Amid a bloody uprising and consistent curfew of over two months, attending ‘Curfew Schools’ has become one of the most challenging pursuits for children in Kashmir.

Eight-year-old Ada Ayoub couldn’t eat her dinner on July 16 when she came to know that a boy, Asif Rashid, 8, has been injured in his locality in Khanabal area of South Kashmir’s Anantnag district. She knew the boy.

Asif was hit by pellets in his right eye and chest while fetching biscuits in a near-by shop around 6:30 p.m as curfews are usually lifted during the evenings.

“I didn’t know how to persuade her,” said Nighat Firdous, 35, Ada’s mother. “I am always afraid of her endless questions that she often asks.” Later the same evening, Ada and her mother slept without meals, in solidarity with Rashid. They couldn’t even sleep in peace.

Ada, a class four student, has not been able to go to her school for the last two months due to the prevailing conditions of fresh turmoil in the city – more than 70 people have been killed and 10,000 injured in the two months of curfew.

Every evening, Ada would inquire about the toll of killings and injured from her mother.

“I was worried to see Ada’s concern to keep the statistics of the dead,” she said. “I feel helpless.”

In absence of limited options to let her daughter play with other girls in the locality, Nighat tried to engage Ada in her studies and indoor games. But, she failed.

“My daughter is stubborn,” she said.

The little girl told her mother that she will not study and play alone – a condition that her helpless mother couldn’t fulfil.

Ada is the lone child of her parents, who has been brought up with a lot of pampering. She has never been forced by her family to do anything which doesn’t interest her.

In a bid to evoke interest of such children towards their studies, amidst the violence, Qazi Shibli, a young media graduate brainstormed with his siblings to do something, gave his random thoughts the shape of ‘Curfew Schools.’

At first, he was scared about the safety of the students and was reluctant to take up the responsibility. But, as he witnessed many small kids in his area were confined within their homes, not able to play or read and become the target of the violence, he didn’t gave a second thought.

“My job is to help these young children,” he said, “because they need to be helped.”

They are in distress, said Shibli. “They needed compassion.”

Shibli started the school in his own house with just 10 students on July 20 with his two sisters. The siblings made hand-made posters about the school and pasted them on the walls with the help of youth in the locality. The word spread and more and more youngsters poured in his home to contribute in different ways.

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As the roll in the curfew schools is comparatively less than the established schools, each student gets chance to do book reading and get equal focus of their teachers. Image Credit: Special Arrangement

Today, he has registered 170 students and 12 teachers, teaching all the subjects up to class 12th in two rooms and in the lawn of his house, for free of cost. There is no end to the registrations even today.

When Ada’s mother came to know about makeshift schools in her community, she spoke to her husband and in-laws. It was quite difficult to persuade them, as they were concerned about the safety of their little one.

“My mother-in-law told me that how can I as a mother push her own daughter towards danger,” Nighat says. “I just left her safety to Allah.”

After many discussions with the family for almost a week, she convinced all of them for the welfare of Ada but with a promise: she will pick and drop her to the school.

She took the responsibility not to let her child’s education get affected and to keep her mind busy – a risk worth taking.

The curfew school started first in South Kashmir despite the fact that it was and remains the most volatile district of Kashmir nowadays. It has suffered the worst in the present cycle of killings.

Since July 8, when militant commander Burhan Wani was killed, the place has witnessed most of the killings, massive protests and stringent curfew.

It was quite difficult to overlook the violence outside and simultaneously look for a parallel solution within the same violence, says Shibli.

“We wanted to test our idea,” he said. “Children as well as parents desperately wanted a parallel medium at a community level to engage children.”

As the word of these schools spread in the area through oral communication, and campaigning by Shibli and his team through various social networking sites, youngsters from different localities started picking up their modules and began holding schools in their own areas.

At present, around 100 schools are running in the Anantnag district alone, says Shibli.  However, there are no official records available about the exact number of schools working in the 10 districts of Kashmir.

In Srinagar city, mosques, shrines, wedding halls, and private houses have been volunteered by people to help the needy children in these tough times with the glimmer of hope to save the children physically as well as psychologically.

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The students in these schools are from various schools with different books. The teachers have to work really hard to cover the syllabus of each study and prepare them for exams as well. Image Credit: Special Arrangement

In the month of August, around two dozen schools were occupied by Border Security Forces (BSF). The schools have been turned into camps and the bunkers have been razed inside the various campuses. The classrooms are also in use for various activities. It happened a day after education minister Naeem Akhtar announced that the annual exams for class 10th and class 12th would be conducted on time. His announcement met with a lot of criticism as parents feared for the safety of their children.

