the fact that there was another passenger in the car. After about ten minutes, my mother started asking Riaz questions about where he lived, what he did, his parents etc. But I was a little surprised at the bluntness of the answers and how they lacked the same detail he shared with me earlier.

Occasionally I would glance at him through the rear-view mirror and find him staring into the empty space as if he was listening to something intently. Perhaps he was trying to focus on the faint music coming from the rear speakers. What a musical nerd I thought; God bless him. We ended up dropping Riaz at the Baloch Colony Bridge. As promised, I bought his newspapers. I also asked Riaz if I could meet him the next day at the same Teen Talwar traffic light. He agreed.

I packed a few bags of some old clothes (quite oversized for a ten-year-old) and other things that I thought would be handy for him. Riaz was at the traffic light, but without any newspapers this time. He sat in the car looking quite dissatisfied. I asked him if he had a great day and sold out. His jaw-dropping reply caught me completely off guard:

Mujh ko akhbaar nahi baichnay… mujh ko ungraizee seekhni hai.” (I don’t want to sell newspapers. I want to learn English.)

Then it hit me. Riaz wasn’t staring into the empty space trying to listen to the faint music while sitting in the back seat. He was trying to decode the conversation my mother and I were having. He was trying to absorb the ‘sound of English.’

His timing couldn’t have been worse. I was leaving for the States in two weeks to pursue my undergraduate studies or else I would have taught him the language myself. In retrospect, I could have fixed him up with another family member, but that thought didn’t cross my mind at the time. Instead I took him to Boat Basin and bought some primary school books for English. But there was a catch. He had to find someone to teach him.

Parked outside the book store in Boat Basin, I gave Riaz an hour long lecture, the content of which shall remain between the two of us.

I handed him the bags, the books and an envelope.

He looked very sad. I felt even worse.

Then I ripped out a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote Riaz a letter… in English (the contents of which shall also remain undisclosed).

I wrote my e-mail address on it. If Riaz ever wrote back to me, well I don’t have to explain what that would mean.

Almost eleven years later (three days ago) I received an e-mail from Riaz for the first time. His determination to learn to speak the language proved to be truly remarkable.

Riaz’s story is a testament to the fact that our youth is thirsty for education. Unfortunately our leaders have not provided the necessary infrastructure – but that story is old now.

We have run out of excuses to let things be as they are. If only one per cent of us took the responsibility to take one 10-year old from the street under our wing, in ten years we would have 1.8 million more educated people than what would have been otherwise. Ten years fly by. Imagine if two per cent of us mobilised.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do anything substantial for Riaz. He is completely self-made.

But, he did do something for me. He reminded me that there is no excuse for mediocrity.

Asad Ali

Asad Ali

A financial industry professional who works and lives in New York.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Javeria

    Hats Off to Raiz and you too…… Recommend

  • Waheed

    Quite inspired by the deed you have done Asad. We all have this noble task in our heart & brain but never try to put it into practicality. This type of articles may help to boost our feelings & will to educate the one’s who don’t have it. Almighty Allah will give you AJAR for this act.Recommend

  • Nabeel Arshed Malik

    Beautiful is the word. God bless both of you.Recommend

  • Bilal ur Rehman

    Superb!! There are thousands of Riaz’s who are willing to to get education… but noone has resources … i wish good luck to riaz n pray that hundreds and thousands of these kids come up with same enthusiasm .. Recommend

  • sara

    Once the human mind is stretched it can never go back to its original form. You stretched his mind that day. Recommend

  • Saud

    True Story.Recommend

  • Jizzi

    One of the best articles I’ve read on Tribune… I will try to follow your example sir.Recommend

  • http://www.obaidfarooq.com Obaid Farooq

    What a amazing story. Recommend

  • Naveeda Shaikh

    Hail to Author. For once I thought how did he allow vendor to sit at back seat and as well as conversed with him. You have eliminated a stain of illiteracy, congratulations to you on that.

    May Riaz progress, write articles finely the way you do (did to this one). Recommend

  • Haroon

    This story has given me goosebumps and brought a chill down my spine. The article not only shows us the tragedy but the triumph as well. It is true, perhaps, if every one of us gave a few hours of our time to a 10 year old- the future of this county would be that little bit brighter. Riaz is not the only one out there whose selling newspapers and dancing in front of cars..

