What do we do with the pencils? Giving back a year after the APS attack.

By Ammara Farooq Malik, Founder SEPLAA Foundation

Right after the APS Attack last year that killed over 140 children and teachers in Peshawar in the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan, we wondered numbly, what can we do? It was not enough to just light candles, change facebook display pictures and covers and condemn the most horrible act which is still so unimaginable.

As a former teacher, my heart bleeds for these children, as a mother I cannot dare bring myself to what the mothers of the slain children must be going through and as a former student who briefly studied at an Army school myself, I feel I know all the people who studied, worked and then perished at that ill-fated school.

Last year I think most parents must have hugged their children a little longer that night after the attack, must have been deeply apprehensive about sending their children to school in the weeks that followed and must have also been filled with this burning desire to change the status quo of terrorism in Pakistan.

SEPLAA pencil drive 2

Yet, the best way to change is not only through dialogues, not only through talk and a lasting resort is unfortunately also not only the Zarb-e Azb. We are stuck in a vicious circle of extremism which is encompassing the entire country. Gone are the days when we used to think that extremism is confined to rural Pakistan.  Now extremism has seeped into the cities, in universities and is rampant on social media.

One small incident that I would like to share is that when we put up a candle light vigil at Lalil Chowk in elite DHA in Lahore last year, we soon realized that our small group from SEPLAA were not the only ones. We were flanked on our left with another group who held posters demanding the death of terrorists and another on the right demanding a similar fate albeit in stronger words. I do not think that our message of ‘Let’s fight back with education’ that our small team was holding up should be taken as a soft or weak stance. By contrast I think it is an enormous and extremely daunting task to try to teach real peace.

That day at Lalik Chowk, we had kept a small table with a box on top of it as a symbol of our protest: We were collecting pencils. We asked all the protesters there from different groups to put one pencil each in our box. When people offered to put money in it, we politely refused and requested that they go to the nearby shop instead and purchase a basic pencil to put in the box. It was a small gesture but our message which is now being reiterated also by the Pakistan Army, was loud and clear: Education, education and only education can really and truly save us.

seplaa conference

A few days later, SEPLAA’s annual conference on our peacebuilding project held in South Punjab was scheduled. All events in the city were being cancelled left right and centre at that time. It was a tragic time and people were disillusioned with all that was happening to them. I was confronted with making the decision of carrying on with our conference to highlight the work we had done in over a year in Bahawalpur or to postpone to a later day. I decided to scale down the event for obvious security threats but to go ahead with the event despite the situation. The reason was that, this was exactly what was being expected of us to do…to cower down and lie low in fear and anticipation that more terrorism would strike. But to not hold peace activities, to postpone those would have meant a complete defeat of all that we had stood up for and worked for in the past year in Bahawalpur and even more years in Lahore. We therefore went ahead with our conference. It was a small event, well received and one which I personally felt was very important at that time.

pencil 3

So now the question arose. What do we do with the pencils we had collected that day at Lalik Chowk? It has been almost a year and the pencils are still safe in our office. We have not used them because they have to be distributed in a school for underprivileged children. But most importantly, they must be distributed to write letters of peace.

A few days ago I met a senior school administrator who asked me how we can teach our privileged children to become responsible and how they must manage their time well. I did not have an answer there and then because I feel that this is not something that you can teach our youth who have reached universities by telling them to ‘do it’. These are practices that have to be demonstrated:  How to keep your commitments, how to keep your word, how to be professional, how to only compete with your own self, how to constantly try to improve, how to constantly want to learn, how to be humble and how to not be encompassed with greed but the desire to give back to your community. These are things that cannot be taught. We must inspire our children with our own stories. And these can be best told and  demonstrated to young children which will in turn help achieve a society that is going to be more inclusive, more tolerant and more peaceful.

SEPLAA Young Leaders’ Club School Program is created around inculcating these soft skills in children through demonstrative activities and community action plans and I am happy to announce that we had hoped to partner with 3 schools but will probably be partnering with at least 6 to start this very interesting peace project with children.  Initial meetings and plans have already been undertaken and after months of research we will finally be in the class rooms from January 2016.

Remembering the precious children who left us on 16th December is crucial but I would also remember all the other victims of terrorism in Pakistan, those who are Shias, Ahmedis, Christians and… just people.

I salute this woman I met 2 days back who had recently appeared for an IELTS exam and had grey hair. I asked her what she was applying for as the exam obviously meant she was trying to go abroad for something.

Her response stunned me.

She said rather quietly, with a sigh and a smile, ‘Actually, I have a rather sad story. My husband and son were murdered in a Shia target killing and I have a three year old daughter that I have to support. I am actually a doctor and my husband was a renowned eye surgeon. They were killed near FC College 3 years ago. Now I have no choice. I have to study again so I can work to support my daughter’.

I was too dumbfounded and gave this woman a hug with some poorly crafted words of comfort but later cried when I got to my car. She has finally found the courage to move on but it is a sad point to ponder for the remaining population of Pakistan that she is considering leaving the country to do so.

We need to make our country safe again for all its citizens who are ordinary people like me and you. We may not be able to change the course of our national policies and agendas but our small efforts to make our children thinking compassionate adults can go a long way in paving the way for reason.  And we must do this now because if we do not, the next people who will be victims of terrorism will not just be Ahmedis, Shias, children and Christians but will be the ones who ‘think’.

The pencils will be distributed in the schools for underprivileged children during our Peace Semester starting from January 2016. We hope to reach across to 500 privileged and underprivileged school children with the indigenous message of what peace means in Pakistan.

It’s time to do our part even it is just a drop in the ocean. And then again maybe it is the drop that is needed.


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