"Jamila! JAMILA!" shrieks my friend Noha. "Get up! You'll be late for chores!" I groan, stretch, and slowly stand from my uncomfortable "bed" (which is really just a mat of hay and grass on the bare floor).
I stumble over to Ms. Sayeed's room. She is our mistress, and we work for her as, well, house maids.
I knock on her door first thing in the morning to see what she needs done around the house. She scowls as she opens the door, clearly annoyed to be woken up.
"Good morning ma'am," I say. She grunts in reply to my greeting and proceeds to unload a huge list of jejune chores to be completed before the end of the day. She then slams the door, signifying that she's done talking to me.
Seriously, the word "boring" doesn't begin to describe my grievances with this place. At least at senior centers for the elderly, they have Bingo Nights and Taco Tuesdays Wing Wednesdays and whatnot. Here, the highlight of the week is getting to have a little extra daal, sabzi, and rice for dinner plus some chocolate we buy with the tiny salary we get.
I sigh and skulk over to the tattered closet with the creaky door to grab the dusty old broom, a cloth, and some commercial cleaning spray. Ever since my parents sent me off to this old house, my life has changed.
4 years ago, I was living happily with my family in a village. We didn't have much... there was always a limit on how much money could be spent. But we were complacent with what we had. Then, the drought hit.
For simple farmers like my father who were completely dependent on their crops, the drought was devastating. My parents had no choice but to send each of their children away to someplace safe so we wouldn't have to suffer from poverty. My younger sister Maysa was sent to one of our aunt's house in Lahore, Pakistan. Afreen, my other sister, was sent to another one of our cousins. But what about me? Why was I sent to this creaky damp house? Why was I the one who toiled for hours as a cleaning maid for an old lady to earn some money for my parents? I asked myself this question everyday. But I always did what I was told. All the work I did as a maid is what supported my parents' financial need.
But a longing grows inside me everyday, a longing for education. I, unlike other rich children in my neighborhood who have the privilege to attend school but detest it, would love to read, write, and learn science. It's not fair, I think, for any kid to be deprived of education and the right to learn.
Sadly, I am the only one here who wants to grow to be someone successful, someone big.
I stroll past the kitchen, where I see Noha, who also works as a maid here, preparing breakfast. Her face is sweaty and she looks years older than she is. I guess constant heat, suffering, and work takes its toll on your body.
Sweeping the floors, my mind drifts into some unknown land. I dream of a school for girls like me, girls who are not privileged. I long for notebooks, pencils, crayons, something to learn so I can alleviate the boredom of this place.
Suddenly the idea hits me.
What if I somehow snuck out to the local school near us? Think of all the books I could read and the things I could write! Immediately I think of the options. It's definitely plausible. Ms. Sayeed lets Noha and I go out and do whatever we want for a couple of hours in the evening anyways. She trusts us not to wander off or run away. I remember asking Noha once why Ms. Sayeed trusted us so much when she knew we could just escape.
"Are you out of your mind?" was Noha's reply. "Run away? To where, exactly? To my parents who depend on me for the money I make? To my relatives who couldn't care less about me? To where, Jamila? Face it, we can't run. It's pointless. You're stuck here for eternity."
Stuck here for eternity. For eternity.
As those words rang in my mind, I made up my mind that eternity was a bit too long for me. I could all spend that free time learning at the school! Why not try? What have I got to lose, anyways?
Excited, I quickly finish scrubbing the floor and dust the rest of the house. I tell Noha to make something special tonight for dinner since we have guests and then proceed to finish the laundry for Ms. Sayeed.
Time flies quickly and evening finds me. I can't wait to get to the school.
I walk down the dirt road, worn path and follow the signs. Eventually, I reach a small building, simple and sophisticated. Unlocking the gate, I hesitantly stroll in.
I cautiously peek in, and then walk to the receptionist. Though she looks at me in distaste at first when I ask her to meet the principal, she reluctantly lets me past her to the office.
The principal, an elderly woman with kind eyes greets me. Her dimples and deep, sunken eyelids make her look tired, yet her smile enlightens the room. She looks surprised to see me.
"And just who are you, young lady?" she asks, all smiles.
"I, um, hello ma'am. My name is Jamila. Jamila Siddiqui. I work at Ms. Sayeed's house."
"Ah," she replies, "the house down the road, correct, dear?" she inquires.
"Yes ma'am, that's the one. I'm one of her maids. I help her with chores, cooking, and cleaning."
"Hm, I imagine you don't enjoy doing that, do you?" she says with a twinkle in her eye.
I loosen up and tell her my whole story, ending with the fact that I want to learn something just like all the other privileged students here. "I don't have money, ma'am, but I have a passion to learn all the subjects like no one else. Girls like me, impoverished kids, don't get many chances in life to grow and do what they want to. I want to change that and get an education. Can you—"
Ms. Tayebjee, the principal, holds up her hand as if to silence me. It works. I immediately shut up and think, That's it. This is where she tells me to get out and go back home. Wherever that is.
But much to my surprise, she places a hand on my arm gently and says, "You don't need to explain yourself."
She applauds me and says I should be proud for showing an initiative to learn. She goes on and says that there is a nation wide science fair coming up. "I know it may not be possible for you to pull together a project in this short amount of time, but if you meet me at the school at this time every day, I can tutor and help you."
A grin lights up on my face. I thank her profusely and promise to return tomorrow.
As I wake the next morning, Noha is surprises to see me so chirpy. I rush through my work and set off, bouncing, for the school.
I talk to Ms. Tayebjee about what I want my project to be. I tell her I want to learn and create a water filter. I myself never got clean water at home, and I want to do something to change the dirty water that kids drink everyday. We discuss ideas on a cheap, affordable, yet effective water filter.
And so I sit there with Ms. Tayebjee everyday, working to collect supplies to build my project with. Sometimes I find myself daydreaming about what it would be like to win this competition. To see the pride in my family's eyes. To prove that I am just as capable of this as any other student, no matter how poor I am financially.
Noha doesn't know a thing about this yet. No one does. I don't intend to tell them, anyway. I don't think I could handle the "I told you so" look in their eyes if my project fails and I don't win.
But weeks later, my mistress gets a call from the school. Her eyes widen and she hands me the phone.
"Jamila? Jamila, you won the contest! You were one of the top 50 contestants!" gushes Ms. Tayebjee.
The judges are extremely impressed. They want to interview me about my life and background. I guess it's not everyday that a poor little maid girl like me wins something this big.
So here I am... days later. I won $1,000 in US dollars, part of which I have sent to my parents. I have moved back in to my parents' home. Instead of scrubbing floors, I earn money by working for a printing press nearby. The job may be tedious, but it beats being a maid. It also pays for the school that I attend daily.
I am very independent now. I earn a living just like any other adult, yet I am still learning about life and its ups and downs. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that letting society confine you to a certain job or position won't do any good. You should learn to work for what you want.
Winning the competition was an amazing feeling. But even more spectacular was the fact that I did it even though I was limited in terms of proper education.
If you have an education, be grateful for it. Thousands aren't as privileged as you.
If you don't, do whatever you can to achieve it!