Changing lives through quality education, entrepreneurial initiatives

Changing lives through quality education, entrepreneurial initiatives

For vulnerable children, marginalised youth

In 2011, Irfan Shahmiri, an IT professional left his job at Microsoft, after spending around 20 years in corporate America to work full time for his initiative Chinar International to provide support to vulnerable children and marginalised youth of Kashmir. In a detailed interview with Greater Kashmir’s business editor INAM UL HAQ, Irfan talks about his dream work regarding children education, entrepreneurship, youth empowerment and reaching out to far-flung areas. 

 

WHAT DOES CHINAR INTERNATIONAL DO?

Chinar is all about helping children and youth. We provide support to children and youth coming from low-income families and marginalised societies. For children, our solution is quality education and for youth, we have to show them such a path, where they can see for themselves a hopeful future and become self-reliant. The mission statement of Chinar is ‘Empowerment of vulnerable children and marginalised youth through quality education and socio-economic initiatives’.

Chinar International is registered in the US and a parallel partner organisation is based in Kashmir as a separate entity. In India, it is a Section 8 company, registered under the Companies Act. I am its global lead and chairman board of directors in the US. India has a separate board of directors, according to the laws governing here.

Chinar’s programmes are developed after thorough planning and impact analysis and are structured to scale and sustain to maximize impact. Chinar is also focused on organisational capacity building, innovation, collaborations and partnerships. With a professional team, evolved programmes and comprehensive processes of beneficiary selection, monitoring and oversight we have increased our footprint. Chinar is a developmental organisation that partners with civil society organizations, governmental and non-governmental organizations and has a large-scale social impact in the lives of orphans, vulnerable children and marginalized youth.

 

WE WILL DEAL WITH THAT IN DETAIL LATER. BUT CAN YOU FIRST TELL US ABOUT HOW THE IDEA OF CHINAR CAME TO YOU? YOU ARE BASED IN THE UNITED STATES, WAS HAVING A SUCCESSFUL CAREER THERE IN CORPORATE AMERICA. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WORK FOR KASHMIR?

When it all began here in Kashmir in the early 90s, my father pushed me out of here and sent me to the US. I did my masters there, started working, and got well adjusted there quickly. But, back in my mind, I always wanted that I should do something here in Kashmir.

In 2003, I wrote an email to a number of like-minded people, who were interested in contributing something for Kashmir. I told them to come with three things they think we should work on. Then we all met at my house and the three top things that most of the people agreed on were education, healthcare and above all working for orphans. Those days there was an impression that conflict has created a huge number of orphans and there was a report by a sociology professor that the number of orphans due to the conflict could be more than one lakh. So, it became the consensus that we should work on orphans.

At that time, the best practice for the care of orphans was considered the S0S Village model. Keeping in consideration community sensitivities and socio-cultural ethos, we started SOS Village in Kashmir in 2004. Then there was 2005 earthquake and we worked on the relief and rehabilitation to some extent as well. While we kept working this way from 2003 to 2011, which I call the first phase of Chinar, we got to understand a lot of things. First, what is the social sector? How to make an impact and why an impactful work needs to be done at scale rather doing little things here and there. We were based in the US, so how can we make it accountable while sitting there, how will the governance run and we tried to understand the process. It became a realisation that we should do something to make a large-scale impact otherwise there is no fun doing it.

 

SO, WHAT DID YOU DO TO CHANGE THAT, TO DO MORE IMPACTFUL WORK AT LARGE SCALE?

