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.

  • faisal

    really agree that youth is agree for education ,,,,
    God Bless You Riaz …. Recommend

  • http://bakedsunshine.wordpress.com/ Shumaila

    Truly an inspiring post. :) wishing both you and riaz best of luck for the future.Recommend

  • http://ayeshahoda.wordpress.com Ayesha Hoda

    This was a very good blog post. Quite different from the ones we generally get to read,Recommend

  • Hassan

    One of the best articles i’ve read in a long time. God bless you and riazRecommend

  • Jawad Khan Niazi

    A very good deed and a brilliant articleRecommend

  • iram

    speechless for the story!
    our youth really need such motivation..
    if only we play our small roles instead of waiting for something big
    we can surely bring some change!!Recommend

  • Shah Hassan

    It should not be like this in my opinion.Recommend

  • Omer Rashid

    Sir, you made me feel proud of my country and my nation… God Bless You Asad. May you fulfill your ambitions :)Recommend

  • Nishaa

    Breath of fresh air (y) a very positive blog a welcome change from all the sarcasm and criticism, something constructive, please keep writing :) Recommend

  • shahrukh naeem

    An inspiration for the residents of Pakistan. people like riaz are often treated with derision but what you did was something only few do. We need people like you to bring a positive change to our country which, unfortunately, is going towards oblivion…:(Recommend

  • waleed

    haTs Off 2 Riaz… keep it up man..Recommend

  • sidra ashraf

    hope this remarkable story opens not only the closed eyes, but also the hearts of of all those by whose assistance and support, children like Riaz can fulfill their dream…Recommend

  • Sheraz

    Our beloved Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (P.B.U.H) said, its better to teach one how to caught fish rather then give him money (it is not a word to word coding). so my friend you done the right thing and it is also our responsibility to do it for the betterment of our society. Recommend

  • ssk

    touched. hats off to both the men!Recommend

  • http://facebook waleed

    hAts off 2 Riaz… and the person who shares this positive information…
    truly amazing.. :)Recommend

  • Sadaf

    we still got hope as long as we have people like you.. and kids like Riaz :)Recommend

  • Anum

    I think your kindness motivated him. I believe he would have thought it to be too good to be true before meeting you but you gave him hope. The little kind deeds goes a long way.Recommend

  • Sabahat Naseem

    just today I was so frustrated about where we are heading to after my work experience at a renown hospital in Karachi and you saved me from losing all the hopes.

    May Allah bless you and bless Pakistan.Recommend

  • Anum Maqsud

    Great read. What you left out is what Riaz wrote in that email to you. Would’ve added a great deal to your piece. Where is he now? How is he? :) Recommend

  • rizwan e alam

    Very Inspiring…
    I’m Speechless, don’t know what to write but I got very emotional while reading it, Riaz have been through long dark night but now ALHAMDULILLAH he has seen the sun.
    It shows we and our kids have determination, we need some educational revolution in our country and its not possible without free education system. Million of kids who are selling newspapers working in automobiles workshop are still uneducated. I wish we see some educational revolution in our Pakistan.
    and @ author

  • moiz


  • http://quratulaintejani.blogspot.com/ Quratulain Tejani

    Mind blowing and touching! Thanks Asad Ali for sharing this with all the readers. May we get the courage to make a difference like you! God bless! :)Recommend

  • Salman

    RESPECT is the word for you. Recommend

  • Hari

    Its is really heartening to see this blog and the comments.
    The overwhelming comments of empathy and the thoughts of doing something provides hope and promise for the future.

    Lot of people have expressed a desire for doing something for the youth and their disappointment at the leadership. I think we can do our bit if we can volunteer a few hours and some space for couple of days every week.We can get together the under privileged youth and illiterate elders for a few hours every week and educate them to read and write, You will be amazed how this approach can transform the lives and the future.

