Caritas Pakistan Islamabad-Rawalpindi psychologist Iram Waris (right) briefs youngsters about drug abuse at Rimsha Colony in Islamabad on Jan. 19. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)
Shoaib Samuel was 15 when he started smoking with his friends.
"We were playing in the street when one of them brought a marijuana-filled cigarette. I used to brush my teeth every time I returned home following such gatherings," he told ucanews.com.
"Soon came the plastic bag liquor secretly brewed in a home-based plant. We used to save our pocket money and buy a bag collectively."
Samuel was working as a motorcycle mechanic at a shop in Rimsha Colony, a Christian slum of federal capital Islamabad, at that time. His father, a construction laborer, could no longer support his school expenses. His mother, a domestic worker, left her job of sweeping houses after Samuel started earning 6,000 rupees (US$43) a month.
"She hoped to rest and care for my younger siblings. However, my late-night hangouts became common. The shop owner used to cut 150 rupees every time I skipped on-the-job training. My mother restarted working in six houses to feed the family," he said.
"One day she injured her head while cleaning dishes under a water tap. She came home still bleeding. That was the lowest point of my life."
Samuel is one of 15 youngsters aged 16-22 attending counseling sessions at a school supported by Caritas Pakistan Islamabad-Rawalpindi (CPIR). It is part of a Caritas project to protect street children and their rights. CPIR is supporting the educational expenses of 45 children from poor families in Rimsha Colony. Separate sessions for drug-addicted youngsters are held in the afternoon.
"The 45-minute sessions include motivational speeches and videos on drug effects, insomnia, emotional disturbances and relaxation exercises. The first batch of four months will conclude at the end of this month," said CPIR psychologist Iram Waris.
"We have to identify addicts by visiting families through door-to-door visits. Most of the people take me as a police informer. It is hard to gain their trust. Keeping regular attendance of youngsters preoccupied in their jobs is another challenge."
Cured from his addiction, Samuel is now running his own car repair shop and earns an average daily income of about 2,000 rupees. Now he plans to convince other friends to join the project.
Spirit of the law
Pakistani law prohibits Muslims from consuming alcoholic drinks. According to Article 37 dealing with "promotion of social justice and eradication of social evils," the state shall "prevent the consumption of alcoholic liquor otherwise than for medicinal and, in the case of non-Muslims, religious purposes."
Excise and taxation departments of the provincial and national governments only issue annual alcohol permits to 2.5 percent of Christians in Pakistan. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to order alcohol in restaurants and five-star hotels that have liquor licenses. They can also apply for alcohol permits.
Beer and liquor are sold at small shops, usually located at the back of hotel buildings, which remain closed on Fridays. Those without permits depend on slum-dwelling illegal bootleggers.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority on Jan. 9 issued a warning to all TV channels against airing "drugs and alcohol, intimate moments between couples … being glamourized in utter disregard to Pakistani culture and values."
On the same day, a Pakistan International Airlines flight attendant was offloaded from a Lahore-bound flight for being under the influence of alcohol.
Murree Brewery is the only legal brewer of beer and spirits in Pakistan. A local company recently won approval from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government in Punjab province to set up a duty-free shop to sell alcoholic beverages at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore.
In 2016, some 42 people, mostly Christians, died and more than 100 were sickened after consuming toxic liquor on Christmas Eve in a Christian colony in Toba Tek Singh city, 338 kilometers south of Islamabad. According to police, aftershave lotion was sold in the area as alcohol. Caritas Pakistan Faisalabad later distributed relief packages to affected families.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 78 percent of 7.6 million drug addicts in Pakistan are males. The number of these addicts is increasing at a rate of 40,000 per year, making Pakistan one of the most drug-affected countries in the world. Most heroin addicts are under the age of 24.
Caritas Pakistan Lahore (CPL) is liaising with several organizations to reopen Hayat-e-Nau (New Life), a drug rehabilitation center that offered preventive and curative services in the eastern Archdiocese of Lahore.
"Unfortunately, the operation was closed due to unavailability of funds. Drug addiction and illiteracy are the biggest challenges in Christian slums. Frustration and depression lure our youth toward becoming junkies," said Naeem Naz, diocesan program coordinator for CPL.
"We plan to offer 12-15 months of detoxification which will include drug treatment, HIV/AIDS awareness sessions, livelihood skills and indoor games."
Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a member of the National Assembly, presented a bill on Jan. 24 seeking a ban on the sale of alcohol in the name of any religion. The Hindu lawmaker tried to introduce the bill in December but two major political parties, including the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz group, opposed tabling the constitutional amendment.
Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said some parliamentarians had a habit of resorting to such gimmicks to gain cheap popularity.