By Ghania Saeed
As the world unites in an effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, there is a need to reaffirm attention towards SDG 4.5 and 8.5 that are committed to providing equity and inclusion for all. The pandemic has also created multiple spaces for reaching out to groups hitherto excluded through innovative channels. Learning festivals that are on the rise in Pakistan especially for children, teachers and families are particularly sensitive to the notion of “#ALLMeansALL” as has been witnessed in the pioneering work by civil society organizations who have been at the forefront of the movement to learn beyond textbooks. Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) began its flagship program the Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) in November 2011 to offset the focus of learning only attributable to textbooks and tests in our society to a wider multi-sensory approach of creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and compassion or the 5Cs. CLF is a social movement to curate learning through multiple strands including reading with expression, creative writing, STEM, digital learning, performing arts, book launches, arts and crafts, cinema and photography and much more.
With COVID-19 challenges, the CLF has expanded its outreach through hybrid platforms of technology and face to face options, calling it the Pakistan Learning Festival (PLF). The PLF is attempting to open a new realm of learning opportunities for all children. This was amplified during the recent 3 Day Pakistan Learning Festival that took place in Gilgit attempted (June 1-3, 2021) to create an inclusive learning environment for the community of Gilgit Baltistan where one became a witness to differently-abled children of GB singing and dancing to folk music or participate in storytelling sessions, Bol kay Lub Azad hain and much more.
The festival in its inaugural reminded the participants of the story of two forgotten sports heroes from the remote Charpursan valley, Farzana Rehmat Ali and Najeeba Zareen both of whom are World Special Olympics Gold medalists and are a beacon of hope for differently abled children in Pakistan. The story of their struggle to achieve their dreams and to continue pursuing their love for sports reminds people of how Pakistan needs to celebrate such unsung heroes in the same way as our other sports champions; they are rich in their stories and language in spite of their extreme disability of hearing loss; their faces shine with pride of being our young National Champions.
Another highlight of the festival were the magical performances of differently-abled children and teachers from the Mehnaz Fatima School run by the dedicated Mehnaz Fatima Foundation (MFF). The smiles on each of their faces and their joy for being able to showcase their music, their projects, and their achievements to audiences from all corners of Pakistan prompted a realization amongst the community regarding how lack of inclusivity limits the opportunities for persons with disabilities.
Atif Badar, an artist from Karachi shared a story of how he was brought to tears as he requested two brothers with Down syndrome to take the stage in Bol kay Lub Azad hain teray, an open mic session. One brother sang a beautiful rendition of ‘Hum Gilgit Baltistan k Hain’ as his younger brother danced on stage with the crowd cheering for them. The mother of the two brothers was invited to the stage, who profusely thanked Atif for including and celebrating her children.
Mobeen Ansari – a renowned photographer who at 3 weeks of age had a severe meningitis attack due to which he lost most of his hearing and somehow strengthened his visual sense. Mobeen shared his story with children and teachers on he honed his visual sense and developed a keen eye for observation which has helped him in pursuing his love for painting and then photography.
The festival saw the inclusive launch of a beautiful book from Vietnam titled “Who Wants the Crown?” translated into Urdu as “Kon Badshah Banna Chahta hai?” under the Pakistan Literacy Project implemented by ITA and supported by Room to Read. It is translated by Arifa Nazle, read aloud by Baela Jamil and signed by Mehreen Abrar of DeafReach in Pakistan Sign Language.
Each of these stories whether it be from children of Mehnaz Fatima School, the incredible gold medalists’ siblings, the two brothers expressing at the open mic session, the photographs that inspired so many by Mobeen Ansari or inclusive storytelling they highlight the urgency and value of inclusion in the mainstream for creating a more equal world for ALL.
The writer works as program manager for Children’s Literature Festival at Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA). She can be reached at email@example.com