Who is Razia?

Razia is a Pakistani woman of small stature and a big heart. She has known the Columbans since about 1985, and from that time has been involved in bringing education to the women and children of brick kiln workers in the villages around her home in Jiunpura, Sheikhupura, Punjab Province. This is her story in her own words.

Pakistan women and children that Razia continues to educate. Photo: Fr Joe Joyce SSC

My name is Razia Barkat. I was born on December 12, 1965, in Hafizabad Parish, Punjab, about 50 kilometres from Sheikhupura. I was the youngest of ten children with five brothers and four sisters. All of my brothers died when they reached the age of five. Nobody knows what kind of illness caused their deaths. My birth brought no celebration or joy but disappointment and sorrow. My parents wanted a boy. My mother refused to touch me. However, after a while, my father lifted me and hugged me. “She will be lucky”, he said and told my eldest sister, Suraya, to clothe me well. My mother refused to feed me with her milk, so I was fed buffalo milk all through my childhood.

When I was born my family lived in a mud house, but soon afterwards they were able to build one of brick. I saw this as a sign of the blessing of my birth. I went to school when I was five years old. It was thought that there was no need to send me to be educated, as I would be married off. However, my father wanted me to go to school. He was a brick kiln worker and he used to bring me to school on his way to work. He always gave me great encouragement.

At the age of 17, a marriage was arranged for me with a man from Jiunpura, Sheikhupura. He was a brick kiln worker, an only son, illiterate, and poorly dressed. I had no desire to marry him but his family insisted on the match and my family hesitantly agreed. My eldest sister, Suraya, who used to look after our family while my mother was working, had gone to study nursing in Karachi in the south of Pakistan.

My father took me to Karachi and wanted me to stay there with my sister and not return to be with my future husband. But after a short time, I returned to my home town of Hafizabad and there my future husband’s father showed me great affection. Still, my mother did not want the marriage to occur and offered my future husband one of my sisters instead. However, he refused and I was forced into the marriage. I was 17 and he was about 27.

I immediately conceived and had my first child, a healthy boy I called Naveed. This made me very happy because now I had someone to love. Two years later I had another son, Vaheed. But a big fight broke out with my in-laws around this time and I left Jiunpura and went home to Hafizabad.

My husband came and took the children back, but my father-in-law persuaded him to consent to return the children to me. Sometime later, my daughter, Sumera, whom I nicknamed Chanda (Moon), was born. She went to school in Hafizabad and was a smart little girl.

I worked at home, dressmaking. But after a long time in my hometown, the catechist from Sheikhupura Parish came to visit me and informed me that there was a course in adult literacy starting there and that I should go for training. My husband gave his consent. That was how I began my career as a teacher. Columban Fr Tommy O’Hanlon started me off with about 20 children between the ages of six and seven.

Five literacy centres were opened. I was very happy with this new development in my life. It was about this time that I met Columban Fr Joe Joyce. One day he came to visit, and because it was heavily raining, he told me that it would be better not to go out to check the schools. I appreciated his care for me.

Some weeks later, another big rainstorm came and there was flooding. It was then that I received the news that my second son Vaheed had died of dysentery. He was a brilliant and loving child and I nearly went insane with grief. I stopped eating and wept continuously. When I got back my strength, I opened a nursery school in a brick kiln about two miles away from Jiunpura.

Then, another tragedy took place. My ten-year-old daughter, Sumera, was killed in a road accident. Once again, I was back in the depths of grief. After four months in this state, I became fragile. But little by little, I recovered. Frs Tommy O'Hanlon and Dan O’Connor gave me great support. At this time, a women’s group was being formed in the parish.

A Filipino Columban lay missionary, Miss Gloria Canama, invited me to attend a course with her in Multan. I took my youngest child, Jamshaed, with me because he was still being breastfed. In our monthly meetings, we could share our sufferings and problems. We used to choose a text from the Bible, usually about women, and apply it to our daily lives.

One day a man named Rodney came to visit our house. He belonged to a group called The Pak-Swedish Foundation and he asked if I would be willing to teach the children of the brick kiln workers. I accepted and in 2000 I opened a small school for 30 children and women. The number of children gradually grew to 130. The Pak-Swedish schools closed in 2010. But I continued to teach for a while, however, until the living and travelling expenses became too much for me.

In 2013, I talked with Fr Joe Joyce and explained the situation to him. He agreed to give me financial support. Soon, I was even able to employ some extra teachers, and now, with the ongoing support of the Columbans, I have been able to provide primary education for hundreds of children.

I remain most grateful to the Columbans and their supporters for all they have done for me, and through me, for my people. May God bless them all.

Columban Fr Joseph Joyce lives and works in Pakistan where Razia continues to teach.

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