Nine families fit into economics teacher Saeeda Shaikh’s classroom. The school desks are stacked against the blue wall and piles of blankets lie on the concrete floor. The children running around are too young for the business classes Shaikh teaches at the Government Girls’ Degree College for teenagers in their senior year and young women preparing for undergraduate studies.
also read Pakistanis due to flooding in tents or on the roadside: ‘I was afraid the water would overtake us’
Instead of students, the public educational institution in Hyderabad – a city of 1.7 million people – is now full of displaced persons from outside the country. People fleeing the worst floods in the country’s history elsewhere in Pakistan’s Sindh province have taken refuge in the girls’ school. They arrived there since the end of August, about two weeks after the start of the school year. The building now holds almost 1,200 people. Education has come to a standstill for three thousand registered students.
“As a school leader, you have a responsibility. But I had not prepared for these tasks,” sighs Khalia Bhanbhar in her office, which is also a staff room. Classes are not given under these circumstances, but the teachers still want to keep an eye on things, they say. They cannot deny feeling overwhelmed by the situation.
In the hallway, a toilet block appears to be flooded. The laboratory furniture in the chemistry laboratory is used to change the children’s clothes. In the yard, where badminton is usually played, there are piles of rubbish. Women light a fire on the landing, they knead dough on the floor, surrounded by flies.
How do displaced persons end up in a school? The teachers present have different explanations: A local aid organization advised refugees in need to seek shelter in state institutions, says one. It was because of social media, says another. Is it government policy to use public buildings for emergencies? The director was not informed, she says: the first refugees arrived on a Sunday.
In Sindh, the province hardest hit by the floods, more than 4,700 schools have been deployed to accommodate 60,000 families, the provincial education ministry said upon request. That would be equivalent to half a million people. The educational institutions were “designated as reception centers before or after the arrival of the internally displaced”. Official bodies such as the National Disaster Management Agency take care of the distribution of food and medicine in schools. A room in the Girls’ High School has been set up for this purpose.
Lal Khatoom (34) has now been in the economics class with his children for two weeks. She came to Hyderabad from a village on the outskirts of Khairpur, about 300 kilometers to the north, “completely panicked by the water.” During the deluge in 2010, she also ended up here by detour. “Now I knew immediately: we have to go to school.”
Khatoom adopted three daughters and two sons aged between four and seventeen. Her children are in “first and last grade”, she says proudly. She herself completed the fifth grade in elementary school, but she wants her children to continue in school. She looks despairingly at the wiped blackboard. “I am fully aware that we are suspending classes here. Only… my kids can’t go to school now. Or even to their own home.” And the school has running water, toilets and electricity.
If it is a humanitarian problem of this magnitude, all facilities must be deployed, the teachers’ room agreed. For that reason, people were also taken care of at the girls’ school’s ‘little brother’, the Boys’ High School, a few streets away. The institution was closed to students for five days, says school principal Haqnawaz Abbas. Many refugees have since left, returned home or to refugee camps elsewhere. The dozens of remaining displaced persons are accommodated on the second floor. Eight classrooms are again available, the students have an adapted schedule. Elsewhere in Hyderabad, according to a teacher, classes have been set up for the refugee children. “But not all institutions can arrange something like this.”
Disaster in education
There is uncertainty about the duration of the emergency measures. Teacher Shaikh receives calls from students worried about their future. The board considered resuming online teaching due to the corona pandemic, but decided against it because not all students have internet at home. “We do not want inequality in our population. It is already unfair that in institutions where there is no reception, everything continues as normal. While all students ultimately have to take the same exam to study further at university.”
Even the private schools, over which the government has no say, are now worried about the consequences of the flood. For example, a private umbrella organization in Karachi informed parents last week about the rising number of dengue cases. The mosquitoes that spread the disease breed in standing water, including in the remaining rain basins. Health workers are reporting more cases in Sindh. To prevent infections in Karachi’s private schools, students are now required to wear long sleeves and outdoor activities have been canceled for the time being.
“Besides a humanitarian disaster, there is also a disaster in education,” writes the provincial ministry in a response. An earlier official update on the flooding revealed that 7,000 schools are under water and thousands of buildings have been partially damaged. More than four million children from affected communities are out of school. Added to this are the interrupted teaching courses. On Tuesday, the Sindh government decided that this “difficult” situation must be ended: the shelter must be moved from schools to tent camps “so that normal activities can resume”. Temporary schooling will be arranged in the shelter for displaced children.