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Rabtt: Connecting for Change

Team Rabtt
In the chilly winter of 2010, two friends from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan, gave birth to a unique idea to revolutionize education in Pakistan. They were inspired by their experience of the LUMS National Outreach Programme – a community development initiative that trains exceptionally bright students from all over Pakistan – and the annual Seeds of Peace International Camp in the United States that brings together young people from South Asia and the Middle East to deconstruct stereotypes through dialogue.
These were the encounters that encouraged Imran Sarwar and Aneeq Ahmed Cheema, both of whom have been Fulbright scholars, to envision Rabtt – a social enterprise in Pakistan working to redefine the way mainstream education is imparted to school students. Though Rabtt began to take shape in Imran and Aneeq’s minds in 2010, it was formally founded in 2011. Since then, it has been a harbinger of positive transformation on Pakistan’s educational scene.
For a society that battles extremism, intolerance, violence almost on a daily basis, the young team at Rabtt (derived from the Urdu term ‘Rabta’ meaning connections) strives to build on the power of connections to carve a society that values four core competencies among young people – empathy, critical thinking, self-confidence and creativity.
How does Rabtt achieve this? By connecting with school students across public and private low cost schools in Pakistan to let education be a wholesome, creative and an experience unique to each student.
Learning is Fun
It is through Rabtt’s summer camps and year-long workshops with a select set of students from schools in and around Lahore that a wide range of creative skills based on alternative learning techniques have been introduced to the traditional education system in Pakistan. Courses in English, mathematics, public speaking, world history, art and dramatics are taught at these summer camps, not in a traditional sense of classroom lecturing, but through cross-disciplinary learning, interaction, guest lectures, educational trips, and students putting up innovative performances. This facilitates exposure to different perspectives and lets them venture into the ‘real world’ through processes of experiential learning.
In seven summer camps organized through 2014, Rabtt managed to connect with 300 students who learnt about difference, empathy, team building, the concept of tolerance in the early Islamic period and non-violence in ways that stressed conceptual understanding, critical analysis, and open discussion. These were students who belonged to diverse age groups and socio-economic backgrounds.
While connecting with students on a personal level and fostering creativity, curiosity and the spirit of mutual learning, all of which sound exciting to undertake, are quite daunting in reality. The Rabtt team is supported by a pool of volunteers, also known as facilitators or ‘Rabtt Fellows’, who are typically university students selected through a multi-layered screening process. It is these Fellows who engage with students to creatively nurture them with a skill set that mainstream education processes do not equip them with. Prior to the summer camps, Fellows undergo intensive training in skill building and interactive team building, which they subsequently translate to learning spaces full of talented and hard-working students.
Engaging with students
In the process, Rabtt taps the energy and enthusiasm of two significant groups of people – school students and university students (Fellows) since this is the generation that can contribute most to Pakistan, with an emphasis on values such as mutual learning, respect for cultural diversity and empathy with the ‘other’. Harnessing their skills constructively is essential to overcome barriers that mar the traditional learning space. The attempt at Rabtt is thus not to dislodge the existing system but fill in gaps to achieve greater equity and quality in education.
The process of ‘learning to unlearn’ happens for students, Fellows, teachers, parents and school administrations in ways more than one. For students get a much deserved platform for showcasing individual talents, teachers and parents learn about hidden potentials, and Fellows are able to burst the bubble of coming from a sense of comfort and privilege.
Salma Chaudhry, Director, Operations and Human Resources, says, “When the first camp was organized in 2011, we had more facilitators than students. After much initial reluctance, schools have warmed up to our activities and now we receive an overwhelming number of requests from schools to conduct camps and workshops with their students. Last year, we connected with seven schools in Lahore. This year the number is ten, and in the near future we will move from strength to strength. Gradually, we are also trying to bring schools in rural areas within our fold.”
Together we will make a difference
The Rabtt team has developed a unique course curriculum that allies with core competencies to be achieved by students at various levels. Course packs, especially on English language proficiency and World History, have been developed with insights from experts, mentors and partner organizations. Over the years, Rabtt has done its best to evolve creative ways of engaging students, be it in the form of art work during summer 2013 or through a summer camp in collaboration with a Spanish non-profit organization ThinKids in 2014. Recently, Rabtt, along with other education-focused non-profits, was part of ‘Bridging Barriers’, a six month project meant to train underprivileged students in drama, general knowledge, and public speaking.
That Rabtt’s four years of existence have been momentous is evident from the huge number of applications they received for the teaching fellowship this year. Hammad Anwar, who is Director of Communications at Rabtt gushes, “These are super-talented kids that we work with, brilliant and hard-working, just in need of the right push! Most of them had never performed in front of huge audiences. Now, they do so with ease, with positivity and confidence. It is heartening to have them showcase their talents to large number of people, including their parents, who acknowledge they never knew about their kids’ talent.”
Interestingly, each batch of students graduates with a ceremony where they put up performances in front of well-known personalities from media, civil society, education and the development sector in Pakistan. The 2014 graduation ceremony had a mime performance by the girls of Government Comprehensive Girls High School, Wahdat Road, presenting the art of non-verbal communication learnt in the camp and a staged performance depicting the story of a girl marginalized by society by the City District Government Girls High School. I am told that both performances were received by thunderous applause from the audiences and tears of joy and pride among parents.
Rabtt is a humble attempt with grand plans for the future. Plans to collaborate with Indian educators are in the pipeline, and so are concerted efforts to reach out to more and more students, link with like-minded organizations, tread on the path to self-sustainability, and embark on an integrated approach to address issues facing education and society in Pakistan.
I ask Salma and Hammad about the current distressed scenario of strife and violence in Pakistan. How is it possible to stay motivated when extremist elements inflict brutal violence on educational institutions and even innocent children are not spared? Their reply leaves me spell bound. It is this extremism, intolerance and hatred they are fighting against, they assert. Attacks like the one that took place in Peshawar on December 16, 2014 have confirmed that it is only through education that society can be made to undertake the path of peaceful co-existence. No society, especially its young minds, is safe when violence and hateful ideas are left unchallenged. Rabtt lives for the dream of a free, safe and inclusive educational space in Pakistan which fosters acceptance, harmony and diversity! A space where children can be themselves, raise questions and seek answers on their own, where the window to life is always left open, for them to fly, to discover. Rabtt is that vision, Rabtt is that space for which Pakistan craves.

This piece was originally published at The Bayside Journal on April 22nd, 2015 -


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