The girls were excited to return to their classrooms in Pakistan's Khairpur district after a summer break, eager to start their new lessons. But a few days later, monsoon rains hit, devastating much of Pakistan.
The swelling waters damaged several schools run by Developments in Literacy, a nonprofit organization based in Garden Grove that has established 150 schools in Pakistan to educate students, mostly girls, in underdeveloped regions.
Fiza Shah, the organization's founder, said she was worried. The schools are "like an oasis in the desert" for the students, she said. Minor floods several years ago and the 2005 earthquake disrupted the education of many students around the country.
Shah said she doesn't want the girls to fall behind, like so many others, especially in a country where the illiteracy rate is among the highest in the world and an education could lead students away from poverty.
After floods began to hit Pakistan in July, many government-run schools were shut down so the buildings could be used to shelter flood victims, Shah said.
But Developments in Literacy was determined to keep its schools open. "We feel it is so critical at this point to keep the normalcy in their lives," said Shah, 50, of Irvine.
Flooding had damaged six of the organization's schools in the Khairpur district. In one school, the rain had caved in a classroom wall and destroyed the roof. But the building was mostly intact, and the school was kept open.
In four of the organization's schools, there is nearly perfect attendance, said Anjana Raza, the group's executive director, based in Pakistan.
"In these areas, education is choppy and disrupted already," she said. "It's not correct that those who are not directly affected by the emergency have their lives put on hold. That would create an even deeper crisis."
Two of the organization's schools are being used to shelter several displaced families. The group is working to find a way to continue schooling for students in those schools, Raza said.
Many of the organization's schools were built on higher ground, Raza said, protecting them from major damage.
For the last 13 years, Developments in Literacy has worked with local leaders in rural communities to establish schools, often trying to convince them of the value of educating girls. Those efforts have ensured that many families will opt to keep sending the girls to school, Raza said.
And today, as monsoon floods have killed more than 1,600 people and left millions homeless in the mountainous north, the ties developed in those years have enabled the organization to help with flood relief.
Staffers from the organization, working with several local nonprofit groups and local residents, have been surveying displaced families to see what their needs are, Raza said.
"We can move very quickly, and we know people," she said. "These are people with different needs other than just food and shelter."
When several women with newborns said they were having difficulty breast feeding, the organization arranged for milk deliveries, Raza said. The group also saw a need for mosquito nets for newborns who were sleeping under plastic tarps, and arranged for nets to be delivered.
After speaking to many women, Developments in Literacy realized that hygiene was a key issue, Raza said. Many people fled their homes without a change of clothes or other supplies. The organization began preparing hygiene kits with clothes, bath soap, plastic shoes, a comb and a bottle of mustard seed oil, used to treat rashes.
For Shah, watching the devastation has been painful.
"They are such poor people. Their lives are so, so hard even in normal circumstances that it's hard to fathom," Shah said. "To go through this is very distressing for anyone who has connections to this region."