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Monday, 2 March 2015

She sold her jewellery to set up ‘special school’ in Kashmir

On a cold January morning in Srinagar, Tasleema Shah clutched two thick notebooks in her hands and set out on a journey that entails meetings with her students, one of the few things which bring her solace and immense moral gratification. The impotent sun over the city is cloaked under dark, snow-pregnant clouds. Temperature has plummeted below zero. Tasleema slumps in the backseat of her school van, whizzing past the lanes and by lanes of Shalimar locality, past Mughal Gardens, past happy couples strolling along the Boulevard Road, past Dal Lake. Her first stop is almost a kilometer away, at a dilapidated, single-storied house bordered by a newly-built brick wall. A corrugated tin-sheet nailed to a loose wooden frame acts as the main gate of the house. Tasleema opens the gate, walks on the gravel-laden path and knocks at the main door of the house. Suhaib Nazir, 10, one of her students who suffers from autism, lives here.

Autism is a rare, mental disorder characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts. Autistic patients grow excessive facial hear, avoid eye contact and exhibit a delayed reaction to happenings. At least 10 million people in India alone suffer from autism and out of 250 newborns, one is autistic. When Suhaib turned two, he would cry endlessly, drooled and got irritated without any reason. That’s when his father, Nazir Ahmed Rather, a government employee, showed him to a doctor and learned that his only son suffered from autism. Suhaib was raised with care and when time came, enrolled in a mainstream school. But his parents felt he was neglected by teachers there. At the age of eight years, he was enrolled in Kaunsar Special School opened by Tasleema for differently-abled children in Shalimar locality.

A frail woman wearing a ragged tweed pheran opens the door. A smile forms on her face when she sees Tasleema. After exchanging customary pleasantries, the two women walk into the house. Tasleema is led into a dimly-lit room whose walls are flaking distemper. Suhaib is sitting in a corner. Tasleema sits to his left while to his right sits Suhaib’s mother, Parveena, who had opened the door. Her hands seems parched and her face has developed wrinkles. Married into a lower-middle class family, she seems to have toiled in all these years in order to meet the gastronomical needs of her family.

Tasleema greets Suhaib and asks him about his daily routine; brushing teeth, bathing, breakfast and how he had spent the last day. Throughout the conversation, Suhaib kept his head down. He initially replied in extended hmmmms but, when pressed further, blurted out short sentences, never more than three word long. Tasleema chides him for avoiding eye contact, turning to his mother to investigate whether Suhaib is being taken care of, the second purpose of Tasleema’s “home visit” besides meeting her students. She has to ensure that her students complete the tasks assigned to them and also leaves a fresh set of assignments before leaving.

Suhaib has been showing tremendous improvement. His fits of rage has come down and he talks in broken sentences. It’s a relief which his parents had never imagined to come. They credit Tasleema for the achievement who is one of the few persons with unfettered access to Suhaib.

In her mid-thirties, Tasleema was born in a middle class family in Anantnag town. Her father is a government employee while her mother is a home-maker. Being the eldest child among the four siblings – two sisters and two brothers – Tasleema wanted to make it big and set a benchmark for her other siblings. She got her education at government-run schools. At a young age after completing her 12th in arts stream, she was married in Srinagar’s Nishat area. Just two year later, issues started cropping up between the couple, culminating in their divorce in 2011. She has two children from her husband; the eldest son studies in fifth class and the second son is in third standard. She doesn’t want to talk about her past.

“It was earth shattering experience,” Tasleema says of her marriage, “I had died inside.” But she didn’t give up on life. She prepared herself to face greater challenges, “I had to stand up on my own legs, for myself and my children.”

Soon after the divorce, she frantically looked for a job. With mediocre education, getting a job was going to be difficult but she didn’t lose hope, “After a long struggle, I got a job in a school in 2008 as an assistant teacher. It was a school for children who required special care.” Her interaction with the specially-abled children inspired her and it turned into a stepping stone for her journey into the world of social work from which she has never looked back, “I saw these kids are actually very special. Unfortunately, in Kashmiri, we call them maet (crazy) or malang (lunatics).”

