Some children have already worked three hours before coming to class. Others will go to their jobs straight after school and remain there long after dark.
You could never tell from their big smiles and twinkling eyes as they crowd around the camera.
They remind you of your own children growing up – when all they had to worry about was remembering the packed lunch their mother religiously made for them each morning.
But there are no packed lunches for these Pakistani kids.It is they who must put food on the table for their parents, no matter they are barely out of the nursery.
For them, school is their sanctuary. It’s the one place in their lives where they actually feel at home.
For these children, the world outside the cloistered school walls is unimaginably harsh.
Many are woken from their beds in the early hours for the short walk from their homes in Karachi’s seaside slums to sort fish or peel shrimps after the early morning catch is hauled to shore.
The younger the boys and girls, the softer their hands, the easier it is for them to peel the shrimp, the quicker it is for them to fill the baskets, the more money they earn for the meagre pay of something like 50p a batch.
In some cases, there’s henna on their hands but it’s not for decoration; it’s to help cool and protect them from the sharp shells of the shrimp.
They arrive at Cowesjee, one of the 1,000 schools built in the hearts of Pakistan’s poorest communities by The Citizen’s Foundation, with their hands still stinking of fish. It’s not the kind of smell that fades easily.
A heavy breeze of fish and dirt, so pungent it sticks in your throat, wafts across from the other side of the busy highway, reminding the children where they’re from. And where they must return.
From the second floor of the spotlessly clean school, they can see their dusty, concrete crate homes across the iron walk bridge. But for now, the few hundred yards that separate them from the squalor might as well be a million miles.
They have clean, working toilets. They have fresh drinking water. They have electricity. There are books and computers and teachers who look upon them as so much more than just another body to bring money into the home.
Perhaps better than all of those things, they have the opportunity – the only one they are ever likely to get – to drag themselves out of the cycle of work and despair that is all that many of their parents have ever known.
Education can do that.
They can follow in the footsteps of four young people we met yesterday who graduated through TCF schools to win places in Karachi’s top universities. They come from the city’s slums. Now they are training to be engineers, a doctor, a film director.
It’s not a quick fix. The road out of such all-consuming poverty is long and hard.
There are people here in Karachi who do the best they can to protect and care for the poorer kids, acknowledging the reality of the situation by paying the schoolboy wage-earners for gentler, more suitable jobs.
TCF knows it will take time to be the “agents of change’ it strives to be. These schools have already changed so many lives since the first five were built in the mid-nineties. For now, most of the children they serve must still deal with the cards they were dealt in their hardscrabble communities. But through education, they may at least play a part in improving the lives of their children and of future generations.
The pupils in these photos will be back at work soon after the bell tolls for the end of class.
But the school across the road will be there for them tomorrow. At least they have a chance.
For now, that’s the best they can hope for.
Words by David Gardner