Spanning an acre of land, Jufelhurst School is not the type of building one expects to find in central Karachi. Situated near the chaotic marketplace of Soldier Bazaar, stepping into the school grounds is like stepping into another world. The low, historic buildings, banyan trees, and rich foliage are a stark contrast to the high rise apartment blocks that surround the school.
Jufelhurst was built in 1931, on the estate of Sybil D’Abreo, a Goan Catholic whose family had a long history in Karachi. D’Abreo ran the school herself, even naming it after her parents, Julia and Felix. Serving children from all religions, it survived partition, and was nationalized in 1974. Since then, the condition of the building has gradually deteriorated. “The government has a policy that they do not spend money on rented buildings, so day after day it has just got worse,” says Mohammed Shafiq, the school’s principal.
Now, the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) has declared it a dangerous building and ordered its immediate demolition. As a result, the education department has stopped paying the rent.
Parents, teachers, and alumni have mounted a campaign to save the school, which currently has 1,700 students. The Heritage Foundation, headed up by architect Yasmeen Lari, is putting forward a case to have it classified as a heritage building, given that it was built before 1947. If this status is granted, it would be protected from demolition, and become eligible for various endowment funds for restoring heritage sites.
The poor state of the school is immediately evident from the stream of sewage that cuts through one of the playgrounds. There are four structures on the grounds, one of which has been closed due to damage. The corrugated iron roof, which replaced the original roof at some point in the past decades, is open to the sky. The resulting rain damage meant that the first floor has fallen in. But, as Lari explains, this is by no means irreversible.
“To say that this building needs to be demolished is ridiculous. The walls are load-bearing – they’re fine – and were built to last. As far as the floors and roofs are concerned, we can rebuild them. It’s only because of this terrible neglect and apathy that they are in this state at all.”
Of the other three structures, two are used for teaching, and are fully operational. The third, D’Abreo’s old residence, is a beautiful building that is rendered inaccessible due to plants growing in and around it. However, Lari’s initial assessment is that the walls are in good shape.
This latest demolition order is not the only threat to the school. A claim has also been put forward by the descendants of Sybil D’Abreo’s brother, who now reside in San Diego and claim they have a right to the property. They also want to sell off the land and demolish the school. An attempt at renovation last year was halted by Sajjad Bashir, an attorney also seeking demolition.
Why are so many keen to see the school knocked down? The answer from a group of alumni and school staff is unanimous: “valuable land”. The construction industry is incredibly lucrative, and the area around the school is filled with apartment blocks. Those fighting the demolition suspect that the authorities want to sell off the land to building contractors for yet more residential properties.
“All this is basically an attempt to own this extremely expensive property of more than 4000 or 5000 square yards,” says Fahim Zaman, former director-general of the SBCA. “The property is worth billions of rupees. In a roundabout manner, these different threats are just one person, one theme, one group, one vested interest. But this is a neighbourhood school that simply cannot be replaced. There is no space.”
Unsurprisingly, emotions run high. When the school was sealed by the government in September, parents and students ripped the seals off. “The residents of the area took the initiative of breaking the seal out of anger as they felt betrayed,” says Shafiq. As he explains, the stakes for the children concerned are very high.
“There is no government school in the area that we can be merged with or moved to. And honestly, the students don’t even want to go from here. Most of our students belong to families that don’t believe in education, who only agree to send them because we do not charge anything. We have maintained a reputation, so we are able to transcend such narrow mindsets.”
Alumni going back 50 years have joined together to fight for the school’s survival. “The building has completed 81 years of existence. Now we are in hope it’s able to complete its 100 years with us by its side,” says one former student. Indeed, on top of the educational needs of the community is the historical importance of the building. Not only does it provide an open space for the whole neighbourhood, a welcome relief from the concrete jungle springing up around it, but its very existence contains a story.
“The fact that it was built by someone from a minority community for the purpose of education is a great thing in the province,” says Lari. “Why should we lose these footsteps of history? They tell you what this city is all about. They tell you that all these different communities lived peacefully together. It’s very important to try to save everything that presents Karachi as it was. That is what will lead us to become a city of peace.”
The author is a freelance journalist.