"The Lost Girl" of Sitara School
Alhamdulilah, Sitara has come a long way since 2011. Today I want to tell the story of one of my “Lost Girls”. These are girls on the brink of adolescence who had come to the school when we first began, but then disappeared for various reasons. When we opened the SMCC, our informal education center, many of them came back, to my joy and delight. This is the story of one such girl, the story of Mina. I have changed her name for her protection. The first part of this story is an excerpt from my book, Eye of the Heart. (Amazon, 2017)
In the black and white pic, you can only see her tiny little face, right next to me, in the midst of the older girls.
One Saturday morning Asad and I are at school when a Pathan mother comes in dragging her four-year-old daughter by the hand. This girl is tiny and ragged; she never smiles. But she is extremely smart and one of our best young students. I smile in welcome and ask Mina to run and get her notebook to show her mama. Mom starts speaking to me in a loud, agitated tone of voice. I can’t understand much, but I hear the word roti. Assuming she’s asking for bread, I run to the kitchen to see if we have any. When I return, I find Asad engaged in a shouting match with the mother. She grabs her daughter by the hand and storms out. I ask him what has happened, since I am clueless. He says, “She doesn’t want her daughter in school anymore.”
“Why?” I ask uncomprehendingly. Mina was doing so well with Madam Noreen and could write all her letters in both English and Urdu. “She asked me for roti. I went to the kitchen to get it and came back to hear the two of you arguing. What did you say to her?” I’m interrogating him now, thinking he’s picked a fight with her for some reason. “I told her that she needed to think about the girl’s future, but she’s thinking only about the next meal. You thought she wanted roti, but what she said to you is, ‘Who will earn her bread?’” I am shocked into silence by the thought that this four-year-old child is expected to earn a daily wage. A few days later I see Mina with the rest of her family, dressed in a ragged frock a few sizes too big for her. She is standing barefoot in the swamp, picking through the trash. I go home, suddenly very tired. I get into bed, pull the covers over my head and cry myself to sleep. Am I making any difference at all in the lives of these children? In the ensuing years Mina came to my door many times, but only as a beggar with a baby on her hip. I always asked her to come back to school and she would sometimes smile sadly, but that was all. She remained a tiny girl, doing a woman’s work, until one day, in 2017, Mina came to the SMCC. She came with a whole group of girls that worked cutting grass for the livestock in the early morning.
The flexible hours of the SMCC suited their needs, so they started their educations again, remembering their letters and numbers and making rapid progress from there. Now Mina is on a fast track to earn her 5th grade diploma in a year or so. But she is around twelve years old. She greets me with a smile now and doesn’t beg. That job belongs to the younger children. But I can’t help but think where she might be now in her education if she hadn’t lost those years to the street. These days, she enjoys many things at school, include our recent tree plantation.