    Now I know, next time I stop at the lights, that the little boy on the other side of the glass pane might be another Riaz. Not only willing to learn, but waiting to teach someone like me.

    Stunning article :)Recommend

  • KB

    Beautiful piece: a magical combination that makes one smile, even gently laugh yet tugs at those increasingly-stoic strings. And, ends with a solid call for action. Wonderfully written. Indeed, what is our excuse?Recommend

  • Rusk_Memon

    Hats off to ur thoughts!Recommend

  • Inaam

    PML-N effort to reach the very poor in giving education will certainly cover this area but only to a small extent. Truly each one of us highly educated individuals should raise and educate a child in similar condition. Only education can raise the standard of living of our people. If you google the villages of India and Pakistan you will see much more organized villages of India, this is only because of higher literacy in Indian Punjab.
    I really love what you say about mediocrity. Great Story !Recommend

  • Raza

    Delightful. Especially loved the last line.Recommend

  • Ehti

    No one can even imagine how Riaz was feeling when the author was making conversation with his mom in English, a feeling of sadness,he must have a gloomy picture infront of him that he might have the same car,same status and everything by taking a proper education but in real he didn’t have resources enough to have a higher education
    God Bless Riaz and all the children who have the same passion and Hats-off to the author.
    Great Article!Recommend

  • Sara

    BRAVO!! :’) Recommend

  • Adil

    I gave few old books to my servant the other day so that he can learn english. next day he proudly told me that he sold them for Rs 50. Recommend

  • AHmed

    what a sizzling story………………. really everyone should get a responsible of .1% we become a great nation.

    I have a such kind of story bt I cant define……………..Recommend

  • Abubakar

    it brought tears to my eyes really i wish i could do something for childrens like riaz :)what a inspirational story………..Recommend

  • Sindhu

    AMAZING! :)

    What an article. It made me smile and water-eyed at the same second!

    Hats off to the writer. I adore you for taking a great step 11 years back since now nobody even trusts these children on roads for numerous reasons. Recommend

  • http://codingstreet.com Mustafa Hanif

    My “Qari Sahab” … the bearded dude that thought me Quran when I was a kid … everyone has one …

    He was a ordinary fellow, but loved the English language … within few years .. he now has a cell phone and sends SMS when he doesn’t want to teach my little brother … his messages are like this

    “I shall not be able to teach today, I shall come tomorow. Jazakallah” … its so funny :DRecommend

  • Hassan

    You made someone wear a seat belt??. in Pakistan.?…. 11 years ago? …O_O wowRecommend

  • Emo man

    You are a good man Asad, you are a good man..

    i couldn’t hold my tears. God bless you.Recommend

  • Adeel Naeem

    They ‘claim’ that Shariah will take us back to stoneage, well, hey look where democracy had definitely took us to?

    Agree in totum that the shoulder of responsibility has to be with us, as individuals, but bear in mind, that the real solution lies not only in getting the sincere leaders, but getting the ‘right’ and the ‘only’ system of education based on Islam, where the basic premise is success in both this Dunya and Akhira, and not merely on ever changing evolutionary-illusioned theories of industrialization of the 60’s and the 70’s.Recommend

  • Suleman Malik

    Every now and then God does show us the light to open our eyes up.
    lets just hope that we realize it and care for people around us & so that we are not so involved in our own self that we just ignore every now and thenRecommend

  • ambreen

    there are many schools in defence and clifton areas now.. you just need to know right kind of ppl to get there… at some schools students get paid to study… and some has live in hostels..

    for some reason.. i see a v different Pakistan in next decade or so… hope this change comes in other cities and provinces of Pakistan… cuz karachiites contribution in politics is not as influential as punjab’sRecommend

  • Sana Hameed Baba

    That is truly inspirational :) Recommend

  • Owais Atta

    Its simply outstanding. It makes me really emotional. Look forward to do something practically to educate such people. Thanks for sharing this story. GOD bless you and Riaz.Recommend

  • Adeel Rind

    I’ve wondered many a time how many of the children scavenging through garbage dumps, if given the opportunity, could have the potential to do something remarkable in this world. But every one of those times I bow my head down in embarrassment as memories of the moment flash before my eyes when I was putting my signatures on Lahore Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education’s Examination Registration Form underneath the oath [paraphrased here] that “… I have enabled one illiterate individual to read and write so as for him/her to be regarded literate…”, whereas in fact, I never had. The system we blame, with all its flaws, does at least provide for as many children to be educated each year as the number of candidates sitting the HSSC exam. If only I had the courage to hold myself by my pledge or the honesty to own up to my inability and forfeit the exam. I failed our youth. I am a disgrace to Pakistan.Recommend

