Seed Grant Voices: BLISS
Feb 02, 2010
Tags: Winter 2010 Newsletter
Team BLISS received a 2009 Summer Seed Grant from the Legatum Center to develop a customized “life skills” curriculum for Afghan refugees in Pakistan that aims to encourage school attendance and cultivate useful real-world skills. Here, team members Saba Gul and Eleni Orphanides reflect on their summer 2009 experience and the community's response to BLISS.
by Saba Gul and Eleni Orphanides, 2009 Summer Seed Grant Recipients
A group of animated teenage Turkmen girls sit in a cozy circle, chatting and laughing as they embroider a bright orange shaheen—a local bird—on black fabric. These girls are enrolled in the BLISS Art and Crafts class, a project that took off this summer in Attock, Pakistan with seed funding from the Legatum Center at MIT. BLISS, which stands for Business and Life Skills School, aims to increase access to education for working children among the carpet-weaving Turkmen refugees of Pakistan. Although the Cambridge-based NGO, Barakat Inc, offers free schooling to the community, many children—mostly girls—do not attend or drop out because they cannot forego the wages earned from weaving carpets. BLISS battles these girls’ opportunity cost of attending school through carefully designed financial incentives.
The hand-embroidered fabric is stitched into trendy handbags, and the profits from the sales allow participating girls to continue contributing to their household income. Each girl is paid 1000 Rupees (roughly $13) a month for attending two hours of evening school and one hour of the Art and Crafts class. This is a little more than the amount she would earn by skipping school and working at the carpet looms.
The Turkmen do not mingle much with the natives—a tendency the BLISS team observed first-hand when visiting their homes. Four-year olds would break into hysterical sobs because they mistook us for the only people who visit their homes—doctors. The women do not go out without their burqas, or full-body outer garments. These are kept neatly folded in narrow fabric casings that hang on the wall about seven feet above the ground. The effort required to remove the burqas from these casings reflects how seldom these women venture out of their homes. “We only go out a few times a year,” one woman told us. “Usually when it’s Eid, or there’s a wedding, or a death.” Among a people that thrive on respect for elders, not only within the family but within the community as a whole, it helped that the village elder, Abdul Jabbar, advocated BLISS. “This will be very good for our children,” he told us. “The carpet business is not doing well, and we are sick of it. It is very hard work and we don’t earn much. This is a way for our children to learn a new skill and also get educated.”
The community’s overwhelming response to BLISS has posed financial and logistical challenges, forcing the team to turn away many eager girls. The 38 girls who have enrolled are thrilled—most enjoy and are already skilled in embroidery and needlecraft. “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor and help poor people.” says Fatima, who is in fifth grade. “BLISS has reduced the burden of my education on my father. I hope someone will buy my work so I can continue to come to school.” BLISS has become not only a solution to these families’ financial bondage to the carpet industry, but also a community-building tool—an activity the girls take pleasure in as a group and look forward to every day—and a means of promoting Turkmen heritage and handiwork.
Through BLISS, we aspire to groom these girls into confident, healthy, socially responsible and financially stable citizens, who can raise the next generation to be the same. The girls learn English, Math, and Urdu (Pakistan’s national language), with plans to develop a special curriculum on hygiene, nutrition, diseases, gender equality, child rights and economic opportunities. The Turkmen are currently trapped in a cycle of poverty, illiteracy and social isolation. BLISS aims to break it by bringing education and practical skills to their doorstep, extending a caring hand while respecting their rich traditions.
This article appeared in the Legatum Center's Winter 2010 newsletter.