Pakistani pop star uses music to educate

Shahzad Roy

Shehzad Roy, 32, a Pakistani pop star turned humanitarian, was in Chicago last week as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 2009 Koldyke fellow. Winner of two Pakistani MTV awards and the youngest-ever recipient of one of Pakistan’s highest honors, Roy started Zindagi Trust in 2002, raising funds through concerts and offering underprivileged kids a chance to get a quality education with his “I am Paid to Learn” schools. He is now working at reforming the country’s public school system.

Q- Why did a rock star decide to reform Pakistani schools?

A- Why not? One of my cousins used to come to Pakistan from (America) and he’d always ask, “Why are there so many kids begging on the street and not in school?” Music is a powerful medium to spread the word, and since this was always pricking me, I wanted to raise funds and push people to do something about it. In 2002, we began with paying working children 20 rupees (25 cents) to come to school. We tried to compensate them for what they were making outside. These were street-smart kids, so we used to assess them to see if they went to school and studied hard. Only then, we’d pay them. This program was really successful, and we still have about 3,000 students in the program.

Q- How did you find children for your “I am Paid to Learn” schools?

A- We used to go to different areas where these kids were working. We’d ask the employer, “Can you spare them for three hours?” And whatever the monetary amount (the children) were losing, we would try to compensate them. We couldn’t attract beggars because they earn a lot of money, but a lot of these kids were working as carpenters, or they’d be selling something on the road, serving snacks, working for a tailor. Some were in the carpet industry. They were all sorts of working children. We found that the same parents who used to stop their kids from going to school (so they could work), were checking up on their kids to see if they were attending classes.

Q- The trust now manages Fatima Jinnah Government Girls School in Karachi. Why take on the public school system in Pakistan?

A- I realized I wouldn’t be able to bring all the street children, all the working children into schools until and unless I start reforming the public school sector. The majority of the kids in Pakistan go to public school, and you can’t educate the masses until you reform these schools. Children in these schools don’t develop any analytical skills. They don’t develop any critical thinking. All they’re doing is rote learning and no thinking. They can’t even write a letter in Urdu, their own language.

The government temporarily transferred management of a school in our name. Then we got (government permission) to change the textbooks. Then we built programs in sports and art. We turned around the school. We now have underprivileged girls rowing. They compete against elite private schools, and they won a competition in Sri Lanka. What we’re trying to tell the government and everyone is that this is a model of good governance. If you give a chance to underprivileged children, they can excel.

Q- How do you end extremism in Pakistan?

A- I represent the youth in Pakistan. The youth in Pakistan they want to play music. They want to play sports. But we don’t have institutions available in Pakistan. Extremism is in America also…but it is not spreading in America because the class difference is not huge. In Pakistan, they’re not addressing the issue of poverty. There’s a vacuum in Pakistan so extremism will spread in this vacuum. If you’re going to do economic development, economic growth, improve education and people’s health, I cannot say there will be no extremism, but it will not spread like this. Just killing the terrorists is not enough. There needs to be economic growth in Pakistan. Otherwise people will exploit the vacuum.

Q- Chicago Public Schools are facing an increase in youth violence. You visited several CPS schools. What did you learn?

A- There’s poverty and so there’s a vacuum here too. These kids are getting into gangs or turning to violence because of poverty. They don’t have any goals in their life just like underprivileged children in Pakistan.

Q- What were you impressed by during your visit to Chicago?

A- (Chicago first lady Maggie Daley’s) After School Matters. It’s the work of a scientist what she’s doing. This is what education is all about. It’s not just about books. It’s about a child realizing his own talent. Everyone has some talent. Once you find it, you have to nurture it.

Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah is a Chicago Tribune reporter who originally reported this story in the Tribune today on Nov 13, 2009

Shahzad Roy’s charitable organization to educate children can be found at http://www.zindagitrust.org/

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    • number1fan
    • November 13th, 2009

    This a great cause! Thanks for sharing!

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