  • sohaib

    this is so fantastic and out of the most thought provokingRecommend

  • Sadia

    Really touching…………….. gives U a reason to smile and cry!Recommend

  • Haider zia

    I wish we have tonnes of Asad Alis . . Such a wonderful story. .smile on my face ,tears in my eyes and heart pumping blood at the speed of light at the part when asad ali recieved that email. Bravo.I wish we have tonnes of Asad Alis . . Such a wonderful story. .smile on my face ,tears in my eyes and heart pumping blood at the speed of light at the part when asad ali recieved that email. Bravo.Recommend

  • faizan haq

    touchy ! god bless you RaizRecommend

  • family man

    Riaz opted for education rather than street crime. Moral of the story is Pakistan (like any country) should set its goal, path right. It will take time and will have lots of hurdles or set backs; but still continue. Your destination will be meaningful for the world.Recommend

  • Ahsan shaikh

    Brilliant article..there r so many kids like riaz who want to study but unfortunately they end their lives as criminal or drug/alcohol addicts..!Recommend

  • Aafid

    Really touchy..and there is a lesson for thousands of Riaz’s in Pakistan. If you are eager and have determination, then one can do any thing….!!! Dear Sir, thanks for sharing such article..!!Recommend

  • http://www.flickr.com/shairani Asad Shairani

    Excellent. Recommend

  • Usman Kamal

    Just one Word .. ” Superb* “Recommend

  • M Atif Zia

    Our best wishes are always with your Riaz. ALLAH bless you. please share your email id with us if you are reading this. Recommend

  • Umer

    What a feeling at the part you said i recieved email from him. Thumbs up.Recommend

  • Rajesh, Bangalore

    One of the most moving pieces I have read in a long while. I guess there is still hope for humanity.Recommend

  • Asad

    Amazing story, would be great if a short film based on this story was made to promote the idea suggested by the author. Great work!Recommend

  • Boo Hoo


  • http://www.segmentnext.com Afnan Mir

    My heart stopped beating for few a couple of seconds :/ BEAUTIFUL!Recommend

  • Tanveer Abbas

    speechless. i will try to help at least one young-one.InshallahRecommend

  • Shoaib Rabbani

    Well done! I adored reading every word of your article! Recommend

  • Fraaz khan baloch

    a number of raiz are roaming in streets and ruining there life who desperately want to learn english Recommend

  • nusrat osama

    It is a great real life story… loved reading it.Recommend

  • Fraaz khan baloch

    a number of raiz are roaming in the streets and ruining their life who desperately want to learn english Recommend

  • omar

    Superb and genuine article after a long time… we all see lot of kids like riaz on road with sparkling eyes filled with hope to be like us or better .. i will do it and i hope u all can also do a lil effort frm your side to make this country a better place to live…we cant rely on on our politicians to make this country worth living for normal human beings…Recommend

  • fasiha

    very touching story,v as pakistanis, espeacially foreign qualified shud do sumthong for educating the unprivileged,becoz a small drop of water makes an ocean.Recommend

  • sophia khan

    A well written article and indeed a message for all of those who have lost hope, this kid Riaz has shown that nothing is impossible!!Recommend

  • http://Islamabad Taha Ceen Tayyab

    I just hope Riaz reads it. I think he’ll dance to it.
    You cant be appreciated and praised enough… You are the Man!Recommend

  • Annas hafeez

    Respect fr de Author… We have to Mobilize bcz if not Now den When…. Having tears in my eyes nd smile on my face… U also made us feel ProudRecommend

  • zubair raja

    respect for auther it make me think tooooooooooRecommend

  • zubair raja

    respect for auther Recommend

  • zubair raja

    @sophia khan: yes very true but sopia i gues we had to think practically if we belong to good family then why not to support 1 poor in getting educationRecommend

  • zubair raja

    respect for auther really made me think and changed my mind Recommend

  • anum

    n yeah guyz particularly i do wanna throw spotlight on his last few lines,,,we really can really gt ne eager kid a refuge unda our shelter,,,,n es a high time when Robert Wheeler himself i.e. the DEAN of KSBL (Karachi School of Business and leadership) told tht Pakistan is predicted to be the 4th largest country by 2050 n education seems critical fo this country to run smoothly by then!!!=/Recommend

