It was 2003 and I was passing through Karachi on my way home from yet another visit to Pakistan. I looked back on the past month, in which I had visited some of our many Pakistani friends across the country.
My wife and I had lived in Lahore for nine years in the 1980s, launching the work of Operation Mobilisation in Pakistan.
As we pulled back, that work was taken forward by Pakistani Christians with a passion for evangelism.
We moved on, but we did not move out. We had formed a network of friendships among Pakistani Christians, but one family had a special impact on our future.
Ashley had directed his own shipping supply company in Djibouti on the east African coast, and had met and married Seema, a Christian from Yemen. They moved back to Lahore and he worked for an insurance company.
Ashley knew our commitment to his country, and he said to me one day: ‘Mike, if you really want to help our community, help us educate our children.’
I had no formal understanding of education but we took it to heart and, to cut a long story short, we raised some money and helped Ashley to open the Lahore Christian High School. It is still serving the Christians of Lahore.
That was three years earlier. Now in 2003 we faced the big question: how could we maintain our commitment to educate Pakistan’s poorest Christians? We had to launch our own charity and wrestled with a name. Pakistan’s Poor? People in Need?
There during that night in Karachi I bit the bullet and decided: Starfish Asia: bringing hope to the children of Pakistan. I loved the starfish story, the boy throwing dying starfish back into the sea. When asked what difference it made to the thousands of starfish on the beach, he replied, ‘It makes a big difference to this one.’
By September 2003 our charity was registered.
Growth and blessing
God blessed that small beginning. Ashley and Seema’s school grew, young people graduated, many became nurses or got good jobs to support their families.
We responded to other Christians who wanted to help their communities. For example, the Holy Shepherd School in Karachi was struggling to survive, but we were able to raise some funds to help them pay their teachers. Today, 600 Christian young people study in a purpose-built school building. It is the pride of their labouring community.
Mr Dean had run his school in Lahore for several years, but had no money to pay either himself or his teachers a decent salary. He was well-educated and I asked him one day why he did not get a job with a good salary. He smiled and looked at me. ‘It’s my community. I want to help my community.’ Such dedication inspired us.
The Miracle School was started by Angela, Edna, and Rubina with 50 children in their family home. We helped them and they now run two schools for about 600 Christian children.
Pakistan is sadly known for its troubles, not for its beauty. It is known for corruption and chaos, not for its history, dignity, and pride.
Open Doors rates it eighth on their persecution watch list for Christians. They do not mention the freedom Christians enjoy to worship, witness – and educate their children. Pakistan does have a very poor record on education. In March 2022 a major Pakistani newspaper reported: ‘Nearly one-fifth of all school-age children in Pakistan remain out of school… parents belonging to the lowest socio-economic strata are unable to send their children to school.’
It is sadly the five million Christians who form much of the ‘lowest socio-economic strata’. We set out to change that.
2016 Survey: For a better world
In 2016 we launched a survey across the areas of Pakistan where Christians are found in larger numbers. We wanted to find out what sort of education was available – and accessible – to children from Christian families. It was not a comprehensive or detailed survey, but it was revealing.
We contacted 604 private schools serving 85,000 children, mostly from Christian families. 13% of the schools had no toilet and a quarter provided no clean drinking water. Four out of five teachers had no teaching qualifications and some were paid less than £15 a month.
In many of the schools children had no notebooks. But there was good news: 95% of the schools surveyed had Bible classes for their students. The full survey is on our website.
We set out to help as many of those schools as we could. We organised teacher training classes and invited teachers from the surveyed schools to attend. We began to publish a magazine for Christian teachers in Urdu and sent it to all the schools and 4,000 teachers. We started to provide subsidies to enable teachers to receive a better salary. We also produced a Bible curriculum for primary classes – a five year project which is now used by many Christian schools across Pakistan.
Raising standards, lifting hopes
We found the Right Way School as a result of the survey. Located in a village north of Lahore, it was opened by a local farmer’s daughter – a young lady with a passion for education.
She rented a rough brick building (but never had enough money to pay the rent), paid a small wage to three or four teachers out of her own pocket, and invited Christian children to come in. They had no electricity or fans, even in the summer heat.
This lady, Naseeb, was the sort of person we loved to help. She was capable and compassionate — not waiting for funds before stepping out in faith. We helped her with furniture, electricity, and ultimately a better building.
In 2015 I visited a school in Pakistan’s third city, Faisalabad. Nabila had opened her home for Christian children to come in, and she hired five teachers.
We met them and asked them to tell us how much salary they were given. We had to press them for an answer, but finally, very slowly, they raised one finger. A thousand rupees or £6.50 a month. We asked them how much they would like. ‘Three,’ they replied. We offered to raise it to five. Now it is 10.
The next 21 years
We have come a long way over the past 21 years. We have just printed the Starfish Asia Story – an 84-page booklet of insights into the stories of the past that have brought hope to thousands of Pakistan’s Christians. You can request a free copy by writing to email@example.com.
Pakistan is a country on the move. When we first helped to launch the Lahore Christian High School, the national census recorded 140 million citizens. Today’s population, 21 years later, estimates it has grown to 225 million Pakistanis. About four million (maybe more) call themselves Christian, and many of them are the poorest of the poor.
They need our prayers. They need our help. The next 21 years are a wonderful opportunity for us to bring hope, faith, and confidence to the next generation – the church of Christ in Pakistan.
By Mike Wakely, executive trustee of Starfish Asia.