“If I don’t help them, then who will?”
The heaviness of that question weighs down the most powerful but for Mekaill Murtaza and Maheen Azar, 18 year old A level students, it’s a way of living. “It is a sense of responsibility.”
Born to a zamindar family, Mekaill grew up in Multan with his three siblings in a sprawling estate in a holistic way which created the foundation of who he is mentally and emotionally – as a child, he enjoyed cooking and growing plants. The external, which brought forth the reality of life which comprised of rural issues such as poverty and seeing children of his own age with very little, shaped his consciousness.
And so four students, consisting of Mekaill, his younger sister Laila and their cousins Maheen and Mustafa, set out to correct the social injustice they witnessed in the village of Jehanpur, a village near Jalalpur Pirwala in South Punjab.
“We have grown up with this idea that we have been given privilege and it is our duty to give back to our community and then just growing up I saw my seniors set up NGOs and community service projects and I realised ‘what’s stopping me from doing the same?’” said Maheen.
But, sometimes, a spark needs a little assistance to burn brighter and so Mariam and Faisal Murtaza (Mekaill and Laila’s parents) handed them a small hut-like room.
“In September 2021, we set up some old chairs and painted the room.. We just had books and toys, we thought there would be no interest in this,” smiled Mekaill.
Their first visitors were five siblings and then a small but steady stream of curious visitors began to trickle in. Donations are based on seasonal events. For example, when they held their last volunteer program they collected 800 books in 3 weeks, and collaborations with schools in urban areas such as Beaconhouse Islamabad and LGS 55 Main also helped.
A whole new world was unfolding for children right there in that little library.
“The literacy rate is low and there are only a select few kids who can read very fluently. Some matric level kids read the higher level books. But the kids come in and they just enjoy the library. Everyone in the village knows each other and the librarian lives close and we also have a Munshi outside and the security guard, who also cleans the place,” explained Mekaill.
The act itself of holding a book, feeling the grainy paper and immersion into a realm where drawings of fellow humans in technicolour had enabled these children to enter into different worlds that they could never have possibly dreamed of. This wasn’t just curiosity but a desire to see what else the ‘other’ was doing even if merely on paper.
Small acts are merciful in tough situations but the team began to realise something was happening and it caused this Fab Four to think that perhaps, just perhaps they had unleashed something that just couldn’t be bottled up – the desire to connect with the wider world.
Realising that a solid foundation was needed to enable this connection, the Jehanpur library began to focus on creating an impact. Having already trained someone to be the librarian, a weekly tuition program was set. This also set in motion the path to sustaining the library in terms of engagement with children on a long term basis. “I taught programming there a few times and we host art competitions, quizzes with prizes and literary competitions,” said Mekaill.
On the other hand, a spillover effect began to take place with a sister library opening up miles away in Malir, Karachi. There is a compound with a village nearby and the children take shelter there.
“Tayyeba Farms has been really generous. They donated an office space with shelves and we are setting up a library room there for them. There will also be an AVR room with classes. Malir is too far for us to be there frequently, but we will send books and train staff. [Mr and Mrs. Khan] own the office space and farm and we will be guiding them on the phone. They already run a school and we thought this library will help supplement that,” explained Mekaill.
Maheen wants to open a library in Murree. “We are going to find a way to have the project run while we go to universities. We want this to be a donation hub and have lots of libraries all over the country where we can give them expertise and funds.”