Frontlines Online Edition
FrontLines July/August 2017
July/August 2017

He’s Worked Odd Jobs Since Age 10. Could His New Line of Work Set Him on a Better Path?

Trainees at a textile factory in Karachi that has partnered with the Youth Employment Project Trainees at a textile factory in Karachi that has partnered with the Youth Employment Project Mishal Jawaid, UNDP
An intrepid Pakistani young man who has had an up-close view of poverty, armed violence and unemployment discovers a USAID-funded vocational training program and a chance at a better future.

Lyari Town, the neighborhood where Ibrar Asim’s grandfather settled when he first came to Karachi in the 1950s soon after Pakistan’s independence, proudly claims to be the birthplace of some of the country’s best known soccer and boxing stars.

Over the decades, however, the town has fallen victim to political and ethnic gang wars, and is now home to marginalized communities facing severe hardships. “I’ve seen shops being burned, homes attacked, our neighborhood sealed under curfew, while all of us remained trapped inside our homes for weeks and months in a row, without electricity, water and no grocery supplies—as everything was shut,” says Asim, a 19-year-old bodybuilding and fitness enthusiast.

Ibrar Asim
Through the USAID-supported Youth Employment Project, Ibrar Asim found work as a garment factory machine operator in Karachi. He also teaches at a local private school for extra income.
Asim Hafeez for UNDP

But if all goes according to plan, Asim will not share the fate that has befallen many of the young men who grew up alongside him in Lyari Town.

The Youth Employment Project (YEP), which began in 2015 and is backed by USAID and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), is providing training and employment opportunities to youth—including Asim—from conflict-ridden and low-income communities in Karachi.

The city, which is Pakistan’s largest metropolis and industrial capital in the province of Sindh, mirrors the rest of the country: More than 31 percent of Pakistan’s population consists of youth in the 15- to 29-year-old age bracket. Unfortunately, a large proportion of these young people are uneducated, with no vocational skills, making this segment of society vulnerable to unemployment, violence and extremism. At the same time, demand for vocational and technical skills from the country’s private sector employers is on the rise.

“Research has shown that youth from marginalized neighborhoods who face multiple challenges in terms of monetary restrictions and social pressures are vulnerable to influences espousing violent or criminal goals,” says Denise Herbol, the USAID/Pakistan deputy mission director for the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. “Youth who view their financial and career prospects favorably due to jobs and job opportunity are less prone to fall victim to extremist groups, and that is one of the goals we are seeking with our training and employment program.”

USAID and U.N. Development Program representatives visit a denim factory in Karachi that has partnered with the Youth Employment Project to hire trainees.
USAID and U.N. Development Program representatives visit a denim factory in Karachi that has partnered with the Youth Employment Project to hire trainees.
Mishal Jawaid, UNDP

The objective of YEP is to provide youth who are vulnerable to violence and extremism the right skills and training in the garment industry. YEP also partners with leading garment manufacturers. After training is complete, young women and men are connected with these companies to find employment. The hope is that this will not only help reduce conflict, but also establish a foundation for long-term economic growth and prosperity in Pakistan.

Fortune Favors the Bold

Asim would seem tailor-made for YEP—for all the right reasons.

The eldest of five siblings, he has worked since he was just 10. “I was a student of class 5 [fifth grade] when my father informed me he could no longer afford to pay my school fees,” he remembers. Asim’s father, who works for a transportation contractor, also implied that he needed the young man’s help to sustain the household.

Asim began to take odd jobs in the afternoon so he could keep going to school in the mornings. He worked as a chaiwalla (tea boy), in a steel factory, in the leather industry, as a shopkeeper, as a machine operator at a bottling plant, and as a tutor. “I’ve been working on the streets since class 5. Imagine what a life I’ve led!” he says with a wry laugh.

A group of fresh trainees at a vocational training center in Karachi that has partnered with the Youth Employment Project
A group of fresh trainees at a vocational training center in Karachi that has partnered with the Youth Employment Project
Mishal Jawaid, UNDP

Asim has also seen violence up close. He lost four uncles, two cousins and one aunt to gang violence. He remembers his cousins and neighbors patrolling the streets with guns. He too was asked to play his part in guarding the streets and taking up arms, which he declined in order to stay focused on his jobs and studies.

Although a couple of years behind his age group, Asim managed to complete his intermediate (high school) education while working to make ends meet.

Time to Choose

In early 2016, Asim was unexpectedly relieved from one of his low-paying odd jobs and anxiously looking for another one. By this time, YEP was growing in popularity.

“Around that time, I was often asked to join a gang. It was an attractive prospect for us teens—who had only seen hardships—to be able to own motorcycles, weapons, get narcotics and command a certain respect in the neighborhood, alongside getting to eat, drink, wear and take whatever appealed,” Asim admits.

“I’ve seen so many of my friends fall prey to this menace,” Asim recalls with a distant gaze. “I can never forget the moment when an armed neighbor who was patrolling our street was wounded (and killed) by gunshots from a rival gang while we watched. We rushed him to the clinic while his chest and legs bled profusely.”

Luck was on Asim’s side when a friend informed him about YEP. “I’ve always been enthusiastic about learning and finding opportunities. So I rushed to find out more and got myself enrolled,” says Asim. He trained as a machine operator. Soon afterwards, YEP help him secure a stable job at a garment factory as a computerized machine operator.

He now makes an income of 14,000 Pakistani rupees, or Rs, a month—a sum that increases with order volumes. “Previously, our collective household income was around Rs 16,000 a month (approximately $150). Now I’m able to match that figure on my own,” Asim says proudly.

USAID and UNDP conduct a risk assessment to ensure that the internationally certified companies partnered with YEP guarantee that their facilities are safe, that their production lines use environmentally friendly practices, and that their employees are treated and compensated fairly in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

Ibrar Asim
Ibrar Asim
Asim Hafeez for UNDP

Between March 2015 and February 2017, the project “has trained nearly 8,000 of Karachi’s underprivileged and vulnerable youth in garment manufacturing, which has resulted in employment for over 4,500 at-risk youth,” says Ignacio Artaza, the UNDP country director in Pakistan. “This has helped us establish a foundation for long-term economic growth and prosperity in Pakistan.”

Asim, meanwhile, vows to “continue to fight for a better life for myself and others,” and is also a member of the local education committee in his area, a position he uses to ensure that his peers are not left behind. He also teaches at a local private school for extra income and plans to keep working in the garment industry until he has saved enough to pursue an MBA.

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Last updated: August 17, 2017