    I am from India and I have seen this approach implemented by volunteers since the 80’s transform lives for the better. As you know, instead of relying on leaders……….self help is the way.T


  • http://www.hazaardaastan.com Umer hameed

    a wonderful piece of work, really thought provoking, well to tell you that every single person now have to do something for this country, i and some of my friends took this initiative by a theatre play… have a look…


  • http://www.facebook.com/xysean.xizor xysean

    AWESOME approach…heart-melting story…:)Recommend

  • http://shaheen.whyztech.com/ shaheen khan

    Asad, what a lovely story – It would only add to it if Riaz can comment on it or at least read all the comments his and yours efforts are generating.Recommend

  • zia

    Greatttttt …. Can I make a long play out of it???
    What do u guys suggest??? something for 14th August ???Recommend

  • shiz

    wow, this was amazing! i have tears in my eyes.Recommend

  • Mike Ghous

    There is another dimension.My friend got just busted at gunpoint for his i-phone by a 14 yr old at Clifton, near Aghas! You never know!Recommend

  • anwar

    one of best article ever read and we should have one education system and education emergency in Pakistan and also jobs opportunities. Recommend

  • Hamza Amir

    I strongly believe that commenting will not help. People need to get up. I have taken an oath to start teaching students in some kachi abadi as I teach tuitions generally. Recommend

  • Nawaiz Khan

    Very touching and inspiring.. well done.. we must all do our part.Recommend

  • Deeda

    So simple yet powerful. :)Recommend

  • http://saidcanblog.blogspot.com Said Chaudhry

    wow. this is truly inspiring and amazing. Recommend

  • Imran


    A very inspiring story. Many others can take your example and run with it. As we say ‘Katray Katray say darya banta hai’. I think you should be proud that you provided this young kid with the necessary light he was craving, even if you didn’t teach him yourself. Hats off to you.Recommend

  • usman

    seriously this was the very first article of my life that i read with so much attentions of what’s gonna happen in the end ,, i really liked it , by the way congratulations to you for what you tried you got the response after 11 years ,, and may Allah bless Riaz and you ..

    I wish i get a chance like this in my life to help these people .. InshALLAH Recommend

  • SR

    This is the most beautiful article I’ve read in a very long time!
    I agree with most of the people here it made me smile and cry at the same time :)) Recommend

  • Abdul Basit Siddiq

    Truly inspired me. We should do something to educate our masses. At least we should give some books to those like Riaz as author did. We need more people like author. God Bless you.Recommend

  • mirza

    You are a good man. But I think in today’s Pakistan, if someone is giving a lift to a street boy, they are probably trying to rape him or sell him to some other sicko, or turn him into a suicide bomber. So first piece of advice given to such a child should be to NOT hitch a ride with strangers who offer them money for a long ride.

    Not exactly chicken soup for the soul, but the bitter taste of reality.Recommend

  • Qudsia

    what an inspiring piece,

    I think its my duty to contribute in the development of my society being an educated person. i think we waited for a long time for others to do something for us.I often ask my self too, what i did for people around me.There are so many Riaz around me , its time for us to open our eyes, least we can do is consider them human

  • Shahbaz Younis

    very inspirational and thought provoking story… God bless you Riaz and the author keep it up the good work :)Recommend

  • http://hotmail.com Nusrat Alamgir

    Your story brought tears in my eyes…..and you are absolutely right we have surely run out of excuses. Its time to get up and do something on our own instead of waiting for the government to take the required initiatives.Recommend

  • Talat Haque

    One of the loveliest things I’ve read ever ……… Bless you both!Recommend

  • Mariam

    Poignant…we definitely. need more people like you to guide the hundreds of Riazs in this country, who want to do so much but are lost. Recommend

  • http://sahrash.blogspot.com Sahrash Ansari

    Such an awe-inspiring piece of writing. Filled me up with a mixed bag of emotions. I wish Riaz Godspeed and pray that people of Pakistan realize that by spending just a little something, they can achieve a lot more and contribute to so much bigger…
    Respect for the writer for such a post.


  • ihsan

    this was something amazing…i just loved the aricle…pakistani people give a lot of charity.but it should be used in a good way…Recommend

  • phosphorescence

    Many years ago, we were taken around a temple in Yangon by a young man. He was out of university, as the government had shut them down yet again, so was making his living as a tour guide. He wanted to learn Italian, so that he could show Italian tourists around and when asked if we could help, he asked for an English-Italian dictionary. He gave us the address of a local general, so that it wouldn’t be stolen and my mother sent it soon afterwards. The letter he wrote back was one of the most touching I have ever seen. I hope the dictionary improved his life for the better. We need to help people help themselves by giving them what they truly need to make their lives better. The author of this article is a good man. I hope he has inspired at least one person to do something like what he just described. Recommend

  • Rehan Ali

    Hat’s off to you. You really made my morning. Recommend

  • Kashif

    MashaAllah….amazing….stupendous….fabulous…..i ran out of words…..will try to emulate what you have done sir…..i am quite emotional right now…..had this feeling a long time back…..JazakAllah Khair for sharing this….may Allah justly return for your deeds, as he is the only one who can, ameen!Recommend

  • http://www.weirdlyodd.com/ absoluteicon

    A Hearth Touching Story, very well written by the Author, my eyes shed a tear as i was just imagining the circumstances Raiz had been gone through out of which he managed to respond you back after many year. Very Inspirational !

