College teaches hope

One of the girls singing to the audience at the college opening
One of the girls singing to the audience at the college opening

WHEN I saw the college that Sheffield people had given money to build in Kashmir, I must admit it was a tearful moment.

Seven years of fundraising prompted by the terrible earthquake that hit this beautiful place in 2005 had paid off in amazing fashion with a fantastic building on a hill overlooking the city of Bagh. The views are spectacular and all the classrooms have floor to ceiling windows.

Sheffield College, Bagh

Sheffield College, Bagh

The following day 600 people gathered to see the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, Choudhary Abul Majid, perform the opening ceremony for Sheffield College, Bagh. Also in attendance were the education and health ministers and major officials from the region, all shaded from the sun under a beautiful canopy.

The opening was big news because of the prime minister’s visit. There are frequent power cuts and people joked that the VIP visit would mean the electricity stayed on, which it did.

There were lots of speeches from VIPs and we Sheffield visitors; children performed little dramas set to music and one of the girls sang to us all in a lilting voice. Children read out details of people and organisations that had sponsored rooms in already excellent English.

One of the most pleasing sights at the opening event was a sizeable group of women in the audience, many of them highly educated.

I met school heads, teachers and midwives. They were mums who had come to see for themselves what our college could offer their daughters. Married women can work, but usually only within their own community.

This was the third trip to Kashmir for myself and my friend Maxine Bowler, who is treasurer of Kashmir Earthquake Relief Fund.

We helped to set up the charity after a first trip to the area over Christmas 2005, six weeks after a terrible earthquake had devastated the region, killing 85,000 people and leaving thousands homeless.

What we saw was awful, with mile after mile of tents and injured people being treated in field hospitals. Lots of charities helped but mostly stayed only for a short time.

One charity trustee, retired Sheffield College lecturer Abdul Assim, has spent several months away from his family in Nether Edge to help get the project finished. His wife Kubra, who has also worked very hard, came with us and we were also joined by our chairman Mohammed Maroof, who is a Labour councillor in Central ward.

Assim is acting principal (at personal sacrifice as he cannot be paid under Charity Commission rules) and has been holding talks with local people about how the college should run.

There was a big push for the college to offer exclusively English teaching and exams, so the students will study for GCSEs and A-levels, and this has meant lowering the starting age to secondary school level to get the students’ English up to the required standard. English is still such an important international language in areas like business and computing.

Another response to what locals wanted is that the college, originally intended for girls, is open to boys and girls. The college that we raised money to replace was a girls’ college where more than 200 students were killed.

Everyone pays for state education in Kashmir and families who can afford it will pay fees on a sliding scale but the children of the poorest families get free education and books.

We are looking at a scholarship fund to help cover the costs by people taking out a small regular standing order. We also want British teachers to volunteer to work at the college alongside the teaching staff.

We want to say a huge thanks to everyone in Sheffield who helped.

The people of Bagh are very proud that our city decided to help their children at the time when they needed it most.

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