A tribute to Ashoka Pakistani Fellow Abdul Waheed Khan

Submitted by: Tsega Belachew on 05/17/13

Ashoka is honored to celebrate the life of Ashoka Fellow Abdul Waheed Khan.  Abdul was brutally murdered at the age of 36 in front of his co-educational school in Qasba Colony, Karachi. Abdul was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2004 for his work that aimed to transform informal education systems in Pakistan.  Over the last decade, Abdul managed to impact the lives of hundreds of children by  introducing modern education in to Maddrassas and introducing the idea of sustainable education started and run by the community. As a model, he started the Bright Education Society (BES) that provided free, formal education to the children in the local community. These children mainly come from disadvantaged backgrounds and normally would have lacked access to modern education, such as math, science and literacy, and the opportunity to secure gainful employment. 

A child of laborers who immigrated to Karachi from the north of Pakistan, from an early age Abdul understood the importance of an education to build a vibrant society.  He himself attended a maddrassa, a religious school connected to the local mosque that also provided for the basic needs of the children.  At just twelve years old, Abdul set out to work in the social sector under the mentorship of Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan, founder of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) in Karachi.  Dr. Khan’s guidance inspired Abdul to expand the positive impact of the Bright Educational Society to other communities and connect it with other entrepreneurial endeavors in Pakistan. 

With the Bright Education Society, Abdul engaged with maddrassas to transform their curricula and help students succeed in the modern world.  In his schools, he trained the educators who already worked in the maddrassas in new techniques to teach mathematics, computers, and Urdu language.  He also helped those institutions that had boarding school components convert into day schools, involving the parents and the local community in decisions on curriculum and structure.  Recently he launched an additional pharmaceutical initiative as part of his work to provide free medication to people who could not afford it, including preparing anti-polio health workers for areas with high resistance to immunization. Abdul’s work paved the way for major transformation in the role of maddrassas, preparing them to deliver high-quality education to thousands of young Pakistani children.

Abdul’s programs were so successful that they attracted widespread public attention, both positive and negative.  By seeking to disrupt the status quo and provide modern schooling to young boys and girls, Abdul and his family suffered repeated threats of harassment and violence.  In spite of these threats, Abdul remained completely dedicated to his mission—a gentle, empathetic, persistent and values-driven approach to finding peaceful solutions in the world.

The Ashoka community—our Board of Directors, Fellows, staff and supporters—is deeply saddened by Abdul’s death.  He was an extraordinary and active member of our Fellowship in Pakistan, frequently engaging with our network of social entrepreneurs and a participant in Fellow-led security workshops.   As Ashoka seeks to build a world where every person has the confidence and freedom to make a positive impact in the world, we will follow Abdul’s own legacy in helping young children to become changemakers.