In 2011, I came here for an organisational review, we wanted to know where have we reached, and is there any impact of our programme on the ground or not. I had come for 3 months but stayed for about 10 months and it became one of the defining moments for the Chinar. That time, I travelled the whole valley and I met a lot of people in rural areas, urban areas and tried to get different perspectives. Then we got to know and understand that first there is less number of orphans in Kashmir, as has been reported. Second, we saw that there are other children as well living in poverty and besides, orphans they too need help. And, we got to know that it is wrong to uproot a kid from his family and put him in an orphanage or under institutional care. If they are to be helped do that but keep them with their families. That is a tougher solution but the most sustainable solution, and it has been seen that institutional care has drawbacks and side effects. And we were able to gauge that, with our own experiences. Therefore, we changed our model completely, from institutional care to community care. Support kids but keep them in their community and help them there only. And that developed well. At that time, I saw, that the conflict-affected children of 90s had now turned into young adults. Whether they were orphans or vulnerable ones, they had seen the loss of school days. From the financially poor backgrounds, now they come into the system with the educational level of matric or 12th pass, their competency level was very weak. So, they were financially as well as educationally week. And there was no government department or any private organisation working for them. That made us realise that it is not kids only, who are at risk, but these vulnerable youth too are at risk. Therefore, we had to address both kids as well as these vulnerable youth together.

At that time, we changed not only our mission statement but did complete shakeup of Chinar, which became the beginning of Chinar’s phase second, with focus on vulnerable children and marginalised youth. For kids, quality education and for these young adults a path to secure future became the new mission of our work.

TELL US ABOUT WHAT KIND OF PROGRAMMES AND INTERVENTIONS YOU STARTED IN PHASE SECOND OF CHINAR?

Between 2011 and 2014, we developed new programmes like the community-based intervention for kids. We identified kids, their families but instead of uprooting them, we helped them in their homes, within their communities.  We tried to change the environment of the family where they live. Like, if a family is poor, parents don’t have a livelihood. We provided livelihood support to the family. And the child, we provided with the education, food and clothes, so that he/she can go to school. If you are not able to help to make family environment right, and only provide help to the kid that is not going to help. You have to change the whole environment around him. He should not face the stress of being asked by the family to earn. And when these kids were going to schools, we started informally working with the government schools. Our first intervention was at Zampathri in Shopian districts. That area faces poverty and people have no awareness about education. We first started to informally work with the school but then worked through government. So the kids we selected there, we put them in our programmes. And all the parents, guardians and widows there were provided livelihood, mostly sheep units.

And that program over the time started to work. But the important component of that program is monitoring.

The monitoring works like this, when we started the intervention, we told them that your kid and family will get support and we will provide him with all requirements but the condition is your kid must have 70 percent attendance, in school as well as in remedial education. These kids also needed remedial education (tuition), because their competency level was very low. When we put a kid in the program, we do the base lining first, to know where does a kid stand. Most of times a kid is in fifth grade but his competence level is not even of second grade, particularly in Maths and English. Then we develop a remedial plan for the kid.

If the kid does not provide the 70 percent attendance, a warning is sent to him. Their parents, whom we have provided livelihood support that is also linked to the kid’s education. In case they are not sending the kids to school, then we take back the livelihood and we did that in few instances. Though it is difficult things, but, we needed to make an example of it.

With the passage of time, we also started to work with the government middle school there in Zampathri. The school at that time has a large number of dropouts and teachers were blaming that kids don’t come to school; rather parents make them work. And parents would tell us that teachers don’t teach, so it is better that our kids work. Then, when we made the program, I went back to the headmaster of the school and told him that we will bring kids to the school but you have to teach them and similar way motivated the parents. And the relationship started from there with the school as well as the community. School people we taught modern techniques of pedagogy, provided them training etc and did some monitoring as well. Now that school has huge enrolment.

 

DO YOU WORK WITH GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS AS WELL NOW?

Yes, our second programme is with government schools, as 99 percent of kids of low-income group families study in these schools only. So in 2012, when we understood how government schools work, what are the schemes with it and how these schemes, like RAMSA, SSA, etc work, we went to the Education Department and we told them, give us three schools, and we will show you much better results and will change the standard of these schools.

When we told them how we were able to make difference in Zampathri, they got motivated and provided us with five schools in five districts: Anantnag, Kulgam, Budgam, Shopian and Srinagar. And, now are further scaling up to involve more schools.

 

ARE YOU REACHING OUT TO PEOPLE IN FAR-FLUNG AREAS, BEYOND KASHMIR VALLEY, AS WELL?