  • http://facebook unkown

    i have no words to say Godbless Raiz!
    looking forward to do sumthyg for the people like raiz who deserve Good education like us .Recommend

  • 10th

    Respect for the author. However, he is very lucky to have come across such a child, as not many street kids are interested in learning or studying. I myself have tried my best to educate children working in my house, but they are much more interested in other stuff. There’s no chance we’ll be able to make a difference without the child showing sufficient motivation.Recommend

  • Henna

    First of all, you still had your email address from 11 years ago!
    Second, amazing story :)Recommend

  • anum

    and yeah guyz particularly i do wanna throw spotlight on his last few lines,,,we really can get any eager kid a refuge under our shelter,,,,and its a high time when Robert Wheeler himself i.e. the DEAN of KSBL (Karachi School of Business and leadership) told that Pakistan is predicted to be the 4th largest country by 2050 and education seems critical for this country to run smoothly by then!!!=/Recommend

  • Atif Shafique

    Hats off to you man, its really a thought provoking story and every one should learn a lesson from it.
    Infact every pakistani signs an undertaking that they will teach two needy students after completing their education but we never look back perhaps we should.
    God Bless you and Riaz.
    By the way what is he doing now? :)Recommend

  • zainab Azhar

    v nice ….u little effort ……..act as a way to guidance…..really appreciated!!Recommend

  • Nabeel

    This was an entertaining and absorbing read – and then comes his email and it became, by far, one of the most excellent anecdote I’ve encountered here.

    Boys like Riaz are the unfortunate product of an unjust government paired with our own apathy. The average passer-by will just brush them off and go their way. Thank you for getting him on his feet. Teach a man to fish, and all that. Makes for an amazing story too.Recommend

  • Hassan

    Wow, truly an incredible story! May Allah guide this country and its leaders so that we can take advantage of such talent and potential! Recommend

  • Arif

    Such experiences show how an individual can make a significant difference in a society…commending a piece of writing is good, but to learn lesson and act upon it is only wise…let us try to act on the advice given by the author and in that show our appreciation for the good!Recommend

  • http://www.shuhab.com/Home.aspx Shuhab

    immensely thought provoking and very beautifully written … 3 cheers for the author !!Recommend

  • Mazher Arshad

    That was more than an awesome. Really heart touching!Recommend

  • observer

    Hats off to Riaz. His struggle and achievements are truly ‘heroic’.
    Thank you for telling this inspiring tale.
    As they say, Where there is a will….Recommend

  • http://www.rankmeme.com Ali Yaqoob

    11 years and you still remember the questions you asked him :SRecommend

  • OZ

    Respect :)Recommend

  • Danish Ahmad

    we can do nothing.we can just prayer to our ALLAH and change our selves. May ALLAH bless us AAMEENRecommend

  • Maria

    I am very impressed by this article…being in states for a long time has made me forget the roots that I come from. I appreciate all the people like Asad, to have that kind of spirit…Hope I get a chance to do something similar….Proud Pakistani…Recommend

  • http://www.eokarachi.org Mavia Khan

    what a story ,,, really touching

    i have never commented on any article this is my first comment and hats off to the writter

    Best of luck buddy
    Thanks for sharing it Recommend

  • mehar

    a lesson to learn though! Recommend

  • Raja Salman

    it was really impressing story. Even i have planned, after reading, to do something in this regard.Recommend

  • http://talaltq.blogspot.com Talal

    Sir, I have goosebumps!Recommend

  • Uzma

    Best piece I’ve read in a long long time. It brought tears to my eyes. Truly inspiring!Recommend

  • Sahar Zuberi

    Brilliant piece of writing. Very inspiring!Recommend

  • haider

    simply heart touchingRecommend

  • mariyam k b

    wow.. what an inspirational story..Recommend

  • zirwa

    truly amazing…Recommend

  • Anonymous

    I am sure, this story is not completely true as it claims to be. The youth is shirty for education sounds good and true to some extent. I did the same thing. I got one of the guy in the streets books and he ended up selling to a local store IN FRONT OF ME. He thought I had left, but I was right there observing what he would do with the books. I realized he was right too. He did not have money to eat, why would he care learning. Hunger is the first instinct a human being will go for. Recommend

