In recent years I have worked with a number of students from Pakistan. They have invariably been hard working and in many instances have expressed a strong commitment towards working in their home country to improve the lives of children and young people who have been excluded or marginalised. Whenever I have discussed the situation for children and young people with special needs or disabilities in Pakistan with these students, they have been able to tell me of some of the progress made for these individuals in schools, but have often expressed their frustrations that many remain excluded from even the most rudimentary educational opportunities.
Sadly, much of the news reported from Pakistan in the English language media, paints a negative picture of a country divided by extreme politics, religious conflict and poverty. Reports of education from the area are often focused upon the limited educational provision for young people and international surveys depict a country in which it has become difficult to be optimistic for the future of today’s Pakistani children. However, this is only one part of the picture and it is important to recognise and celebrate some of the positive stories that indicate progress towards improving lives in what is often described as a “failed state”.
One such story was reported in yesterday’s edition of Dawn, the English language daily national newspaper from Pakistan. Under the headline “Disabled youth councillor plans to serve people,” the journalist Fazal Khaliq reports on the election of a young man named Sher Ali as a councillor in the Malookabad area of Mingora located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Mr Ali, who is 22 years old is a wheelchair user who depends upon friends and family to get him from his home to the centre of his town, which requires negotiating 130 steps. However, he is full of determination to represent his constituents and to campaign for improved facilities for all who live in Mingora. In particular, he has issued statements that shows his awareness of the necessity to campaign for improved education facilities. Sher Ali points out that:-
“For over 20,000 population of Malookabad we have only one primary school which is far from here, due to which half of the children do not go to school.”
Referring to his disability, Sher Ali suggests that it is no obstacle to being a good representative of his people, and he has urged others with disabilities to put themselves forward for election. Education and the provision of an improved water supply to his community are just two of the issues that he has singled out as priorities for his campaigning activity. He suggests that his election success was largely built upon the aspirations of young people who have a great desire for change in the communities in which they live. His personal determination is clearly already inspiring others and will hopefully raise awareness not only of his disability, but also of the need for improved educational opportunities for all people in Pakistan.
I suspect that the election of Sher Ali and his enthusiasm for bringing about change in his community will not make the pages of newspapers outside of Pakistan. This is a great shame, because it has become far too easy to read only negative stories from this, and several other countries around the world. Whilst reading stories of conflict, poverty and extremism, whether these be from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the world, it is easy to forget the ordinary and extraordinary people who make up the majority population in these countries. Most people wish for nothing more than an opportunity to live a peaceful existence, to earn a living, gain an education and care for their families. Yet they are tarnished by the actions of those who wield power and create an impression that their countries are dysfunctional, dangerous and chaotic.
So long as there are people who are prepared to recognise the abilities of individuals such as Sher Ali, and have the courage to elect them to positions of authority, there must be hopes that there can be improvements in society, and greater opportunities provided for those who are currently excluded. Let’s hope that Sher Ali’s story inspires others to see the positive side of a country that is far too often reported in only negative terms.