It is very hard for me to become inspired by anyone, but about a year ago, I met Muhammad Arshad and was impressed by his humanity. Ever since then, I have been observing him closely. He is a very unique character; handsome, healthy and cheerful, busy helping people from dawn to dusk with his signature smile.
On any given day, visit Nisar Shaheed Part in DHA, Karachi in the morning. You will find him instructing his yoga students, patiently teaching them and even encouraging them - and passersby - to take up other forms of physical exercises. A businessman by profession, Muhammad Arshad is from Chiniot, Punjab. Though, he is in his mid-fifties, he possesses a youthful heart and enjoys interacting with children on Saturdays and Sundays during yoga classes. He loves all human beings, but children the most. His joy knows no bounds on weekends when children outnumber the adults on yoga exercises. “One day a lady secretary of a yoga professional visited here for few days and asked Sir Arshad to charge fees from yoga learners. He refused instantly,” said Muhammad Idress, another gentleman and companion of Muhammad Arshad at yoga group. He said professional yoga masters are charging at least Rs15,000 per month for yoga classes on alternate days, but Arshad provides free classes daily, throughout the year. “Besides, free breakfast is provided to children on most of the Sundays.”
After spending some time with the yoga group, I found out that he is also running a free high school, 400 children strong, in a remote town of Karachi. This school was founded by him in a locality inhabited by communities that are not always pro education, especially as far as girls are concerned. But, at his school, more than 50 percent students are females. It is a fitting tribute to his commitment for his cause, and to his persuasive abilities. This was another inspiration for me to conduct his interview.
Muhammad Arshad runs a business, which he inherited from his father. Under him and his siblings, the business has flourished.
“Three batches of students have done matriculation from this school,” he says with visible pride. “I started the free school in Ittehad Town, near Baldia Town, some 17 years ago. I wanted to establish a school with an all female staff, which has been done. Entry of males is prohibited because of the locality, as it was very difficult to convince the people from the area to send their children to school, especially female children,” Arshad explains.
It took us more than an hour to reach the school from his DHA office in a private car. Road - if it can be called that - after Baldia Town limit is dilapidated with huge craters in the middle, filled with drainage effluent. From Baldia to school, it took us nearly 30 minutes, which would have taken less than 10 minutes if there had been a proper road. “When I first came here, believe me, this road was in a better condition then,” he said. In a lighter vein, Arshad jokes: “I have heard a saying that those who are innocent and suffer miserably will go to heaven. I go to school twice a month in this car, and suffer the miseries offered by this road. My Vitz car will go to heaven,” he said, laughing.
After 9/11, Arshad visited this area on the invitation of a worker of his factory, who wanted him to support a madressah, where his son provided religious education. In the course of next few months, he continued his visits to help out with things like the installation of electricity meters and providing religious books, etc. He found that the children coming to madressah did not go to school, and the majority of this community belonged to people from Swat, Waziristan and Hazara divisions. Male members were mostly trucks or rickshaw drivers. “I decided to educate their children,” Arshad says.
Initially, he took 10 orphan children from the madressah and asked one lady in the locality to provide them education. He started from the Montessori class and provided books, uniforms, etc. Later, he purchased land for the school, which was named after his late grandmother, Hajira Bibi. “I got it registered with the board, and soon my dream of seeing students of Hajira Bibi graduating from the school came true,” he said. Now, around three batches of a total of 100 students have done matriculation from the school.
Hajira Bibi School serves a community where some children sleep hungry, so schooling was tough for them. “Initially, I faced opposition from the head of madressah as well. He had several objections,” he said.
Muhammad Arshad has not limited himself to providing free education to children only. He helps people of the area in other difficulties too. He arranged marriages of several females in the area from his own pocket. Arshad believes in women empowerment and was happy to note that some girls who passed out from this school are now teaching there.
The school is totally funded by Arshad who pays for the expenses of 400 children himself. This includes their books, salaries of the teachers, utility bills and other expenses of the school. He has refused donations several times. “I fund this school with income of my family only. I have refused donations from my friends and other people,” he says.
Due to cultural constraints, he does not hire male teachers. Besides, school has to say goodbye to male students after class eight. Class nine and ten are only for female students.
Along with the education at school, Arshad takes school students for recreational activities as well. Students of Hajira Bibi School are taken to book exhibitions, picnics and other co-curricular activities also. “Awareness is developed through such activities,” he says.
He is of the view that besides education, these children should also get things and facilities, which are enjoyed by the children of the rich. “One day I took students at a buffet breakfast,” he said. “One student asked whether he could have more juice. I said him you may have as much as you want.” Arshad is very proud of the fact that although the students had such a meal for the first time, they showed dignity.
He said he is not running an NGO. He funds the school with his family income but has not become poor because of that. Instead, he has found serenity and prosperity. There were times when he was threatened, too, by some unknown people, but his persistence and dedication did not waver. Now, two daughters of a mosque’s ‘pesh imam’ are studying in the school. “I think I am successful because of the prayers of these children,” he said. “There is lot of talent hidden in these children from a poor locality, especially girls from frontier areas.”
During the last batch of 16 students who passed their matriculation examination, two passed in A+ grade and rest achieved A grade. Not a single student passed in B or below that. He said most of the girls got married after passing matriculation while some of them proceeded for college education. Mothers are more interested in education of their children than fathers.
Arshad, who has been in business for 30 years with his brothers, said his father used to say ‘helping the humanity is true life’. His father spent all his savings among needy people in an eye hospital. “My inspiration and determination to do welfare work came from the teachings of my father,” he said.
Let’s not forget yoga, which helped me unearth this story! For the past 15 years, Muhammad Arshad has been doing yoga and other physical exercises regularly at Nisar Shaheed Parks. He used to exercise alone. Then, four years back, Dr Ashraf, a park goer, approached him as he also wanted to exercise. After a few days, another regular park goer, Muhammad Idrees, joined them. After that, the number of people who joined his exercise class grew rapidly and very soon Arshad started proper classes. Some days, you can count 70 people doing yoga and other exercises with Arshad.
At Yoga Group, yogis bring their children and children of other people often join them on Saturdays and Sundays.
Not only the students of Hajra Bibi School are Arshad’s fans; his exercise buddies are also all praises for him. Ismail Shaikh, 64, says Arshad’s aim is to spread health awareness and education, without any charges. “He took education to the doors of poor people. He does not charge for the yoga class.”
Idrees Katchi, one the oldest companions of Arshad, asserts. “He wants people to remain away from medicines. When I told him about my dangerous sugar level, he advised yoga exercises, Within a month, my sugar level became normal.
“In DHA, some professional yoga masters charge Rs10,000 a month for yoga classes on alternate days in covered rooms. Here, we get real oxygen in the open park for free. If a person does not come for few days, he calls them. He gives equal attention to everybody, whether he is poor or rich.” Katchi said.
Ms Warda Shah, headmistress of Hajira Bibi High School, has been associated with the school for seven years. About the difficulties the school faces, she explains: “Our teachers are usually from this area. It is difficult for them to deal with mothers at times, because most of them are uneducated, and do not understand any requirement of the school.”
Ms Yasmeen works as a maid in the school. She is very happy to be working there as her daughter is studying there, too. “My daughter is in class X now. She could not have received education, if Sir Arshad had not opened the school. Sir Arshad realises our problems and helps us in resolving them.”
A student, Farah Naz, student of Class X said that Sir Arshad is like a father to students. “We often share our problems with him.” Ayesha Muhammad Habib added that they get free books, exercise books, and uniforms and they don’t have to pay any tuition fees.