How to Break the Shackles

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| This is the 395th story of Our Life Logs |


I was born on May 13, 1994, in a tiny backwoods village in Pakistan that you’ve probably never heard of. Just know that there dwelt the poorest of the poor and the illiterate, and among them, my family. My parents and I lived in a flimsy house without electricity or running water.  We did not own a car, and my parents could not afford to finance my education. I was expected to labor for the rest of my days and help support my family like every other child in my village. I was not supposed to be any different.

As a child, I was curious. I loved to learn, to figure out what the few books in my house were trying to say, and I worked relentlessly to understand all I could. Thank goodness for that. Even without formal education, I was able to learn the early skills in reading, writing, and mathematics lessons at home from my parents or from books.

I watched my parents scrape by. I watched their brows furrow when the roof leaked. I watched the careful way they smiled around their exhaustion. For them, and for myself, I wanted to make something of myself beyond life in my village.

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After much begging and a lot of saving, my parents were finally able to send me to school. I was thrilled! Each morning, I walked five kilometers to school (I couldn’t afford the transportation fare) in shoes with soles as thin as chapatis in the cooler months. In the warmer months, the roads grew hot and my feet stung. I would slather mud on my feet to prevent them from burning. With my mangled clothes, a pile of books in my arms, and tattered, make-shift shoes, I’m quite sure I was an unpleasant sight to see! Still, I made the trek with bright eyes, ready for my world to become bigger and hopeful.

As I got older, the school fees increased along with my list of resources needed for class, and oh…there were many days I showed up with empty pockets. On those days, my teacher used to beat me for not having the tuition on time, which more than motivated me to find ways to pay on time. I started by going to the fields after class to get feed for livestock and spent my weekends in the fields collecting raw cotton and wheat.

Very late each night, I’d drag my feet home, fall in bed and finish my assignments. I might have smelled like the animals, but there was money in my pocket and knowledge in my head. I survived!

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Then came time for me to move forward in my education and go to college, but not until my final exams were completed.  I used to study by the glow of a kerosene lamp deep into the night, peeling my eyes open when they wanted to fade into the darkness. Some nights, I wanted nothing more than to sleep. To heck with studying! But I couldn’t. I couldn’t drift away.

Of all my peers who entered the matriculation process, I received the highest marks on my examination. Not only did I get into an engineering university, but I got into one of the best in the country! It was the biggest accomplishment of my life and my parents were proud beyond words. Finally, it seemed all the fruits of my labor were flourishing. My state awarded me with a shiny medal for my hard work.

When I received my accolade, I pressed my fingers against its cool metal surface. Never in my life had I held such a lavish gift, and it was mine. It was to mark the days and nights I did not give in to my fate. In this moment, I won.

And then, a lump in my throat sank into my chest. It sent a cool electricity to the palms of my hands. I had realized that this medal could go for a lot of money. I did not bother with tears, but it was with a heavy heart that I sold my prized medal to pay my college fees.

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My university was in a town 100 kilometers away from my village, and I was projected to begin classes in December. To reach the school, I booked a train ticket, though, I could not afford a seat, so, I stood all the way there. While I watched the winter weather bite the train’s windows, my mind spun in and out of excitement for what was to come.

When I reached the university, I could see the contrast between me and other students as they walked on the grounds. Their hair and shoes and teeth were perfect. My shoes were without laces, my clothes were tattered, and I had no sweater or boots. I didn’t even have socks. It made me feel ashamed.

Many of my fellow students were part of the elite class, which made me feel even more like an outsider. Many of their conversations were over my head. I realized just how much I’d missed out on living a life of working in the fields to remain educated.

Classmates would go out to parties, movies, and take trips. I couldn’t afford to do any of that. Sometimes, I would only eat once a day so I could save as much as possible. My monthly university fees were equal to the income my family brought in for a year. During semester break, all my classmates went on recreational trips, but I could never join them. I had no choice but to work. My family was already fighting with debt, and I couldn’t bear to ask them for help. So, I worked and kept my eye on the prize—the fragile promise of success.