There were contradictory statements by the officials of the education department who claim that no permission was sought by the forces to camp in the educational institutes. However, the authorities from the defence have cleared that they could never enter any campus without the prior permission of the authorities. Whatsoever may be the truth, if anyone is caught in between, they are the children.

In the volatile parts of the old city in Srinagar, it has been quite difficult for people to have open-air schools due to the lack of space like other districts. To overcome this challenge, people in the community have volunteered furniture – benches, chairs, blackboards, and chalks and other accessories – from private and religious schools.

When Afsheen Nisa, a 23-year-old private school teacher, read Shibli’s post on Facebook, the idea of curfew schools fascinated her and her brother Umar Khalid.

“We were moved by the campaign,” said Umar. “We thought when people from such volatile areas can do it, we too should.”

Through the word of mouth, Umar and his sister contacted few fellow female teachers and other youth in the near-by areas and discussed the idea. Everyone was interested to contribute and do something for children. But, due to the lack of space, they couldn’t do it together. So, everyone chose their homes to take classes individually and adjust the maximum number of students.

“At first we saw students were struggling to focus on studies. Most of them had forgotten the habit due to such a long break,” Afsheen said. “But we didn’t lose hope.”

The schools have been shut in Kashmir since July 1 with the start of summer vacations and were supposed to open on July 17. But they are closed since then due to the prolonged turmoil.

In a week’s time, they noticed the difference that children were starting to get interested, says Umar. The parents accompanied most of the children. Some would go alone who lived at a close distance. Others were accompanied by the volunteers.

The most crucial challenge for these schools is to ensure that the children do not get hurt in clashes on their way. Mostly in old city the clashes between the stone-pelting youth and government forces happen in the congested lanes and by lanes. There have been many incidents when the young children were caught in between the protestors, resulting in serious pellet injuries.

There have been many instances when the children couldn’t make it to scheduled timings for the classes. But the volunteer teachers say they ensure the maximum relaxation of the timings for children’s convenience.

“The curfew schools have helped us to complete our syllabus,” said Aqib Rasool, a sixth grade student. “We play games with other students. But, I really miss my school and friends.”

The curriculum that Shibli and his team of teachers are following is not “conventional.” The teachers in these schools are not just teachers by profession. But they are young minds from different fields – government, private as well as corporate sector. The diversity has made these schools dynamic, innovative and interesting.

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The ratio of girls and boys in the schools is almost equal. In many centres, the students are made to sit together in a group on class basis while many centres keep the choice open. Image Credit: Special Arrangement

The schools work usually from 4:00 p.m to 7: 00 p.m in view of the consideration of relaxation in curfew in South Kashmir. However, the timings vary in different areas. Some schools start in the early morning when things remain normal. Others prefer to keep their schools open throughout the day.

The volunteers pick and drop the children so that they should navigate safely through the lanes and by-lanes in the curfew, said Shibli. “We didn’t want them to take risks of travelling on the main roads swarmed with government forces.”

The curfew schools do not just stick to the curriculum; on weekends, children spend their time with co-curricular activities, mostly in a house lawn or a backyard.

“We don’t push the heavy load of reading and writing on children,” said Shibli. “We teach them with frequent breaks to keep them interested.”

For now, Nighat is quite happy to see the happy face of her talkative daughter again, since she joined the curfew schools.

“It is wonderful to see the happy faces of our children. They really enjoy,” she said. “I am proud of my judgement today.”

Ada still keeps the count of dead and injured in her glossy pink-coloured diary that her mother has gifted her on her last birthday. But at the same time Nighat has been satisfied with the parallel schools.

“They also keep their minds busy and give them a chance to interact with other children,” said Nighat. “But she hasn’t stopped asking me grim questions.”

“Mamma, can I see my classmates again?” Ada repeatedly asks her mother. “Do you think my roll number would change because some won’t be able to attend school due to pellet injuries?”

Nighat has no answers to these questions that her daughter asks her. She just caresses her so that she can go to bed early, narrating to Ada her favourite tale of Rapunzel.

Featured Image: Students attend the curfew schools in old city of Srinagar city. Image Credit: Special Arrangement