Pedalling through Islamabad’s leafy streets on his bicycle, Mohammed Ayub comes across as just another ordinary working class Pakistani. What he’s chosen to do with his life, however, is extraordinary.
Each day at 3pm, after finishing his day job, he arrives like clockwork at a public park in Islamabad’s F-6 sector, a couple of kilometres from Pakistan’s parliament building. Around 200 children from different backgrounds are lined up and waiting for him at the park, ready to learn. They know him as ‘Master Ayub’.
It all started 30 years ago, after he moved to Islamabad and secured a job with the fire brigade.
“My family were staying in the village and I was here in the city alone, so I wanted to do something in my spare time that would be of some use,” Ayub told Al Jazeera.
With that in mind, he asked a young boy washing cars why he wasn’t at school. The response was typical: “my parents are poor, so I work,” the boy had told him.
“I brought him a notebook, gave him a pencil and an eraser, and started teaching him there and then, sitting on the ground.” Master Ayub had found his calling.
The next day, the boy brought along his friend. The day after, a couple more came. Within a week, and with a bit of persuasion, there were fifty children coming to learn to read and write after they had finished their work each day.
Now, with the help of former students and friends, Master Ayub’s park school accommodates around 200 children, a mixture of Muslims and Christians from poor families. Thousands have passed through in the last three decades, taking government accredited exams to allow them to go on to higher education, or secure decent jobs.
While many of the capital’s affluent residents may be unaware of what’s going on in this little park on their doorstep, for the impoverished communities in nearby slums the park school has become an institution.
Thirteen year old Maria has been at the school for five years, and wants to be a doctor. Although more articulate in Urdu, she’s keen to practice her English with us, which she’s learned at the school.
“When I first time come here [sic], I liked Master Ayub,” she says with a large grin. “It’s very good and very special.”
Mohammed Ayub’s own experience of poverty in his youth is what drives him to help others.
“My father died when I was still a young man. I was left responsible for my five brothers and three sisters. I would teach them, and also work hard selling newspapers, making bags, to earn a living for us all.”
Some of Master Ayub’s former students now have children of their own, and opt to bring them to the park for extra tuition after classes finish at government run schools.
While the school is changing lives, the headmaster’s day job as a firefighter is about saving lives. The scars on his hands are a reminder of how dangerous that work can be.
When the Islamabad Marriott hotel was hit by a massive bomb blast in September 2008, he rushed in to help survivors escape.
“Some people were stuck inside. When I went into the fire to pull them out, I received burns to my body and hands, but I took God’s name and went ahead and managed to get them out.”
Today, 58 year old Master Ayub’s role in the fire brigade is mainly administrative. When he retires in a few years, he wants to make the children in the park his sole focus. He dreams of building a real school, with classrooms and computers, and the children share that dream - each day before class they collect bricks and stones and pile them up at the entrance of the park, to use as building materials.
“God willing, within a few years, we’ll build a big school. And those students who are with us, and say they want to be like Master Ayub, one day they will [be just like him].”