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Slumabad

STOCKHOLM – Growing up as a nomadic untouchable in Lahore, Pakistan, Muhammad Sabir lived in tents with none of the amenities of modern life. At age five he was helping his parents and eight siblings make ends meet by picking through garbage to find items he could sell.

When Sabir, now 31, returns to Lahore from this Swedish capital where he participated in the Swedish Institute Sustainability Forum, he will launch a program to bring scavengers in his home city into the formal labor sector, with earnings standardized and social protection provided.

The scavengers in Pakistan are mostly women and children, Sabir told those of us assigned along with him to a forum focus group that tackled inclusion in the context of urbanization and migration. He acknowledges the challenges of the plan that we proposed for pilot projects in Lahore and perhaps in Metro Manila. I told them that many of the scavengers in Philippine dumps are teenagers and young children, and they might resist being organized and drawn into the formal labor sector because child labor is prohibited by law and the kids may no longer be able to help their families.

Sabir, however, is unfazed and vows to find a “win-win-win” solution in Lahore – something we kept hearing throughout the sustainability forum that was inspired by Sweden’s Global Deal Initiative.

He already has a program going in Lahore through his group called “Slumabad.” The NGO enrolls nomadic and gypsy children in school and, on the side, teaches them basic financial literacy. While Sabir is here in Sweden, his wife Hanna Gardell, a 29-year-old Swede, is minding the Slumabad program in Lahore, where many of Sabir’s relatives continue to subsist on scavenging.

Considering how far he has come from his days of garbage picking, Sabir has reason to be optimistic about his new project. 

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There are others with similar compelling stories who attended the forum, whose theme was, “Let’s Talk!” Through determination and a refusal to be condemned to the circumstances of his birth, Sabir is realizing his potential and changing the world.

* * *

Although he belongs to the lowest caste in Pakistan, Sabir was determined to lift himself out of extreme poverty. He enrolled in a public school, sifting through garbage in the morning before attending classes, and then selling hard-boiled eggs and bottled water after school hours. Often he returned home late, during which he did his homework by candlelight as their makeshift shelters did not have electricity.

He remembers his classmates avoiding him, because of his caste, his dirty clothes and – he adds with characteristic humor – probably because he didn’t smell nice. To gain some social acceptance, Sabir worked hard to learn English, mostly by reading books and watching movies.

It helped that he was a voracious reader. He told me the novels of Charles Dickens, particularly Great Expectations, inspired him to rise above the caste system and get ahead in life.

“I think I’m one of Dickens’ characters,” Sabir told me.

His story has been fascinating enough to attract the attention of the Pakistani media. “Slumabad” has received good press, and Sabir’s work has earned him fellowships including one on “emerging leadership” in 2012 in the United States. 

He showed me with pride his photo, in a natty suit, during his stay in New York – an experience that blew him away. The first thing he bought there, he said, was Kindle, so he could read more books.

 Sabir’s work in the slums also brought him to Sweden for the first time in 2014, on the invitation of the Swedish Institute. Here in Stockholm at the central station, he boarded a train and sat beside a young Swedish graduate of theater arts. The train, he recalls, was delayed by an hour – unusual for Sweden. It gave him an opportunity to chat with his seatmate.

“The whole universe conspired for me to meet my wife,” he told me with amusement. When I commented about how attractive Hanna is, he grinned and said he’s also quite good-looking.

Hanna drives a motorcycle around Lahore and is learning the language. While she is minding Slumabad in the Pakistani city, Sabir is spending a few days with her relatives in Sweden.

* * *

Sabir graduated from Pakistan’s Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. His financial savvy helps make Slumabad, which survives on donations, viable. 

Remembering his days of living in tents without sanitation facilities, Sabir’s NGO has been installing toilets in gypsy and nomadic communities in Lahore. The lack of toilets is common in the slums of Pakistan and India, which is particularly hard for women.

Sabir hopes to take this project one step further, by converting human waste into fertilizer or biogas that the communities can use.

He’s not the only one with such an inspiring story. There wasn’t enough time for me to get to know all the 100 delegates from 39 countries invited to the sustainability forum, but I know the group included at least one gypsy woman, a Palestinian woman and others who have worked closely to improve the lives of workers and the dirt poor in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. 

A woman from Ethiopia, upon learning of our focus group’s proposed project with scavengers and the challenges for implementing it in Manila, approached me to say that they already have a similar project going in her country. She showed me a strip of recycled plastic that she said the scavengers used for weaving products for sale such as handbags.

Although Sabir and his NGO have gained recognition in Pakistan, there is always resistance to efforts that aim to promote the welfare of the extremely poor. His opinion about human nature can be gleaned from a comment he made while we were discussing another issue at the forum.

“If there is no oppressor, there will be no oppressed. I think humans are still in the process of evolution,” Sabir told us, with no hint of bitterness.

He is aware that evolution means change. While the process may be slow, it is relentless. There’s a popular metaphor about the toughest rock faces being altered by the constant flow of tiny streams. 

Sabir’s life story shows this to be true.

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