School beyond reach of Dubai's Pakistani poor

With no outside support, families unable to pay even minimal fees have no choice but to keep their young ones home.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - MARCH 19:  Women and their children who live on the same compound and who cannot afford to send their kids to school, pictured at their home in Dubai on March 19, 2010. (Randi Sokoloff / The National)  For News story by Anealla Safdar  EDITORS NOTE: We were told not to identify the women, either by showing their faces or by printing their names. The kids are okay to be identified in the photos as is one woman (in orange, R) who said she did not mind. Also, I was asked not to release the location of the compound or the name of the co-ordinator
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DUBAI // Afshan Malik has not been to school for two years. Instead of studying, the Pakistani, now 18, has been sewing clothes for her family's small business. She earns around Dh6 for each abaya she decorates and lives in a makeshift compound that is home to about 20 families. Each family, usually eight to 10 people, shares one bedroom.

Since 2008, when the Allama Iqbal school in Al Quoz, Dubai, was shuttered by authorities for not achieving the minimum standards laid down by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), dozens of children in the surrounding area have not been receiving an education. The problem goes further than one neighbourhood in Dubai. A rising number of Pakistani children are not attending school because their parents cannot afford the fees, even though the cost of Pakistani tuition is the lowest in the country.

Long waiting lists, depleted humanitarian funds, a lack of government support and administrative delays are exacerbating the problem. The Pakistani Embassy has no official figures, but experts estimate that the number of children staying at home during school hours across the Emirates is probably in the low hundreds. If the economy continues to remain weak, that figure could rise in the coming months.

"The number of those not getting educated is big, I think," said Asma Malik, the former principal of the HH Sheikh Rashid Pakistani School in Dubai. "These families do not have the support back home and there should be some organisations to help them." Poor families in the UAE, faced with rising living costs at a time when jobs are hard to find, are struggling to send all or some of their children to school.

Meanwhile, the recession has affected wealthier Pakistanis in the country, and some are cutting back on donations. For the past year, Rizwan Fancy, the charity representative of the Pakistan Association Dubai (PAD), has been heading a welfare committee that tries to support needy families. He said the consulate in Dubai referred charity cases to the organisation. "The problem now is getting donations for education," he said. "We have many requests but what we are doing is only giving to the most urgent cases. For example, where the children have exams.

"We need money from our government to increase the standard of education here. It should be high. The consulate has done nothing so far." Mr Fancy urged businessmen and well-off Pakistanis to sponsor a student, "at least for a quarter of the year". Needy families now have fewer options. Ali Mustafa, 13, is one of the lucky ones. Even though he has not been to school for two years, an Indian tutor visits him and his sister, Khadija, for three hours, six days a week. Ali wishes he was in school. "If I could go to school now, I could get a certificate and then go to college and get a job," he said.

He also attended the Allama Iqbal School. His mother, Aaliyah, has since struggled to find the funds to pay fees for a new academy. Ms Mustafa has visited the Pakistani Consulate in Dubai and the PAD to seek funds in recent weeks, with no success. Instead, arrangements were made for the tutor. The family of three lives in one bedroom, which costs Dh2,000 per month in rent. Ms Mustafa, 37, a divorcee from Larkana, receives Dh500 each month from her brother, a taxi driver, to help support her children.

"I don't have a house in Pakistan, our lives are here," she said, with tears in her eyes. "We want a school for the children." Similar stories can be heard from families in the surrounding neighbourhood. For all of them, going back to Pakistan is not an option. Mohammed Wazir, 60, has eight children, seven of whom are under 19. "My rent is increasing and it's now Dh2,500. We don't have any money for education," he said. "The situation is not better in Pakistan and we don't have anything there. We are now relying on a kind local who pays for some of the children, but this will not be forever. I want my kids to be independent and get jobs."

In Abu Dhabi, a waiting list at the Pakistan Community Welfare School is holding students back. Up to six families visit the principal every day hoping to find a space to educate their sons and daughters. "I have a waiting list because I don't have the place for admission," said Aneesa Nasir, the principal. "I feel like I want to cry because these parents come and beg, but I just don't have seats in the school."

The charity school operates under the umbrella of the embassy. A new wing to accommodate more students was promised more than a year ago, but plans have been stalled by administrative delays. Officials at both the consulate and the embassy, in Abu Dhabi, said they were working on improving standards in the facilities available to Pakistanis, but were not aware of the rising number of children not going to school.

Parents should approach Pakistan's offices in the UAE and make an application for fees, they said. "Parents must send their children, without education we cannot survive," said Khursheed Ahmed Junejo, the Pakistani ambassador. "This is why we have community schools. They have marginal fees. In the embassy, we do pay for some scholarships." "We have said these people who cannot pay, we will pay on their behalf," said Amjad Ali Sher, the consul general in Dubai. "They must make an application to the welfare counsellor."

However, options are limited for those who have tried appealing through official channels and are now being rejected by voluntary organisations. For some, the goal of an education seems out of reach. "I just sew now. We all sew for a living," said Sabah Emad, 19. "I really wanted to go to school if we could afford it. I wanted to just study as much as I could." Some names have been changed for confidentiality