It’s afternoon and classes for children at Pakistan Sweet Homes are about to end for the day. Patron-in-Chief Zamurud Khan walks briskly down a sunless corridor.
“You should meet my daughters before they leave for the hostel,” he says.
When he opens the first door bearing the sign ‘Nursery-Pink’, delighted screams of little girls ring out and echo in the corridor.
“Papa Jee, Papa Jee,” they call out and run out to hug him. They grab his legs and push and shove to get closer.
He laughs and in a singsong voice tells them to quickly come out. He then walks from door to door letting out cheerful children until he is surrounded by a sea of little heads wrapped in navy blue wool scarves, each no higher than his waist.
They are an excited bunch; on their Papa’s request little voices break into a nationalistic song in perfect unison.
A few minutes later, the boys come running out, laughing and cheering.
Right at the front is a little boy in a wheel chair and the boys take turns wheeling him down the corridor.
These children that Zamurud Khan calls his sons and daughters have lost one or both parents to terrorism or war.
They have come to Islamabad from Dera Bugti, parts of North and South Waziristan, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. There are 408 children at this centre in H-9 in Islamabad between the ages of three and 12.
There are classrooms on the ground floor for both boys and girls. The boys live in dormitories on the second and third floors while the girls leave for their hostel in I-8 at the end of the school day.
For every 15 children there is a ‘mother-maid’ who helps them wash-up, get dressed for school, organises their daily routine and tucks them in at night.
“Most of the women here are widows. These children are our life,” says a mother-maid, Nasreen.
“They are so young, they need a mother,” says Saira, another mother-maid.
“They all cry on their first night here but later they settle down and eventually even forget about their homes,” she says.
She narrates the difficulties children face in settling down. Most children at this centre have lost their parents in violent circumstances.
Some of them have seen their parents murdered before their eyes and carry the psychological trauma with them. Others have had family members killed in drone strikes. They hide under their beds if they hear a plane flying overhead.
There are also children who have come here from camps for people who have been displaced as a result of army operations.
“We make no distinctions; we have a kid here whose father was member of the Taliban,” says Umer Hussain, a bright young volunteer who shows visitors around.
The centre is sparsely furnished. The dormitories upstairs are bare and cold with only two bunk beds and a cupboard.
The children however appear jovial. They have sports facilities and extracurricular activities like music and art. Zamurud Khan arranges for visits by people like sports stars to visit the children.
At the annual event children from all over Pakistan come to Islamabad to participate in games and tableau performances. It is a colourful weeklong affair that the children look forward to all year. Umer says the children have come from very difficult circumstances and being here makes them the lucky ones.
“Khan sahab once heard that a child who had been sold into bonded labour was mistreated and sexually abused. He paid Rs50,000 to bring him to one of the centres,” he narrates.
It was at the Jalozai camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) that the idea for Pakistan Sweet Homes came to Zamurud Khan, who was heading the Pakistan Baitul Mal at the time.
He narrates how after the army operation in Swat, he would spend a lot of time at the IDP camps.
One day he met an orphan boy who was less than three years old and Zamurud wanted to take care of him.
“These children are our responsibility because if we don’t take care of them, they would be taken by the seminaries or groups who will use them for their nefarious purposes. Whenever there is a terrorist attack, we are never able to trace the attacker to a family because a lot of times they don’t have families. This is why I want to protect these children and give them a future,” he says.
Zamurud Khan was declared patron-in-chief for life for Pakistan Sweet Homes by the then president, Asif Ali Zardari. Today there are 35 centres across Pakistan which house close to 3,500 children which makes Pakistan Sweet Homes the largest orphanage in South Asia.
Zamurud has dreams for his children like any father would. He wants them to receive quality education and children at some centres attend private schools. At other centres like the one in H-9 in Islamabad there are in-house schools with curriculum from one of Rawalpindi’s most renowned private schools.
The foundation for a cadet college has been laid in Azad Kashmir where the older boys will be sent and there are plans for a university in Karachi which will be made through support from the Saudi government. Most of the centres are run on donations from private donors.
“We don’t want donors, we want team members, so we insist that anyone who sponsors a child spends time with him or her, at least every two months. We also don’t accept old clothes from people because a lot of people just want to send clothes that they want to get rid of, instead we buy clothes for the children every season,” Zamurud says.
There are a number of volunteers who help run the centre’s affairs.
Umer Hussain, who his studying to complete his doctorate, has been managing public relations here for three months.
“He has gotten us a partnership with Bahria University which has sponsored a new computer lab and an office for volunteers,” says Zamurud.
The lab and the office are located next to the sports complex which is under construction.
The sports complex is also being sponsored by donors while the land has been given by Pakistan Baitul Mal. The complex will house a basketball court, a football field and a swimming pool.
When asked about sustainability, he shrugs. “I have faith in God. So far anything I have dreamt of for my children, they have gotten. I know some very generous businessmen who donate large amounts every month. One has promised to sponsor 100 children for 14 years. So I am not worried,” he says with a smile.