Literacy, Learning, & Light: How The Citizen Foundation is Working to Bridge Gaps in Pakistan

Literacy, Learning, & Light: How The Citizen Foundation is Working to Bridge Gaps in Pakistan

“In our society, those who are educated sit on chairs and those who aren’t sit on the floor.”

These words from Shabana, a woman from Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, highlight an uncomfortable truth about the way class and education are entwined in what might ungenerously be referred to as the real world. In Pakistan and elsewhere, a person’s level of education is a precursor (although gatekeeper might be a more accurate term) to dignity, status and wealth. The astronomical gulf between the lives of the literate and illiterate can serve as an excellent starting point from which to study disparities in income, life expectancy, maternal and fetal mortality, and much more.

For Shabana, the implications of such disparities were a simple fact of life. In 2005, she was employed as a domestic worker. She had never attended school or learned how to read. And then, when she was pregnant with her fourth child, her town was struck by an earthquake. Her house was destroyed and her husband killed in the wreckage. Shabana, with her grief still fresh in “this moment of complete hopelessness and despair,” was at the mercy of relatives, aid workers and bureaucrats as she and her children tried to rebuild their lives. “I was completely dependent on other people to guide me about what safety tips to follow, what medicines to give my children. I was just putting my thumb impressions on every paper they were asking me to,” she recalls.

Shabana was “severely constrained by her inability to read,” and was profoundly unanchored after the earthquake. It was not until 2007 that her “dead city came back to life,” and her own life began to turn around. That was the year that The Citizen Foundation (TCF), a Pakistan-based education and empowerment nonprofit organization, opened its first school in the small town of Mansehra, where Shabana and her children had resettled after the earthquake. In 2010, Shabana procured admission to that school for the youngest of her four daughters. Soon after, Shabana herself was offered a job in the school as a custodian, as well as a place in another TCF program--Aagahi Adult Literacy. Aagahi in Urdu loosely translates to knowingness. A state of knowing. For Shabana, whose life up to that point had been controlled by outside forces,the difference was zameen-asmaan (another Urdu phrase to which I’ve always been partial, meaning earth-heaven). “Forty years I’ve been in darkness, but after Aagahi, I was finally reading,” she said. On the TCF website, Shabana’s story is titled “Toward the Light.


To ground my understanding of The Citizen Foundation and the work they do, I spoke with Bushra Afzal, longtime TCF affiliate and formerly a member of the organization’s Board of Directors.


If you come from a Pakistani family, it is likely that you have heard of The Citizen Foundation before. It is one of those organizations that feels almost ubiquitous for its reach and impact, with a network of more than 1,500 schools in Pakistan and chapters in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and Norway--the countries most represented among the Pakistani diaspora. As a Pakistani-American, I find this particularly fascinating. Hyphen-Pakistanis (American-, Canadian-, Norweigan-, etc.) often maintain distinct emotional and economic ties to the country they leave behind. They care deeply about Pakistani issues and people. When the time comes to give charity (at least once in an Islamic year), they open their pocketbooks for Pakistani charities and Pakistani NGOs. The trans-continental networks built upon these transactions speak to a maxim which will be familiar to any child of immigrants: never forget where you came from. A simple sentiment, made impressive when one sees it in action. 

TCF is a nonprofit I admire, whose services, I think, are deeply vital. Pakistan is a messy, complicated, beautiful country that has a long way to go in terms of class, gender and education. Something in me (a misplaced sense of American egalitarianism, perhaps) bristles when I see how much the outcome of a person’s life depends on random chance--were you born to the woman of the house or the woman cleaning the house? The difference is zameen-asmaan and is, in my view, the focus of TCF’s mission. Their work is directed toward those overlooked others, the men and women and children who might otherwise have lived, as Shabana had for so long, without the light.

To ground my understanding of The Citizen Foundation and the work they do, I spoke with Bushra Afzal, longtime TCF affiliate and formerly a member of the organization’s Board of Directors. Ms. Afzal holds multiple degrees from the University of North London and is a fixture among circles of philanthropy and fundraising in her hometown of Karachi, Pakistan. I met her for the first time at a wedding in that city in January of 2018, just after the New Year. We spoke at length about TCF, its schools, the future of Pakistan, the future of my generation, and everything in between. I was struck then, as I am still, by her passion to promote this cause and her belief in the transformative power of the classroom.

I recently spoke to Ms. Afzal again, about her work, her thoughts on the surge of overseas Pakistani philanthropy and her hopes for the future of education in Pakistan. Her answers were illuminating and appear below, lightly edited for length.

Can you describe in a few sentences your role at TCF? How long have you been with the organization, and what led you to join it?

