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‘House of love’: the calm, creative space changing young lives in Karachi | Global development

Living in Lyari was like living on the frontlines of a war, says Nauroz Ghani, who grew up in the Karachi slum notorious for its bloody gang battles. So used to the constant gunfire, he says he would “become restless if a day passed by without hearing the sound of a firing”.

“My teenage years were lost to violence,” says Ghani, 24. “I had no interest in getting an education. Instead, I was attracted by their guns and activities.” He saw dead bodies on the street and one boy was killed in front of him. “All of us who lived during those days have such memories. We lived in terror, but it had become habitual.”

Last year, Ghani’s life took a significant turn when he started working at a new space in Lyari.

Mehr Ghar (House of Love) was opened in March last year by social entrepreneurs and siblings Muhammad Faheem and Parveen Naz. The community centre is the first of its kind in the Pakistani slum, with a media room, library space, cafe and study areas. It also provides safe meeting spaces for women, who have borne the brunt of violence in Lyari.

Muhammad Faheem at his desk in Mehr Ghar
Muhammad Faheem, co-founder of Mehr Ghar, set up the space with his sister Parveen Naz as a place for people to hang out, be creative and learn. Photograph: The Guardian

Ghani believes that without it he “would have either been dead by now or in hiding”.

Gang violence in Lyari, fuelled by the drug trade and ethnic tensions, soared in the early 2000s. Hundreds have died and thousands deserted the area. The House of Love offers people a place to hang out, be creative and find alternatives to gang life.

Crackdowns by the police in recent years have tamed the area, enough for Naz to return to the place she’d left more than a decade earlier after receiving threats by gang members who didn’t like her work for peace.

“We felt the need to provide the youngsters of Lyari with a safe space – a space where they can learn and work. The gang-war era traumatised our youth, resulting in discrimination of our community and lowered the literacy rate of Lyari,” she says.

Sadia Rasheed, 28, a community engagement officer at the centre, grew up in Lyari. Married at 16, she was regularly beaten by her alcoholic husband. One of her cousins, who was involved in a gang, was killed, and her brother is a drug addict.

Sadia Rasheed with a group of women in the centre
Sadia Rasheed, second on the left, with her friends in Mehr Ghar. The centre provides women with a safe place to meet. Photograph: The Guardian

“In violence-ridden areas, such as Lyari, domestic abuse is rampant. I don’t want what happened to me to happen with other girls,” says Rasheed, who has left her husband.

“I feel saddened to see my brother in the state he is in and I feel if a space like Mehr Ghar had existed before and I had known of it, my brother might have not walked this path.”

But she adds: “From being a child bride who bore her husband’s beating to a woman who conducts training sessions on her own – that’s the journey I have been on and in these months that I have worked here, I have found my identity and voice.”

Mehr un Nisa, 37, has been visiting the centre since it opened. She and her friends sit, chat and discuss issues they face.

“My friends and classmates were part of gangs and now almost all of them are dead. They were all such talented young boys, but their life got wasted because of the gang wars at Lyari. I was scared for my brothers. We couldn’t leave our houses and were always living in terror,” she recalls.

Mehr Ghar
Mehr Ghar community space is the first of its kind in the Pakistani slum, with a media room, library space, cafe and study areas. Photograph: The Guardian

“Mehr Ghar provides us all with a safe space. I’m most comfortable when I am here. There is no fear of judgment, and we all work as a family.

“I have seen young boys and girls whom nobody expected anything of achieving milestones because of this space and because of the opportunities and training. We need such spaces,” said Nisa.

In the UK, call the domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). In Australia, the family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org

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