If I wasn’t studying, I was working. I’d work odd jobs like delivering newspapers in the morning then working in a printing shop in the evenings. It became a grueling process for me in which I could do nothing but bait exhaustion. After one stressful day, in fact, I packed up my things and walked to the railway station. It had been years of fighting and now, it felt all too hard. I wanted to see my family. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to fall into my bed and feel satisfied. I wanted home.

But then, I realized that if I were to go home, my parents’ faces would not hold grins. In the back of my mind, I knew that if I got on the train, I’d never come back, never get another chance like this, and most of all, I’d be killing all my hopes out of fear. I couldn’t turn back now, not after all it took to get here. I missed the train and walked back to my dorm.

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I’ll forever be grateful that I never took that train because when I returned, I’d found motivation I didn’t even know I had. And guess what! I graduated! After a few months of tutoring to boost my income, I started paying off some of the school debt hanging over my head. After a couple months, I found a job in a manufacturing company. Although it was not my dream job, it supported me enough that I could stand on my feet and help support my family which I felt was the least I could do as a thank you for their continuous support.

While it paid well, I was not happy with the job and knew I was capable of more. The security of this job was no more than a false bottom. So, I chose my own way because I believed—with my heart and soul—that education was my most powerful weapon to change the world.

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So, what did I do? I became a social activist and businessman where I could use my education for good. I started with my own village (now was the right time to go back!). I wanted a better future for the children there. I didn’t want any of them to face my same situations just to be educated.

In March 2017, I contacted a local organization through email for help in aiding my community, and they agreed. With the help of the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF), I set up a small primary school for poor children. They provided necessary furniture, books, and materials for 30 students, while also funding the teachers’ salaries. I started teaching there on a lower wage to help give kids the opportunity I had to beg and slave for.

Next, I wrote multiple letters to obtain permission to build a children’s hospital. Poor health and hygiene are big challenges for children in my village, and I wanted the impoverished youth to have the opportunity to receive treatment, regardless of their financial status. While I am still waiting for approval, I hope to begin construction in the next few months. For the time being, they provided a bike ambulance to reach the hospital in the village over.

Through schooling, I learned a lot about running small businesses and decided to pursue an agriculture equipment business back in the village. I started borrowing money from my relatives but realized it wouldn’t be enough. Thankfully, a local organization that knew my story chose to help fund my dream. I constructed a 500-square-foot room, bought necessary tools, and used machinery on installments. It took a lot of work and persistence, but I was more than capable of putting in a little hard work to get what I wanted. Now, I am the owner of a small agriculture equipment workshop.

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My wheat fields shining under dark clouds.

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What can I say now that you know my story? What is more powerful to a future than hard work and education? In life, we are shackled to our comfort zones and must find a way to break free.

Now that I’ve fulfilled my dreams, I want others to fulfill theirs. To overcome the obstacles in your life you must sacrifice, persist, and never give up.

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This is the story of Syed Ubaid Ur Rehman

Syed currently lives in the village he grew up in, teaching in a primary school in the mornings and running a small agriculture equipment plant at night. Coming from one of the poorest villages in Pakistan, Syed dreamed of getting educated and helping out his family with a successful career. There were ups and downs along the way but he finally succeeded and realized he wanted to use his knowledge to not only help his family but the whole village to escape the harsh conditions he was raised in. Currently, Syed and his family do not have any debt, a feat he is very proud of. Since his success, Syed has helped build his family a better house and paid to send his younger brothers and sister to school.  In his free time, Syed loves gardening. He has planted more than a hundred saplings provided by the government of Pakistan under the campaign of Clean and Green Pakistan. He plans to expand his agriculture business in the future and is beyond grateful that he escaped poverty after years of struggling.

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This story first touched our hearts on July 3, 2019.

| Writers: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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