Global award-winning Pakistani teacher reveals motivation behind educating underprivileged students

Sister Zeph founded school for needy students in courtyard of her home in Aroop, neighbourhood of Gujranwala

Sister Zeph received her award on November 8, 2023 at a ceremony that took place at Unesco’s General Conference in Paris. — X/@AAzoulay

Pakistani teacher from Gujranwala’s Aroop area Riffat Arif, better known as Sister Zeph — who received the Global Teacher Prize 2023 — has revealed what motivated her in educating the underprivileged children that led her to win such a big honour.

Sister Zeph founded her own school for needy students in the courtyard of her home in Aroop, a neighbourhood of Gujranwala, Punjab.

She was just 13 years old when she decided to establish a school after a teacher in a government school subjected her to violence, driving her to leave the school.

It was when she pledged that she would educate all the underprivileged and other children who face the same challenges as she did.

During her 26 years of struggle, Sister Zeph transformed the small academy into a proper building serving as a school.

Sharing with Geo News how she felt after receiving such an honour, Sister Zeph said that she didn’t know how to react after the winner of the Global Teacher Prize was announced because it was truly surprising for her.

“When I returned to Pakistan, the respect I am getting from people is feeling really good. I am very happy,” she said.

Sister Zeph further stated what she had in mind while establishing the school.

“The children also deserve some respect and an environment to flourish. I looked around myself but there was no such school so I thought I would be that teacher,” she added.

The Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2023 was organised in collaboration with Unesco and in strategic partnership with Dubai Cares, a UAE-based global philanthropic organisation.

Sister Zeph was selected from over 7,000 nominations and applications for the Global Teacher Prize from 130 countries around the world.

The Pakistani teacher accepted her award on November 8, 2023, at a ceremony that took place at Unesco’s General Conference in Paris, as per the official statement.

Who is Sister Zeph?

Pakistani teacher Sister Zeph founded her own school for underprivileged children in the courtyard of her home at the age of just 13 for children whose parents cannot pay fees.

She worked eight-hour days to fund the school, then taught students for another four hours, and then stayed up at night teaching herself.

Twenty-six years later, the school, now housed in a brand-new building, provides free education for more than 200 underprivileged children. From a young age, she faced adversity and emerged as a beacon of hope for underprivileged children in her wider community.

Many of her students from humble backgrounds have gone to work for her education and empowerment foundation while others have gone on to very successful professional careers.

As well as running the school, she runs self-defence classes for girls, having herself been attacked and threatened.

She also provides financial assistance to families choosing between educating their children and paying their bills and runs a vocational centre that has helped more than 6,000 women gain skills in ICT, textiles, and the English language.

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.

With the Global Teacher Prize funds, Sister Zeph plans to build a school on 10 acres where children from the poorest families in the country can be educated without discrimination.

She would also like to create a shelter for orphans, where food would be grown on the property and teachers from all parts of the world would be invited to instruct them in a range of subjects. 

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