Yes, one intervention we are doing is in Wadwun valley and I believe it has huge potential. We got to know that Wadwun valley is completely underdeveloped in all most in all aspects of the life be it education, healthcare, connectivity, anything you name it. Our first intervention there was remedial education. We provided winter tuition for 150 kids and we monitored it and in spring we got to know that the level of these kids has increased. This year we enhanced the winter tuition up to 600 kids. Government teachers there, leave in winters, so we had to see who will teach these kids.

What we did, we activated local youth, the local youth there were 12th pass but when we did their base lining, their standard was not up to the mark but they had passion and were hardworking. We brought 15 youth from the area and trained them in a boot camp here for 3 weeks for their education and providing tuition to kids there. Now, for the whole year, there will be remedial education classes in three centres in Wadwun. And the second thing is how we can use these centres multipurpose. Therefore, we started two programmes for youth. For girls, we started tailoring, and adventure tourism has huge potential there, so we will train some youth of the area in providing adventure tourism services there.

I want to emphasise here that competence level of our youth is not that good. They need to have a proper education. Our youth need to become educationally good and financially secure and then only they can make the intelligent decisions.

We have to be accountable to our younger generations. They are asking us. ‘You had a beautiful Kashmir and now what you are handing over to us is all stressed. On one side world is shrinking and on another side we are not able to compete in it. We are not having the right kind of education and skills.’ Our youth are angry about that.

 

CHINAR IS RUNNING PROGRAMMES ON ENTREPRENEURSHIP, ETC. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE INITIATIVES YOU HAVE LAUNCHED FOR THE YOUTH?

As far as youth are concerned, we have a very complex problem. We run after government jobs only, and government cannot provide jobs to all. This mind-set cannot be changed at a level when somebody has crossed 25 or 30 years of age. So, we decided to start entrepreneurship education and awareness at college and school level. We are trying to do the first intervention at Kothibagh School in this regard. To give the concept of entrepreneurship to kids, tell them how powerful it is. Not only for yourself, but you provide jobs for others as well. Even the concepts of business, and telling these kids and young adults what are the other options available to them. Entrepreneurship is when you do something innovative and it is not about profit only, it can be any area, where you do something new. Risk takers are all entrepreneurs in their own ways.

Point is to inculcate in our young generations that there is huge world besides government jobs and that is a very powerful world.

What we are trying is to introduce the concept of entrepreneurship labs in schools for class 10, 11 and 12 and hopefully there will be some curriculum. So, in Kothibagh, it will be a kind of incubation centre, where students would be encouraged to experiment with their business ideas. It will be from production to procurement to marketing, anything in a value chain so that a student is fully able to understand, and encouraged for his own ventures. So when he graduates, he will say I don’t need a government job, because, I already know what I have to do. Then there are skill development opportunities from the government side and we are doing training in tailoring centres and computer centres.

CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THE YOUTH PROGRAMMES?

Actually, we have collaboration with Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) and they provide technical education for entrepreneurship. In 2015, we started business plan competition, and we selected three ventures for further guidance and help. One is digital embroidery by an Orphan Girl from Kupwara. She has seen a lot of hardships but now she has been able to start her work.

Another was sanitary napkin venture. That faced some problems but we are working on that and hopefully would be able to overcome it. The third one was a dairy farm but that did not work. While we are continuing with business plan competition, now we are launching college startup competition. For that, we have already partnered with Islamia College. We are also organising workshops, where we train people, tell them how to write business plans etc. Then we ask them for participating in the competition.

The purpose is to identify youth who have ideas, helping them how to materialise these ideas. Select and train them. Help them in finding funding or connect them to relevant institutions or people.

While we do all this, we try to build Chinar as a professional developmental organisation.  We constantly strive for work culture, organisational capacity building, equal atmosphere for all to work purely on a professional basis and equal treatment to women. We also work for relief and rehabilitation during disasters. In 2014, there was flood and our office didn’t close for 3 months. It was working 24X7.

We started working on day one of the flood.