    I wish the educational system is Pakistan flourishes soon and the difference of education for the Poor and the Rich abolishes. What an Irony! Recommend

  • Kamran Ahmed Ansari

    Sir Asad,
    This is great lesson for me, I have been associated with teaching profession for 14 years but very sad that i couldn’t do like you. Your true story led me to do good in future. InshaAllah.


    Kamran Ahmed AnsariRecommend

  • maneeza shaukat

    a heart touching article, many Riaz are strolling in the streets waiting for a helping hand or a lift to rise from the dust and needs a little polish,and !!, there they are ready to shine !!! ……….Recommend

  • Rashid

    at last there comes hope :)Recommend

  • http://www.webwizo.com Asif Iqbal

    What a touchy story…Recommend

  • http://www.clik2lern.blogspot.com Qazi Hamayun

    i have no words to explain my emotions about such a nice and inspirational story…. Recommend

  • abdul rashid dhanyal

    i would like to convey heartiest thanks on sharing u r message about u r friend Riaz. at least one pakistani can help a poor child, one day we may be called a educated and well aware nation in the world. Recommend

  • Sarah

    Heartwarming! :’ )Recommend

  • toba saeed

    amazing article:)Recommend

  • Kamal Akhund

    I simply had wet corner of my eyes after reading this…..truly inspiringRecommend

  • http://saadil.wordpress.com Aadil

    A remarkable story, something glittering in the gloom we are caught in.

    Kudos! We’re proud of you!Recommend

  • Abu-Bakar Bashir

    deeply touched… Finally hav read somtihng after a long time that really inspired me. Thanks for sharing…..Recommend

  • ayesha

    inspiring i must sayRecommend

  • Mohammad Assad

    A pleasant surprise compared to the nonsensical drivel that appears on ET blogs usually. Recommend

  • Gappoo

    It’s really heartening to see that we are such an emotional bunch of people – just goes to show that most of us Pakistanis, whether living abroad or in the country, care a lot about our homeland and would love to contribute something back, whether it be by teaching under-priviledged children or helping to build schools/hospitals. The only thing the country needs is a government and leaders it can trust – I strongly believe that if us Pakistanis have faith and trust in a government/system which we know would deliver justice, values meritocracy and is willing to even tighten its own belt in terms of expenditures, we are a people who would go to much length in doing our part for it – whether it be by volunteering, contributing funds etc. I pray that we soon get honourable and trustworthy leaders and a government which the people can believe in. Aameen. Thank you, Asad for sharing such a heart-warming story – definately few and far between these days. Recommend

  • http://www.cricket-365.tv/ Live Cricket

    This just proves were there is a will there is a way!Recommend

  • Malaika

    Brought tears to my eyes. Truly heartening.Recommend

  • Arooj Fatima

    amazing story you have here! you mustve been proud of yourself. I wish i could meet the boy too! :)
    Give him my congrats if you can!Recommend

  • Sheheryar

    Respect, brother. Beautifully written. But I don’t understand the last line. What do you mean by it?Recommend

  • Wajahat Hussain

    Very nice indeed, cheers to author and RiazRecommend

  • Mahlaka Sajid

    My mother owns a school in rural area in Lahore. It brings great pleasure 2 see the thirst of such incredible kids studying in there but at times it is extremely harsh upon me an my mother to take upon the fact that a kid leaves the school saying he does not have enough money to study. Specially to mention the talent they have leave us speechless at times. Of course v try our best to keep them and ask them to pay as much as they can but then unfortunately to run the school v cannot keep all of them as v ourselves have limited resources .I only wish if all of them get a chance to study because they are more enthusiastic than us studying in the posh institutions. Recommend

  • Lynette Dias-Gouveia

    So happy that you shared this experience. What a beautiful message.
    I’m truly inspired.

