Child labour: Shahid’s story

Jun 07, 2019

Childhood under assault

Part 8: Shahid, Pakistan 

Girls and boys deserve to grow up free from abuse, exploitation and violence. But in the world’s most dangerous places, childhood is frequently the first casualty. Here is Shahid’s story, the eighth in our 10-part series.

“I am desperate and robbed of my life.” 

It’s not safe to travel to the place of nine-year-old Shahid’s birth. If you doubt it, read the Government of Canada’s travel advisory web site. As of June 2019, the message is there in bright red. 

“Avoid all travel to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province,” the words shout. They refer to the Pakistani province infamous for terrorist activities. Known as “KPK” for short, it lies on the border with Afghanistan. 

KPK is a tough place to function as a journalist. Writers, reporters and camera operators are often detained for their attempts at balanced coverage. 

It’s a challenging region for NGOs like World Vision, as they do their best to provide opportunities and champion the rights of children. 

For the children themselves, it’s one of the most dangerous places in the world to grow up. And one of the hardest places to secure an education, no matter how determined the learner. 

It’s here that Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist, delivered her first speech as a child, at a press club in the province’s capital. “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” she entreated.

For kids like Malala and Shahid, Pakistan can be deadly dangerous – especially in KPK. It is where, heading home from school one day, eleven-year-old Malala was shot in the head. 

No prize for Shahid 

While Malala is famous, you’ve probably never heard of Shahid. 

He hasn’t been recognized with a Nobel Prize. Or even a primary graduation diploma. It’s likely that no certificates reading “Most Persistent” or “Great Effort!” are pinned up proudly in his tiny home.   

Yet, few of the world’s children have tried harder than Shahid. He seems inherently aware of his right to an education – and desperate to transform his life.

World map highlighting Pakistan in white
“If I want a chance in life, I need to focus on education,” he says, with conviction. Has he been inspired by Malala? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s the pounding heart in Shalid’s own breast that tells him he deserves a different future. 

And twice now, Shahid came very close to claiming that education. 

The pain of trying 

Shahid’s parents wanted a better life for their children. They left the dangers of KPK, migrating with Shahid and his five younger siblings to Rawalpindi in the neighbouring province of Punjab. 

“My family moved here for business opportunities,” explained Shahid. Standing in his too-big coat, hair combed for his picture, he presented more like a man than a boy. “It’s away from the terror and the prospects are better.”

Pakistani boy wearing a blue jacket stands in an alley staring at the camera

Shahid’s parents wanted their son to be educated. Soon after arriving in the new province, they enrolled him in school. 

“But I was soon kicked out,” says Shahid. “I wasn’t able to pay the fees.” A road accident followed shortly afterward, leaving the boy in constant pain. “My leg was badly fractured and has never healed completely.” 

In just a short window, both leg and hopes were crushed. 

Invisible struggle 

Money was getting tighter by the week. So Shahid joined his father, working a man’s hours in a garbage dump. All night, every night. 

“Throughout the night, we sort through garbage and collect plastic bottles,” he explained. “We cut them, sort them into different piles, then sell them. We make money recycling plastic.” 

Nine-year-old Shahid was desperate for a boy’s sleep. Not to mention the warm bed every child deserves. And the chance to wake up rested, refreshed and ready for a day of school and play.

“I’m tired most of the night,” he said, of the long hours at the dump. “It’s so difficult to stay awake. It’s cold, sometimes even wet. I wear three layers, but I’m still shivering.” 

For Shahid’s family this was the only “business opportunity” that had arisen in Rawalpindi so far. And its success rested largely on the thin shoulders of a nine-year-old child.

Hope exhausted  

It was during this period that World Vision workers met Shahid. He wanted to learn – and they wanted to help. World Vision staff invited Shahid to attend our ‘informal education centre’ so he could get a basic education. 

“I’m learning for three hours every day,” Shahid explained. “I am studying in Year Two and enjoy Math and English."

a group of children sit on the floor all looking down at school books
World Vision informal centres help kids who’ve fallen behind, so they can re-enter the school system. Or give child labourers a chance to master basic literacy.

There’s nothing to pay, financially anyway. But for Shahid, the hours of study were carved from an already lean sleep window. When we met him, he was clearly desperate for rest. 

“I only get about an hour-and-a-half rest during the night,” he said, of his shifts at the dump. “I try to sleep on a pile of wood. When I’m too cold to sleep, I play cricket with my friends. We use garbage as a ball.”

As the sun rose, Shahid headed back to the World Vision centre. He’d had just a sliver of the 10-11 hours’ night-time sleep needed by a child his age to be physically and mentally healthy. His life is a never-ending battle between school, sleep and survival. 

And, as time wore on, the drained child’s relationship with his father was starting to fray. “Every morning, when my dad and I walk home, I tell him we should change the business,” said Shahid, one of the last times we met him. 

“I’m fed up with my father. My heart has turned black towards him.” 

Expelled but hopeful 

As had happened to Shahid with school, World Vision was instructed to leave a place they had felt called to be. 

In October 2018, the Pakistani government ordered 18 international humanitarian NGOs out of their country. World Vision was among them. Just sixty days remained to wrap up all programming for children and families – including the informal education classes Shalid had been attending. 

And it’s unclear what’s become of him since. 

For aid workers, this is the heartbreak of working in fragile regions. The turmoil can make it impossible to honour our commitments to children like Shahid.   

We need to be prepared to be ever-flexible – adapting our programs to the limits of the situations we’re facing. We need to be ready to leave a region quickly, then search for ways to return. 

And, like the children we serve, we need to be prepared to hurt. 

We saw Shahid hurting badly, even when we were still present in his community. He carried all the worries of an adult, in the body, mind and heart of a child. 

“I’m worried about my future, and what I will do,” said Shahid. “I am desperate and robbed of my life.” His voice broke. He couldn’t speak any more.

World Vision has needed to leave Pakistan before – but we’ve found our way back. We pray that such a thing will be possible, for the sake of children like Shahid. 

Like Malala, Shahid has so much he wants to accomplish in life. His country needs him. And the world needs him.   

Global poverty is in retreat but has become more concentrated in the world’s darkest places. Over the next decade, more than 80 per cent of the world’s poorest children and families will live in the most dangerous places where lives and futures are threatened by conflict and disaster. Join the movement and take action against injustice. Learn how you can help.

All photos by Stefanie Glinski

Read the next story in the series.

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