Students benefiting from Aaghaz Foundation come from the poorest of poor families. Yet socio-economic conditions of beneficiaries isn’t the only parameter that is taken into consideration before giving them scholarships. Equally important, if not more, is the aptitude of the students and their propensity to defy the odds.
From being an investigative journalist to starting the Aaghaz Foundation – a literacy initiative, over more than a decade ago, while impacting the lives of over 10,000 underprivileged students across India, Mazhar Farooqui feels, “I am nothing more than a medium that connects donors with needy students.”
Today the foundation is nothing short of a massive community movement that started in 2004 with a handful of friends, Rs2,000/- and just one needy student. Twelve years on and more than 10,000 beneficiaries, Aaghaz Foundation continues to grow as a successful zero-expense model that has been replicated by many organizations, says the man behind the initiative.
With such a humble beginning, the story of how the foundation got its name is suggestive of its very essence. Explains Mazhar, “Aaghaz is an Urdu word for ‘beginning’. And a new beginning was what we needed to address the problem of school dropouts. Out of 100 Muslim students who start school in India, hardly four manage to study beyond class X. The average number of years an Indian Muslim girl studies in school is just 2.7 years. We had two ways to react to these numbers: We could have brushed them aside and heaved a sigh of relief that we are not one of the statistics or we could have asked ourselves, whether there was anything we could do to make a difference. We chose the latter and Aaghaz was born.”
More so, life’s experiences come our way to lead us towards what we are meant to do. And it was no different for this Lucknow bred journalist. “Back home, in my neighbourhood, I came across children sitting out of school because their parents couldn’t afford to pay their fees. My heart ached to see dreams shatter for no fault of theirs. So on October 2, 2004 (Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary and a public holiday in India), I called some friends at my house to brew up a solution.
We decided to pitch in with Rs100/- every month towards the fees of such students. When the meeting ended, we had collected Rs2,000/- which was enough to pay the school fee dues of a grade VIII student who was a class topper but was on the verge of dropping out because of financial constraints. That was how Aaghaz started. A motely group of friends and just a little over AED100!”
Fortunately for Aaghaz beneficiaries, raising funds has never been a challenge. The response has always been encouraging. “Within weeks, scores joined the initiative and today its members are spread in various parts of the world – each one of them driven by the single-minded pursuit of plugging school dropouts and using education as a tool to bring about socio-economic reforms in the community. It is a measure of Aaghaz Foundation’s credibility that in twelve years, there has not been a single instance when we had to struggle to raise funds.”
In most cases, the money is raised within ten minutes of an appeal. “Last month we needed Rs600,000 (AED35,000) towards the college fee of a final year medical student who had fallen on hard times because of a catastrophic turn of events. But even that amount was raised within 48 hours.”
Nevertheless, nothing is achieved sans challenges. “Most beneficiaries of Aaghaz are children of street vendors and petty shopkeepers and convincing these parents about the importance of education is the toughest hurdle. They would rather want their children to assist them at work than go to a school. But thankfully, things are changing and these people are beginning to realize that education is the only road to emancipation.”
With his eyes set on encouraging education for the underprivileged Muslim students, Mazhar believes that education is a long-term investment that Indian Muslims have criminally ignored for years. “Illiteracy is our single biggest stumbling block as it is directly linked to unemployment and backwardness. According to a recent study if we don’t pay attention to education for another few years, we might lose millions of children to illiteracy.”
Apart from the financial help that Aaghaz provides, there is also a flagship coaching and guidance centre, the Lucknow Guidance and Coaching Centre (LGCC) that assists students who remain undecided on what they should do after graduation as they can’t afford expensive counseling sessions. At the LGCC these students are prepared for various competitive exams for free and also assist with expert counseling.
“Aaghaz deserves kudos for plugging school drop out among Indian Muslims. ”
– Justice Rajinder Sachar, Chairman Sachar Committee
“Aaghaz Foundation’s Lucknow Guidance and Coaching Centre (LGCC) seems an island of promise for students who have been raised in poverty. The openness to multiple religions and mixed genders shows an actively democratic society in operation.”
– Barry Gabbay, Professor, Thomas Jefferson High School, Strayer University in USA
“Aaghaz deserves accolades for its educational initiatives… Education is a potent tool for nation-building and Aaghaz is doing just that by plugging school drop outs and shaping the careers of underprivileged Muslim children.”
– Maulana Saeed-Ur-Rahman Azmi, Principal Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulema.
Yasmeen Maqbool, an all-time softie is the Features Editor of Filmfare ME, Salt ‘n’ Peppa and Femina ME. Her passion lies in telling stories about people who do what they do because it matters.