It was a cold weekend of December 2010, when I received a call from Aneeq. After my undergrad I had taken a year off and was busy preparing for the public service examinations. He talked about an upcoming summer project he was planning with few other friends.
I will have to admit I was a bit sceptical as Aneeq and I go back years. During our school days, our socio political discussions never seemed to end. I grew up with reading the standard narrative taught to us by our conventional educational system and more important by our families. Aneeq was lucky enough to gain some exposure during his trip to United States during our O-Level days under an exchange program. So our discussions were mostly as coherent as the combination of oil and water.
But the friendship had survived all those college and under grad years. So I went to meet him and soon Aneeq entered the room with a lean, tall, clean shaven and grinning Imran Sarwar. They explained to me that they were planning to work with a group of high schools kids from a nearby public school. They invited me to come on board and handle the marketing aspect of the project. I had some experience of social media as I had moderated/managed number of groups/pages for number of musicians.
Being an introvert, low on confidence and shy, this was an unique opportunity for me as it provided me a chance to volunteer for some social cause and that too one of my favourite areas i.e. education. Secondly, I could expand my online marketing expertise by starting something from scratch. During the next few months, I created the social media accounts and gave out a volunteer call. The response was beyond our expectations; we had over 60 applications even before our official website was up.
We had professional actors walking in to help us out for drama classes. With the help of these talented and dedicated people and due to some amazing mentors everything came together and the camp started in May 2011. I remember the first morning, there were 20 of us sitting and waiting for the children to show up. Eventually only 8 of them showed up but the spirits were high. The camp was held in a very open and frank manner. We all used to sit down in the corridors of the school and discuss in detail the things that worked and those which didn’t. We were open to learning and improvising, and at times letting everything takes it natural course. The first camp ended with one of our best ever closing ceremonies, where the children, Fellows and school administration were equally involved. The response was overwhelming and we knew this was something that we definitely wanted to do.
In 2012, first Imran, and then Aneeq left for United States to pursue their Master’s degree. The original core team kind of disbanded too due to various reasons and suddenly there were only two of us to take everything forward. I cannot speak on Tooba’s behalf but for me it was a scary thought, so far I had built Rabtt`s digital profile yet now it meant that I had to represent Rabtt at different forums. That one year was quite an experience. I remember getting emails and messages from different likeminded people who wanted to discuss different possibilities. Sometimes we both were able to go for meetings but very often I ended up going alone to them. I am sure there must have been some mistakes initially but over the time I grew in confidence and we did end up holding the summer camps along with some other activities throughout the year.
Imran returned to take over in 2013 and turned Rabtt into a full time venture. I remember we had a small event on the eve of opening our first office. It’s hard to explain the excitement of the moment and, since then Rabtt has grown from strength to strength. We grew from one summer camp to 7 simultaneous camps in Lahore and eventually expanding into the largest city of Pakistan. The model, success, challenges and impact have been well documented but that is not the aim of the piece.
This is an ode to something which has impacted my entire adult life. That 15 minute meeting in December 2010 changed the course of my life. Today it is hard for me to imagine a parallel universe where I am not involved with Rabtt. I think it would have been a very mediocre life otherwise as I had never participated in any activity barring sports in my academic life; I hated being involved in anything that would make me a center of attention. But I knew I couldn’t just live my life like that, I wanted to teach and help people. Little did I know that I needed to unlearn first. Rabtt taught me that, it gave me the confidence to stand up for myself and my ideas but before that one should have enough knowledge to back those claims.
Personally, these years at Rabtt have given me some of my closest friends. They have stuck with me through thick and thin; they were my source of motivation, my fall-back option, and were always there for me. I have met some really amazing people through Rabtt who gave me opportunity to unlearn and then learn with them. They have restored my faith in the future of this country. They all are striving for a better society and a tolerant country and I feel fortunate to know them and work with them in this cause.
I have been mostly working in the shadows; I was never a regular fixture at the Summer Camps. I didn’t have that direct connection with the students. Most of volunteers knew me as the guy who had all of their potential display pictures. But I grew with them; I learned with and from them. Today when I look around, it’s hard to imagine that I met more than half of my social circle through Rabtt. Over the years, it has given me a different kind of identity. It has owned me as much I have tried to own Rabtt and I will be ever grateful for this.
Professionally speaking, Rabtt gave me the space and environment where I could make mistakes, learn from them and grow professionally. I remember making the first poster on MS PowerPoint and today I don’t believe that our any marketing material should be designed on anything except Photoshop. Over the years, I learned how to make strategies for different audiences, how to communicate with them using different social media tools, the basics of good design and even trying out video direction. I have made some errors but the best thing was that the team was always open to try out new ideas. The environment was always inclusive, even though things like operations and curriculum development were not my departments but I always knew what was going on there. That learning has helped me launched my own initiative two years ago and there too Rabtt had an influence as I found my co-founder through Rabtt.
It would be unfair not to mention Imran`s role in my life. I have seen him evolve over the years and he has always tried to take everyone with him on this journey. He has been an inspiring mentor, a good leader and a great friend; it is hard to imagine any of this happening without him. He took up the cause and gave his everything and more importantly he believed in all of us, in our hidden talents and above all, in the goodness in us.
A lot has changed over the years, Rabtt`s model has evolved and we tried out different things making a lot of mistakes. Some of them were inevitable; some of them could have been avoided. Maybe we could have been a bit more realistic in our objectives, maybe we could have had more accountability but one thing none of us questions is the sincerity and dedication towards a more empathetic Pakistan. Hibernation does not really means the end of everything, it basically means that we are taking a step back from full-time operations and maybe some of the team members will be conducting trainings and programs keeping in line with the core mission of the organization. I am not sure if I will be a part of it again, I am not sure if all of us will sit together in one room having those meetings, our outdoor road trips or just eating samosas but I think we left on a high note. I believe in these people, I know whatever they do in any capacity, they will try to make some positive change in other people`s life. We need more of them in this country!
Before I end, I just want to thank each and every one of you who have been involved in Rabtt in whatever capacity and for whatever reason. You guys have helped us learn, grow and succeed. Some of you felt the connection, for some it was just an experience and many of you never came back to connect with us but I hope that most of you took away something from this experiment. I sincerely believe that our generation is the last chance for this country. So my only request is to play your destined role to your full capacity.
The future is uncertain, and as we admitted in the Rabtt Blue Book, “Whether Rabtt, as an organization, resumes operations in its somewhat original form, emerges anew, or continues to make contributions as a platform for consultancy and sharing ideas, we humbly hand the baton to you.”
Written by Hammad Anwar
The writer works in the social sector with a special interest in counter extremism, and storytelling through visuals. He tweets @manihammad