  • http://www.appleifone.blogspot.com Dr.Umar Nazar Rathore

    nicely written bro.
    really loved reading it :)..Recommend

  • http://www.facebook.com/Kaizen.Pakistan Omair Khimani

    Salam. My name is Omair Khimani.
    I recently moved to Karachi from Saudi Arabia; particularly for my studies, but also because I loved my country and I wanted to experience the life of a normal Pakistani.
    As time passed by, I realized that our nation was drowning. The rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer. I’d often see a rickshaw driver helping a beggar, while people in their cars would just rudely tell them off. Unhappy with everything going on, my friends and I decided to do anything possible which could help the situation of the poor in Pakistan.
    Now, my friends and I are running an NGO by the name of Kaizen Pakistan (not yet registered) where we educate kids and help them with the issues they face in daily lives. It hurts to see that the nation which was built in the name of Islam now inhabits the world’s most corrupt and selfish people.
    This is our country, we need to take care of it in the future and for that, we need to start building our base from this very moment.

    And if possible, can I please know who this amazing man was who helped Riaz?
    Truly an inspiration. Thank you :)Recommend

  • sajid ahmed hashmi

    Very inspiring story Mr.Asad!! this shows that our little efforts and good deeds can create a hell lot of difference. I wish, our politicians and WE AS A NATION can understand the value of education.Literacy is the only the solution to all our problems…

    God bless you… Recommend

  • Mueed Jamal

    Wonderful Article ! I usually stop reading the articles while reading them and do not complete till end; as i find most of them a little boring and soon I lose interest in the articles .. But I would like to appreciate the author a lot for the way he wrote this article (a true story). I always use to think the very same but have never thought the way which is indicated in the end of this article ( if only one percent of us… ). I am impressed the way author has ended his story :) Being a home tutor for about 4 years in Pakistan Lahore, I consider it very true that the children on the roads selling goods or offering their cleaning are actually the one who need home tuition; and not those who just sit back relax on sofas waiting for the teacher to leave soon and having no respect for the teachers as well. In fact very few children of rich people have interest in learning. Mostly are ignoring their studies, yet they are given education, and those who are on roads under sun selling and begging all the time (just like RIAZ) may have immense talent and interest to learn!Recommend

  • ahsan

    its such a touching story..its always good to read these kind of stories..i know a school which takes 5 rupees monthly and teach a child from a family..it takes a child in nursery and teaches him till o level and fsc for just 5 rupees monthly..we need more projects like that and encourage such kinds of organiztions because this will have cascading effects..a child will not only improve conditions of his current family but once educated, he will have a future educated family..this is jsut one child and i am talking about 350 odd students in that school whose lives are changingRecommend

  • Haider

    My God! It’s so inspiring…. Thanks Asad for sharing such a wonderful experience…. your care and his determination…..truly inspiring…May Allah bless you man!!! I’m feeling happy after a long long time man!!!!Recommend

  • michelle sabour

    there is a need to fix the poverty that envelopes our youth from the usa to pakistan to russia. the children suffer, yet they will be the leaders of tomorrow. the leaders who lack education, lack knowledge, lack empathy, might well destroy the world around them. poverty is everywhere…, donated time, donated money, donated understanding and being human could very well change the world to a better place.I knew a man 20 years ago whom financially sponsered a child to attend school.
    he paid the school directly. Contact your local school principal in your area of interest, give a helping handRecommend

  • Sarah

    Inspiring and truly beautiful :)Recommend

  • Aman ur Rehman

    JazakaAllah mate :) Recommend

  • emu

    really a great story…
    whtever u did bro, Allah will give u its reward..Recommend

  • Em

    A truly inspiring story. There are many such Riaz’s and many Asad Ali’s trying ti redress the balance, we just need that many more to come forward and do as much if not more to bring about change faster. Recommend

  • ajawai2

    Respect and God BlessRecommend

  • Arnold

    Thank you Asad for sharing this inspirational story ! Recommend

  • dr salma memon

    zara num ho to ye meti bohat zarkhaiz hai saqi ( iqbal)Recommend

  • Siddique Humayun

    Lovely! This is what we ought to strive for, to demand for, and to write about. Unlike gay rights and the sensational garbage that has been floating around.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, thumbs up.Recommend