    Thank You Asad Ali.Recommend

  • Haider Raza

    Author and Riaz a well deserved appreciation for both of you but readers we are missing the point here:
    “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.”
    I am taking my one today. Go for yours…Recommend

  • miniMe

    i am really really moved by what you did, n then u actually took out time to write it even more perfectly, i could picture every moment you wrote in the article. This is truly an inspirational story and we should all try to do our part, like you did yours.Recommend

  • Saadia Farooq

    Hats off!!
    Am spellbound but i can assure you i will follow your footsteps:)Recommend

  • Bushra

    wat an inspirational story! a very good read after some time. If only we all realize and do something for our country especially when our leader have failed badly in fulfilling all their responsibilities.
    thumbs up for the author!Recommend

  • faheem malik


  • Zohra

    Brilliant read and I got chills when the author mentioned that he received an email from Riaz. I think, its the time to take such responsibility. Recommend

  • faheem malik


  • Hasib

    Riaz, may you acquire knowledge that you seek and may people you come across in life be the kind of people who truly believe in extending a helping hand.Recommend

  • OZ

    “FABULOUS,MARVELOUS,AWESOME” ……i really don’t have words to describe my feelings..
    it really touches my heard…Recommend

  • http://twitter.com/khanshakeeb shakeeb

    Really its amazing, hopefully he will be successful in future but TCF is an organization and they tried their level best to remove this gap of education.Recommend

  • Rabia

    Mr. Asad we need more people like you. The young sweeper in our office is so eager to learn that after office hours he learns to read & write from my male colleagues.Recommend

  • Maaha

    Very inspiring. I think majority of us would want to read his email. Please share it with us (:Recommend

  • Dr Marium Ateeq

    touchy …brought tears to my eyes….but that is not the solution …God give me the will n strength to do something like this n more …starting with the very people around us .
    the purpose of gettig moved will not be solved unless it is followed by a definitive action…Recommend

  • Saqib

    yet another insightful and frank article. Really hearteningRecommend

  • Aly AKkash

    MAn !!! it tOOk me Away iN thE PASt WhN i wanted to LEarN eNglIsH buh V HAd NO recources To gEt AdMit In An EnglisH MediUm schOOl.. lol :)
    thIs story toucHed MY heart N i Must sAy tHAt pAkistan iz fuLL of talent buh unfortunately oUr Gov. Aint PaYin’ NO AttentiOn towards Dis seriOus Matter Of “lAcK Of education Atmosphere”..Recommend

  • Jasir

    The story gave me goosebumps. My eyes had tears but i had a smile on my face. Thankyou author for helping Riaz. He’ll appreciate it forever. Recommend

  • savera akhter

    wooooo……finally tribune coming up with some thing good…the writer has made my day…..Recommend

  • Sana Ansari

    A friend of mine narrated this story to me and the first thing i did after that was look up and read the actual article. It is more than a beautiful story something one would only imagine to be a fairy tale. I wish one day I would have the honor of helping a child in need or doing something similar for our Nation’s children.Recommend

  • Naveed

    Awesome! Recommend

  • Asad Ali

    Dear Readers,

    Your responses, e-mails and numerous messages filled with kind words have deeply humbled me. I thank all of you who took out the time to read the story and share it with others. What each of you does now is entirely up to you. But as you all know, when one gets inspired to take a step, it becomes increasingly difficult if the step is put on hold, even momentarily. You may have to read the story again to charge your emotions. But, each time you read it, the effect will diminish and the sounds of the rickshaws, kavvaas and generators will once again fill the space. If the story has inspired you, make your move now. I PROMISE YOU, that feeling you had at the end of the story will grow exponentially when you meet the child who’s going to be your student for the next ten years and one of your dearest friends for life. And when it gets tough (and sometimes it will) let Riaz remind you that you can’t give up.

    Your most grateful friend,


  • fatima

    You should’ve shared the letter he sent you. :)Recommend

  • salman

    m loving it .. can you send me riaz email address ??Recommend

  • Alifya Noman

    well said sir. we, being the educated class should atleast try to help people like Riaz. we can start this from our home where we have maids always willing to learn how to read and write. i salute Riaz! good job. Recommend

  • http://samarahsan.wordpress.com/ Samar

    Bravo .. . . . Recommend

  • Zunaira

    All teary-eyed now. I’m glad that someone went and did something that I always hope I can but never get around to actually doing it. You’ve made me believe that there is still hope for Pakistan. Thank God for people like you. I wish all of us get a chance to make a difference. You shall die happy .. ! :)Recommend

  • Wajahat

    Hats off to you Mr. Asad!!Recommend

  • Hussain Tariq

    The instinct of learning in our society has never experienced any depletion, while the thirst of acquiring education has always prevailed and will always. Unfortunately, the corrupt system, and feudalism have always been the only worst impediments that are blocking the process of development of our country. Recommend