ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Seven years after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake devastated Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Central Asia Institute remains committed to helping ensure girls’ access to education in the region’s remote mountain communities.
The nature of CAI’s work in the region, however, has evolved.
“CAI built temporary, prefabricated buildings after the earthquake,” said Fozia Naseer, who now leads our efforts in the disputed region of Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK). “We also have a teacher-support program in Kashmir, with 35 teachers, and a scholarship program. Last year, CAI added one permanent building for Muzaffarabad Girls’ Elementary College, a teacher-training college.
“Central Asia Institute is working to sustain all the projects in Kashmir; we try to keep it simple and important for the communities. We are repairing schools one by one and providing basic support for all CAI schools in Kashmir,” she said.
AJK is a difficult place to work, especially for a woman. The region is conservative. It is rugged country, with villages built up the sides of mountains that often rock with seismic activity. And it is a heavily militarized “disputed territory” that Pakistan and India have fought over for more than 60 years. As a result, AJK is closed to most foreign NGOs, tourists and journalists unless they have special permission.
Most of the international aid groups that came to help after the 2005 quake left a long time ago. But CAI has worked hard to continue its support of education, especially for girls, in the region. And now with Fozia – a Kashmir native, the region’s first locally educated female lawyer, and a former teacher – on board, CAI is well situated for what comes next.
“Fozia is a perfect example of the ‘next-step’ local manager CAI needs going forward – to monitor schools, demonstrate accountability, work with teachers, involve community, build the capacity of a team,” CAI Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer said after she met with Fozia here earlier this month.
Students and teachers were in their classrooms when the earthquake hit at 8:50 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2005. Many school buildings collapsed, trapping thousands and killing an estimated 18,000 students and more than 900 teachers, according to UNESCO statistics.
The quake triggered landslides that blocked roads and knocked out bridges, cutting off rescuers’ access to millions of victims in the remote villages. The heaviest damage was in the mountainous Muzaffarabad area of AJK, about 90 miles northeast of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Big aftershocks continued for weeks.
The numbers were staggering: more than 80,000 people killed; another 3 million left homeless; and more than 7,000 schools and colleges – 96 percent – fully or partially destroyed, according to UNESCO.
CAI had, by that time, worked in Pakistan for almost a decade and our supporters, staff, and board immediately began to consider what CAI could do to help. International aid groups were providing humanitarian aid – food, blankets, tents and emergency medical care. But it became increasingly clear that the government was in no position to begin rebuilding schools anytime soon, especially in the remote villages of the Neelum Valley.
So Greg Mortenson, CAI co-founder, dispatched CAI’s “most-remote-areas” project manager Sarfraz Khan (who died in 2012) to Kashmir to see what CAI could do to help. On a tour of the affected region, Sarfraz saw an immediate need for temporary schools.
After establishing relationships in several communities in the Neelum Valley, Sarfraz initially provided tents and furniture, primarily for girls’ schools, and later erected more than a dozen earthquake-proof, prefabricated schools, ensuring that hundreds of children were able to continue their education while the region recovered.
Greg, who visited AJK with Sarfraz after the earthquake, described the scene as chaotic and complex.
“What was disparaging about the Azad earthquake in 2005 is that although hundreds of NGOs scrambled to help, the region was paralyzed without shelter, electricity, water, roads, cell phones, and infrastructure, and little aid reached the villages,” he said.
One difficulty in working in AJK is the climate. The mountainous region receives copious amounts of rain, causing frequent landslides, which block roads, damage fields and destroy buildings.
Last fall, for example, heavy rain caused a landslide just behind the CAI-supported Mingraan School, causing a couple of classroom walls to cave in. No one was hurt, but the cleanup and repairs were substantial.
“We are trying to fix the wall before winter rain” starts, Fozia said at the time.
But when Fozia and the repair crew went to see the damage, they discovered that the community had cut the word “Girls’” out of the school sign. When Fozia asked one of the teachers, Samiullah, why, he told her that the government had finally come along and built a girls’ school in the village. But the community needed classrooms, so they opted to expand the CAI-supported school to include boys.
Mingran is not the only school in this position, a situation that CAI celebrates as evidence that the government has begun to focus on school reconstruction.
“Four of the CAI schools have been replaced by the government with permanent structures,” Fozia said. “This is good as long as girls continue to get education.”
In some cases the CAI-supported building was removed. In other cases, such as Mingran, the community needs the extra classrooms and continues to use the prefabricated structure.
Either way, “we keep track of the schools for as long as they are on the ground and provide school and community support,” she said.
In addition to the school buildings, CAI in AJK has increasingly focused on scholarships for higher education and teacher support.
“People understand the need for these programs and we have so many requests for the future to move ahead with these great programs,” Fozia said.
The scholarship program currently supports 18 girls in their quest for higher education in Muzaffarabad, AJK’s capital city.
“I see a great future for those girls,” Fozia said. “They can get benefit from CAI and opportunity for their lives.
“I know life is not smooth for females here, but we can try our best and take steps towards hope, education, and our goals of peace through education. We are slow, but inshallah steady, and this work is important for the long run.”
Also important for the long run is support of female teachers and female teachers-in-training. Reconstruction of the teacher-training college in Muzaffarabad – CAI supported construction of a two-story, permanent building — was a big step toward getting students out of the weather and into a structure with all the amenities needed to train the next generation of teachers.
Teacher pay also helps ensure that students in CAI-supported schools are getting quality education. Too often, government schools are overcrowded and understaffed. By helping with salaries, the school can employ more teachers. CAI currently supports 35 teachers.
“We have teachers in Neelum Valley, Muzaffarabad, and in the remote area at the end of Poonch district,” Fozia said.
The Poonch teachers are the latest addition.
“All are government schools, but one has all students in one damaged classroom,” Fozia said. “In another place the students sit outside. Another is so far that you have to walk to it, you can’t drive, so teachers
“We got requests from the community saying they wanted to send their children to school, but they need more teachers. Also the Education Department asked us for some help. We started to pay teachers there in August. Schools are closed there in winter because of mountains, but they will be back at school in March.”
Fozia is also considering how best to arrange a CAI-supported teacher-training program this year. In January, Fozia joined her CAI colleagues Saidullah Baig and Dilshad Begum in Gilgit to observe a two-week training program there.
“Saidullah and Dilshad did a great job putting all the resources together,” Fozia said. “They started a great opportunity for the remote-area teachers, gave knowledge to them and exposed them to new teaching skills and teaching methods. It is just a beginning for those teachers, who can take it all back with them to their schools and to their communities.
“It was also a great experience for me. It is great to have this experience to see how CAI works in different communities and gather ideas, which we can use in our communities, too,” she said.
“CAI is making a successful investment in community-based education and I hope that it would continue for long term,” she said.
– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director