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$1 million teacher prize goes to Sister Zeph. Her philosophy: 'Love is the language'

Pakistani teacher Riffat Arif, known as Sister Zeph, is the 2023 winner of the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize. She holds a trophy presented at a dinner in her honor in Paris. She says she faced bad treatment from her teachers at school and dreamed of "a teacher who gives equal respect and love to children with no difference. I could not find that teacher, so I will be that teacher."
Ludovic Marin
/
AFP via Getty Images
Pakistani teacher Riffat Arif, known as Sister Zeph, is the 2023 winner of the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize. She holds a trophy presented at a dinner in her honor in Paris. She says she faced bad treatment from her teachers at school and dreamed of "a teacher who gives equal respect and love to children with no difference. I could not find that teacher, so I will be that teacher."

As a student growing up in Pakistan, Riffat Arif, now known to all as Sister Zeph, faced insults and bad treatment from her teachers at school. She dreamed of "a teacher who gives equal respect and love to children with no difference. I could not find that teacher, so I will be that teacher."

So, in 1997, at the age of just 13, she founded a school in the courtyard of her home, free to all. Children were to be treated with love and respect; beatings were not allowed.

And now, selected from over 7,000 nominations from 130 countries, Sister Zeph has been awarded the largest annual global prize for teachers, the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2023, $1 million. "Her dedication to education and empowerment has touched countless lives and earned her numerous awards, recognizing her as a true change-maker and advocate for women's rights and children's education around the world," said the official citation.

How did you react when the prize was announced?

I was senseless in the first few seconds. I could not understand that this was my name. It was extremely surprising. But I did see that my dress color matched with the trophy [gold], so I was expecting it a little bit in my heart.

What are you going to do with the money?

When I applied for the program, the first thing I thought was, I will buy a piece of land. But now I know the money will come in installments for 10 years. But I'm going to request the government of Pakistan to give me land so I can build my dream school.

How did you manage to start a school at just 13 years old?

After facing discrimination, I decided I will never go back to a school. I also realized that this is not only my story – this story is of every child who belongs to an underprivileged community. [In Pakistan, like many countries, religious minorities such as Shi'a, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians can face discrimination].

I brought my younger sister and requested her to learn from me. I started requesting my friends' younger siblings to come to my school. It was a play area for them in the beginning, we did not have a book or a notebook.

How did you support the project?

My parents were not in a position to help me. So at the age of 13, I learned to do embroidery. That was the first income I started generating to support my cause.

I would work 8 hours a day, teach my students 4 hours and teach myself 4 hours. I never went back to any institution. I would prepare for exams, take my exam fee to the institution and get a degree. That's how I got two master's degrees, in political science and history.

I never took a day off, never went to church. I never made any friends because I was focusing only on these 3 things, and it was quite tiring. I have no plans to be married – my cause is bigger than getting married.

In 2008 I joined the internet and started sharing my stories online, and in 2013 I won $20,000 in a global competition. I used this amount to establish a proper school on the outskirts of Gujranwala and build a vocational center for adults.

What's the purpose of the vocational center?

It's to provide skills training to the mothers to start making their own money and escape physical and mental violence so they can support their children. I also teach our own students skills so they can pay their fees for college and university. We teach stitching, IT and digital literacy, English language so they can access the knowledge on the internet, and hairdressing and makeup so they can open beauty salons. We have our own clothing line as well; we use the income to run the project. It also creates jobs for the women who learn stitching from us. I have 30 employees – all women.

How did you first learn how to teach? What was your approach to teaching?

I wanted to do something opposite to the experiences I had to face as a child. So I would leave from home at 7 a.m. to teach, and I would come back at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and I would be very hungry. But I would never eat in front of my students, because many of them haven't eaten, and I did not have resources to feed them.

You wanted to be considerate of their feelings.

Yes. I would take the little children in my lap and I would teach them that way. When a teacher shows such affection to the children, they feel protected, they feel like they are not far from home, they are just with another mother. I want teachers to be like that. I did not get to enjoy my own childhood. I want children to be pampered and loved and have a childhood. They are like rose petals, and we should treat them like that.

How do you promote the rights of children to go to school?

In my city, Gujranwala, over 20,000 children are child laborers making money for their families. My job is to reach out to those parents and to make them understand that even if they are not eating enough, even if their house is not good enough, education is more important. And my job is not to tell but to show the children that education is better than anything else.

How do you do that?

Through my love. Love is the language that everybody can understand. Love is the language that has no boundaries for religion or financial background. Love is everywhere and everyone needs love.

Freelancer Anya Kamenetz is the author of The Stolen Year. You can read more of her work at https://thegoldenhour.substack.com/

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.