I moved back to Pakistan after living and studying in London for six years and moving to the Middle East after my marriage. I lived there from 1976 to 1993. In Muscat and Bahrain, I devoted my spare time to raising funds for the Pakistani schools in these cities and hence developed a passion to impart education to the underserved.

I joined TCF in 1995, when the first five schools were built. My first visit to a TCF school was in Dhani Buksh, Karachi, and my first impression was like walking into an oasis in the desert. I knew instantly that this was my calling. I joined the volunteer group, Supporters of TCF (STCF), as one of its founding members and have served in the capacity of Treasurer (which led me to learn Excel!), Vice-Chairperson of STCF and eventually joined the Board of TCF, from where I retired on April 10, 2019 after serving for 3 years. We set ourselves two tasks: to raise awareness and to collect funds through fundraisers, Zakat (Islamic charity) and personal contacts.

TCF has distinguished itself in the field of education for underprivileged people. What do you think makes TCF unique, compared to other groups within Pakistan who also work in this space?  

Highlighting a few reasons, I would point to the highly committed Founder-Directors who focus on guaranteeing each TCF student a chance and a shot at achieving their dreams. 

From the start, TCF has never compromised on quality education. To achieve this they instituted a rigorous teacher training rule: female faculty only (in order to win the confidence of conservative communities). This led us to maintain our philosophy of equal enrollment for girls and boys. TCF has the firm conviction that women and girls are a strong pillar of our society and should be given the same opportunities and respect as men and boys. Additionally, although TCF schools go up to Matric (Grade 10), we assist and guide our alumni in continuing their tertiary studies and even with placement of internships and jobs. We are also unique for how we practice professional management with strict procedures and accountability.

I am fascinated with the global reach of TCF and the way it has branches in many countries outside Pakistan. Why do you think that Pakistanis in other parts of the world are drawn to TCF?

In the past couple of decades there has been a huge awakening of Pakistani communities overseas. I personally feel that Pakistanis realize their success in other countries is due to their basic/professional education in Pakistan. Just like they got a break, they want to give back to society in a positive way and create opportunities for the underserved.

Can you please share a story or two from your time at TCF which stands out to you for being particularly enlightening?

When I joined initially as a volunteer in 1996, the mother of a young girl would stand outside one of our campuses. Upon our investigation, she shared that she was a single mother and wanted to admit her daughter to school but she couldn't afford to even pay the minimum fee of Rs. 10. Upon further query she revealed that since birth she herself had lived on roti (bread) and water (and she had to walk for miles just to get drinking water). Even after facing all of these hardships, she was willing to continue to sacrifice everything herself and to try to earn the 10 rupees so that her daughter could go to school.

One of our student's mothers was blind and he was the only breadwinner in his family. He would work hard to get his daily wages and to attend the TCF school. At the end of the day he would first feed his mother, then his sister and if any food was leftover, he would eat himself. His mother would constantly ask him if he had eaten and he would always say he had, even when this wasn’t the case.

TCF is full of such stories of parents and children who sacrifice and work hard so that they can carve out a better future for themselves and for their coming generation.

What do you envision for the future of TCF? How would you like to see this organization expand in the future?

The mission of TCF is very clear and explicit: To provide quality education to the underserved.

When we started off it was a challenge to bring people on board as education wasn't a priority, particularly because the gestation period is at least 11 years. Over a period of years we have observed more and more people are taking ownership of TCF especially the younger generation (including you). TCF doesn't have one leader, we all are leaders.The prospects are bright. TCF is there to stay and be part of the success story that will be Pakistan, Insha'Allah (God willing)!

TCF would like to strengthen its partnership with Government schools (at the moment we have more than 250 government schools that we are running). This will enable our resources to be pooled; less money would be spent on construction of school buildings; to go into areas where we haven't been able to venture into due to lack of resources and funding; and most of all we will be able to provide quality education.

Our adult literacy programme focusing on the mothers will also enhance the quality of life at home for these TCF students, our water purification plant will improve the health of communities and our vocational training will provide the breakthrough for those far-flung and deprived communities who have no fixed source of income.

What do you think will be the future of education in Pakistan more generally?

This is a tricky and sensitive question. I am and will remain a positive person. I have confidence in the people of Pakistan. TCF has achieved what it has due to the effort of Pakistanis. I have great faith that Insha'Allah in the next decade or two Pakistan would be well on the road to literacy. I won't be around to see that but hope that the seeds that we have sown, your generation will water it and nourish it for it to flourish so that you can eat the fruits of our collective labour.

A very sincere thanks to Bushra Afzal for speaking to Iris and sharing her thoughts with us.