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Raised in an orphanage, Umar now offers free education in Kashmir

A real-life story of community growth and resilience


Umar Iqbal, 33, was just seven when he lost his father, Iqbal Ahmed Bhat, a private school teacher, on a summer day in 1996.


Two decades later, Umar still remembers how his widowed mother cried on that fateful day.

 

As a child, he could not comprehend the depth of his father's separation. His father, well-known in his hamlet of Bhabore, dreamt that every child in his community received an education. He wished to provide his children with the best possible resources so that they may one day assist other disadvantaged villagers. Umar still remembers how his father, a member of Jamaat-e-Islami, a well-known political and religious group in Jammu and Kashmir that is now banned, used to go from village to village, teaching people about the value of education.


After his fathers death, Umar, as the eldest child, went through several difficulties. After completing his eighth grade at a local school, he could not continue his studies because of financial constraints at home. Umar was about to lose all his dreams to poverty, but due to the timely help of a close friend, he joined an orphanage in Srinagar, miles away from his home.


The memories of leaving home at the age of 14 are still fresh. I still remember how my widowed mother wept bitterly seeing me off a few years later at Srinagar, where I was studying in the orphanage, recalls Umar, adding, “Those moments were painful, staying away from home and seeing my mother cry in front of me.”


At the Jammu and Kashmir Orphanage Centre in Bemina, Srinagar, Umar pledged not to let his father's dream fade away. He was determined to keep his memory alive by opening a school in his village. 


“My mother, while saying goodbye to me said, “It is becoming difficult for me at home in your absence; please return home only after completing your college studies. I can't bear your separation anymore”, ” Umar shares. 


“In the orphanage, I often had the desire of running back home. But knowing the condition of my family kept me from making that escape.”

 


After completing his graduate degree in one of the reputed colleges in Srinagar in 2012, Umar decided to return to his remote, hilly village in district Doda, Babore.


With a population of 3,000, the majority of Babore is primarily poor, and most depend on agriculture. In the absence of a school, children had to travel a long distance to study in neighbouring villages. 


Umar was initially concerned about how he would launch and administer the school without having any funds to construct a structure. 


His desire to fulfil his father's ambition was evident and his family supported him in this cause. In 2012, Umar opened the school using the upper floor of a two-story building gifted by his aunt.


It was the sign of an overwhelming gesture from his relatives for Umar, and he decided to name his school 'Iqbal Memorial School' in honour of his late father.


In the first year, about 20 children enrolled in Iqbal Memorial School, but the school has grown significantly over the years and now has 230 students, taught by 14 teachers, including Umar. All 230 students receive both modern and religious education.


Many of them are parentless children from underprivileged backgrounds. Having spent years in an orphanage himself, Umar knows the pain of being an orphan. 


From a lived experience, he teaches dozens of students without fee or discrimination. In addition to following the state education boards syllabus, the faculty offers skill development programs and encourages students to compete in inter-school events such as sports tournaments and writing and debate contests.


Umar is following in the footsteps of his father, a distinguished educator. He recalls his father going to far-flung villages in the Doda district and being away from home for days to assist with the education of youngsters. He helped enrol numerous children from low-income families in the school.

 


Umar believes his father would be pleased with the schools mission and vision.


It makes me happy to watch our students, especially orphans and children from low-income families, succeed despite difficulties and flaws, Iqbal added. "I'm sure that would have made my father happy too, and he might even have been proud of my efforts.


Iqbal Memorial has a substantial social media following. The schools official Facebook page, which has over 8,000 followers, features success stories and creative work by students regularly. Students are also interviewed, and their opinions are shared on social media platforms.


Iqbal Memorial began offering online classes in early 2020, following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent closure of schools. Umar knows that not all students can participate in online classrooms because many come from low-income households that cannot afford smartphones or laptops.


For such students, our teachers personally visit their homes to equip them with necessary study materials, Umar shared. Every conceivable assistance was given to satisfy their educational requirements. 


He attributes his success in life to the nine formative years he spent in the orphanage before entering college.


Many children had lost both parents to conflict through no fault of their own, he recounted, adding that they would support and console one another. I was thankful that my mother was still alive.


Umar learnt how to treat others with compassion, attention, and devotion. And that is exactly what he now wants to teach others.


We were given everything a pupil could require,he recalls. Everything I needed was met whenever I needed it.


Umar's school is still in a rented structure. He is now looking for a larger place for his school to expand and enrol additional students from the surrounding areas.


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About the author

Irshad Hussain is an independent journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir, covering human rights, politics, culture, and feminism. Tweets | @Irshad55hussain

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