Sabbah Haji is the director of the nine-year-old Haji Public School, nestled in the green mountains of Jammu and Kashmir, in the tiny village of Breswana. Most of the children in her school are first-generation English speakers, yet Sabbah and her family who run this school are insistent on providing an exemplary quality of education, whereby if you look at the content produced in the notebook of a private school kid in a big city and a child studying in HPS, you won’t be able to tell the difference. Sabbah, who was recently felicitated with the J&K State Award for Social Reforms and Empowerment, 2017, says that she finds awards unnecessary and they have never been her motivation.

“What does motivate me are the children – I have known some of them since the time they were born. I have taught most subjects in all classes so I know all their quirks and expressions”

“I loathe them – there is no point of just awarding me when most of my family members have been working tirelessly towards the growth and development of this school. What does motivate me are the children – I have known some of them since the time they were born. I have taught most subjects in all classes so I know all their quirks and expressions,” she says.

Sabbah is extremely articulate, her voice never falters at the end of the line, her stream of thoughts are consistent throughout the length of the phone call without any verbal fillers slighting her speech. Born and brought up in Dubai, Sabbah had also studied and worked in Bengaluru for a decade before deciding to move to Kashmir for the first time in her life.

The children in our school have very little exposure to the outside world, but we want to expand right up till class XII so that we can guide them all through the way and make them a little street smart for the outside world

She informs, “The wake-up call came in form of the Amarnath riots, where my tiny village, which no one had ever heard of, was suddenly in the news because of the mob violence. My parents had been long asking me and my siblings that at least one of us should be living in Kashmir with them, but that incident acted as a trigger for me to wrap up my life in Bengaluru within a month, and move back to the hills.”

“We felt that providing good quality education was essential to have a tangible and sustained impact in the region.”

Sabbah first thought of moving back and computerizing and modernizing the existing family trust which was involved in general charity work in the region. We also felt that providing good quality education was essential to have a tangible and sustained impact in the area. The villagers came to know about the idea and insisted the family start with something immediately. So, the Haji Public School’s inception was in Sabbah’s house, with just the kindergarten class and two young boys trained as primary teachers. Currently, the school has been expanded up till the 8th standard.

She expresses her disdain for her government schools in the region, where there is no accountability and absolutely no teaching. Well qualified teachers draw good salaries but they can also be easily bribed. There is no insistence on merit and hence it is quite possible that a high school graduate is devoid of basic literary skills.

“Our biggest challenge is that of finding good teachers… there is a lot of middle-class entitlement but the skills of teachers are very mediocre.”

“Our biggest challenge is that of finding good teachers. There is no culture of social service in the region – there is a lot of middle-class entitlement but the skills of teachers are very mediocre. So, in 2012, we started a volunteer programme where we invite young people from all over to come and teach the children for at least three months. With my friends visiting and teaching the kids, blogging about the place and their experiences, we have been able to develop the credibility to screen and select the best of applicants for the programme.”

The kids in Haji Public School are brought up to fearless, they are encouraged to be curious and ask questions. They are extremely bright, their personalities changing and developing, beckoning a bright future.

Sabbah adds, “The children in our school have very little exposure to the outside world, but we want to expand right up till class XII so that we can guide them all through the way and make them a little street smart for the outside world.  We are keeping our eyes out for exceptionally bright students whom we hope to fund through their college years as well.”

Read More by Amrita Paul