Sabbah Haji

Moving mountains, one child at a time

Sabbah started a school for 35 students in the remote village of Breswana in Jammu and Kashmir in 2009. Today, it has grown to educate 350 students.

I met Sabbah Haji in the summer of 2015. I was dog-tired at the end of a 40-hour long train journey, and unsure of how to greet the person I had read so much about. As I stepped out of the car and walked towards her, I readied my clammy palm for a handshake. She, instead, welcomed me with a hug, betraying a warmth to her palpable pragmatism, putting me at ease instantly. When I stepped into Haji Public School, I discovered a close-knit community of teachers who care, but more importantly, students who crave to learn. Another trait shone brightly – the children were not afraid to question and disagree. The first few days were challenging. I was kept on my toes in class, warding off a barrage of questions. I received some invaluable advice from her then. ‘Prepare the best you can, but be quick to admit when you don’t know. Answer their questions once you are sure.’ We spent several evenings after school discussing methods to help the children learn better. In the two years I taught at HPS, I woke up every day feeling inspired to teach.

Haji Public School was established in 2009 in Breswana, a little village of approximately 1500 people, nestled at 7500ft in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir, about 7 km away from the nearest motorable road. The village can be accessed in two ways - on horseback which takes about four hours or on foot which could take up to six hours (or more), the climb being a steep uphill one. Back then, the school had 35 students and two teachers and the Haji family ran the school from their ancestral home. Since then, the school has grown every year - it now has three branches, more than 350 students, over 20 local teachers as well as a thriving volunteer programme.

Sabbah leads her school by example, working tirelessly to plan her lessons, diligently correcting notebooks and patiently addressing the concerns of students and teachers alike. She knows every child by their name, taking care to know them as individuals. She packs the library with books because she wants to open up the world for them. She has taken the students to climbing competitions, basketball training camps, to museums, and to the sea. I will never forget the shrieks of laughter as the children - familiar only with mountains - jumped into the water with reckless abandon.

The best way to know her would be to visit the school where she is raising more than three hundred children. She scolds them as a mother would, urging them to be fearless in the pursuit of excellence, to persevere against all odds. When I taught the word ‘fierce’ to my 6th grade students, I was not surprised to hear ‘Sabbah ma’am is a fierce teacher’. Her passion is infectious: it strengthens the hopes of a community. In a village as remote as Breswana, you will meet bright-eyed, curious children who can reason both sides of an argument, who will also tell you that they first want to be ‘good human beings’ when they grow up.

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