ISLAMABAD – On any given day in the Pakistani capital, a group of young people can be seen gathered outdoors in an open field, books open and looking at makeshift blackboards attached to metal pipes in an open-air school.
The school is the product of years of effort by Mohammed Ayub, a Pakistani man of humble origins who turned a promise to his dying father to make sure his siblings got an education into a life dedicated to teaching the less fortunate of this city. For three decades, children who might otherwise have gotten no education sat through his classes.
"I really don't remember how many have passed through (the school). They must be in thousands," Ayub, who is to be honored Monday at a ceremony in the eastern city of Lahore, told The Associated Press at the field where classes are held. "What I know is that I will continue this mission until my last breath."
Ayub, a 57-year-old government worker, came to Islamabad in 1976 from his hometown of Mandi Bahauddin, about 170 kilometers (105 miles) from the capital to find a job so he could take care of his seven siblings after his father died. Back home, he had struggled through a number of menial jobs. In Islamabad, he eventually found a low-level position in the city's emergency services. He worked hard to learn new skills such as first aid and firefighting — he even studied how to defuse bombs — and was eventually promoted to a full-fledged firefighter.
Never forgetting his promise to his father, he always sent money home to his siblings.
One day in 1985, he saw a boy about 12 years old busing tables at a restaurant, and that sparked an idea that eventually changed his life, Ayub said.
"I thought, 'He is no different than my younger brother.' At that moment I decided to teach him, and that was the start of my open school mission," he said.
Ayub convinced other boys working in shops and food outlets in the neighborhood to study with him in the middle of the market for an hour or two. But the shopkeepers — upset that he was taking up too much space — pushed him out. After moving multiple times, he eventually settled in an open field near the city's Kohsar market. City officials have agreed not to bother him as long as he doesn't try to set up a permanent structure.
He taught students math, Urdu and some basic English — though he had no training in teaching. He was always good at math, he says. When he started, most of the students were children who lived in the streets or worked during the day instead of going to school. Now about three-quarters of his roughly 170 students go to government-run schools but some to his classes afterward for extra tutoring. The rest aren't in school at all.
That so many students would sit outside, sometimes until late in the evening, speaks to the abysmal shape of Pakistan's education sector. Large numbers of students are out of school. Many schools don't have running water, electricity or functioning bathrooms. Analysts have also say schools often rely on rote learning that does little to prepare students.
Over the years, Ayub has been joined by a small army of volunteers, including a retired school principal, a doctor, a fireman and several older students who teach the younger ones.
"I used to walk through here and noticed this activity," said Faiqa Haroon, a doctor, who volunteers for the school. "You can't imagine the satisfaction I get by teaching these underprivileged kids."
Ayub is gradually becoming a legend among his students, part of the dedication that led Irfan Siddiqi, a senior adviser to the prime minister, to nominate him for the 'Pride of Performance' award, which is given to Pakistanis for contributions in various fields. Siddiqi, who is chairman of the awards committee, said he had read stories about Ayub and went unannounced to see the school himself.
"He is rendering a great service to this society," Siddiqi said.
Students love him so much that they have marked out a corner of the land where they plan to bury him when he dies so they will continue to feel his influence even after he is gone.
Farhat Abbas, a former student who has come back to tutor others, still remembers when Ayub found him cutting down wood in a neighborhood forest to make money for his family and persuaded him to come and study.
"I want to become a teacher like him and do the same," Abbas said. "Had I not met him, I would have remained illiterate."
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.