Before she donned the robes of a social activist, Tasleema was just like any other married woman. Her world revolved around her husband and her in-laws. However, as things turned ugly, she got ready to face greater challenges in her life. In the following year, she attended various training programs conducted by Special Olympics – Bharat, an NGO that organizes Olympic sports for people with disabilities.

“They impart special training to the teachers working with the special kids. I also got an opportunity to take differently-abled kids of the Valley on an eight-day program to Punjab and other states,” she says.

In 2009, Tasleema conducted a door-to-door survey on the number of physically challenged kids from Dal Gate to Harwan. The stretch of road is an ideal resting place for thousands of tourists who come to holiday among the lush-green meadows and snow-capped mountains. Tourism is a flourishing business in Kashmir. The state government spends millions of rupees every year to attract more tourists to the state. Over a million came last year, brightening the financial prospects of people associated with the industry.

“I found 130 differently-abled kids in the area. As time passed, my emotional attachment with these kids increased and I felt I had to do more for them,” she says.

While the JK Disablities Act, 1998, makes three percent reservation for differently-abled children mandatory for all the private schools, the act seems to have been thrown to the winds in the Valley. This apathy gave Tasleema idea to come up with a special school of her own. It wasn’t going to be easy but Tasleem was resolute and she sold her jewelry.

“I was gifted jewelry worth INR five hundred thousand by father on my marriage which I sold off,” Tasleema says, “and with that money I ran the school expenses for two years.”

In the coming years, with her dedication and vision, she bought a vehicle and necessary equipment for school purpose. She also hired a special educator. She started with small steps and never looked back. Her school, which started with just three students and one teacher in a small room from Shalimar, soon became popular throughout the city.

While the schools across the region are closed for winter vacations. Tasleema leaves her home early in the morning to know the progress made by her students, “Have faith in Allah and take care of your children. They will be doing fine soon, Insha Allah,” she assures one of the parents of a differently-abled child in Dalgate.

Working for differently-abled in itself is a great cause, but working for such kids at a place where these underprivileged kids make up a significant part of the population makes it even nobler. The Census 2011 says that Jammu and Kashmir has a total population of around 3.76 Lakh disabled persons, an increase of almost 69,000 persons as compared to 3.067 lakh in 2001. However, if a survey conducted by Zeba Aapa Institute for Inclusive Education is to be believed, the total population of differently-abled persons in J&K is 8 lakh, three times more than the government survey.

After she finishes her ‘home visits’, Tasleema heads home, a rented building in Shalimar, which takes 30 minutes from her last stop at Dara in Harwan, almost 10 km from her school. Her day doesn’t end there. From being a social worker during the day, the tired Tasleema now dons the role of a homemaker. While she puts up a brave face in front of the world, she feels lonely inside. Her professional life is in deep contrast with her personal life.

Her school has 20 differently-abled kids and she has hired two special educators and one physiotherapist. The school now operates from a four-roomed rented building with many equipment for giving physical strength to the students. Al-Habib Foundation, a trust registered with the state government, meets most of the school’s expenses. The foundation has provided various facilities as well as equipment to the school. Tasleema says in past two years, three of her differently-abled students were enrolled in a normal school. “It’s a big achievement for me and my management,” she says.

Tasleema seems to be content with her efforts but she feels that the state government should change its “lackadaisical attitude” towards such kids. “The state government should come forward to help us,” she says, “We were given vehicle last year by the state government but beyond that, no help has come. Even locals do not give us space because they think we will not be able to afford the rent.”

She feels the differently-abled children are send as a test by God for the parents, “We must not be ashamed of them. We will be closer to heaven if we take great care of them.”

Currently, she is pursuing her masters in social works from Indira Gandhi National Open University. “I am doing it so that I understand these kids better. That’s how I can connect with them effectively.”

It’s not easy to manage the school, then home visits, then kids and then her own studies, but she doesn’t complain. “This is all Huqooq-ul-Ibaad. I am doing this for greater reward in the world hereafter.

Tasleema’s eldest kid is 10-years-old who often complains to her that she loves her students more than him. “Every time he says this, I only offer a smile in response. I believes Allah will bestow me with ‘Jannat-Ul-Firdous’,” she says.

Source: Rising Kashmir, 2nd March 2015

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