Hundreds of Kashmiri children orphaned by the decade-long militancy have been making a bee line to Kozhokode in Kerala, to avail of free education at 'Markaz', one of the biggest Islamic institutions of learning in the country.
Over 4,600 km away from Kashmir, the Markaz has emerged as a refuge and seat of learning for the children.
It all began with the visit of Kanthapuram A P Abboobacker Musaliyar, the head of the Markaz and a prominent religious head from Kerala, to Kashmir in 2000 during which the then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed hed requested to him to permit the orphaned children to recieve an education in his institution, which catered to destitute children from different states.
Musaliyar agreed to Sayeed's request and threw open the doors of his Murkaz-run educational institutions at Kasnthur in Kozhikode, which offered a range of courses like degrees in arts, nursing, lab technology, electronics, electrical, fitting and plumbing, driving, handicrafts, stitching, designing and painting besides religious courses.
While the first batch of 254 children arrived here from Kashmir in December 2004, it has now become a regular journey for the kids to follow their elders with a fresh batch of 30 children expected on June 1.
"No doubt, it is a new lease of life for them and they are excelling not only in education but also in other activities like sports," says Mahar Jeelani, Assistant Superintendent at the `Kashmiri Bhavan', set up at the Markaz exclusively for Kashmiri students.
Coming mainly from the districts of Kupwara, Shopain and Pulwama in the Valley, hit hard by militancy, the children did not feel at ease initally being so far away from their homes. "But, their attitude and approach soon changed as they found they can move around freely even after sun set unlike in Kashmir," Jeelani, also the first Kashmiri teacher at Markaz, said.
Admitting that some students were sent back as they could not adjust to the climatic and cultural changes, Jeelani said a majority of them enjoyed the facilities and wanted to make a career for themselves.
The children have also excelled in co-curricular activities. They lifted the sub-junior state boxing title in 2006, while another group of children had come out with a CD comprising a series of scintillating songs titled `Kashmiri Gulisthan'.
"The students from Kashmir are extremely talented which only shows that had the state been free from violence, the rate of literacy would have risen considerably," Jeelani said.
Says Mubasheer Amin from Kupwara, who joined Markaz as a fifth standard student two years ago: "I could not get education in my home town due to disruptive activities and my family was also too poor to feed me".
Adopted by Markaz, Amin is now quite conversant in English and can also chat in chaste Malayalam, with local students offering him good support.
"There are several unidentified terrorist hideouts in my area forcing my parents to send me here," says Amir Shareef Baba, an SSLC student, who hails from Shopain, recently carved out of Pulwama District.
For Mohammad Imran Bhatt, a class X student, whose father was shot dead in front of his eyes, Kerala is a better place to live. "I feel Kerala is better than my home. I want to complete my education and settle down here," he said, adding Markaz also encouraged him to promote his cricket skills.
Markaz or 'Markazu Ssaquafathi Ssunniyya', meaning Centre for Sunnis strictly adhering to the tenets of Islam, has about 20 schools across Kerala and also abroad. The Markaz in Kozhikode has 1,500 students.
While Markaz does not charge fee from economically weaker sections and also offer them free food and accommodation, it charges nominal fee for boarding from the `well-to-do' ones.
Though Markaz does not enjoy state or Central grants, it receives substantial funds and donations mainly from the Gulf countriues.
Offering admission only to those belonging to the Islamic community, its teaching faculty, however, comprises members from other communities.
Besides providing school education upto junior college level, Markaz also runs an Arts College and helps its students to pursue higher education in collaboration with several leading companies.