LAHORE -  A young man waits tables at a tandoor in Mozang, Lahore. The thin wisp of a moustache traces his lip and disappears into a brown beard. He moves from table to table, serving food to impatient families, too busy some days to spare a thought for the announcement of his intermediate results in September, where he scored 65 percent in his pre-medical examinations.

Khurshid, 17, completed his FSc from his native Rohilan Wali — a village in district Muzaffargarh, 325 kms away from this hot, buzzing tandoor in Lahore.

“Because I had dreams, I came to Lahore,” he says, openly weeping. “I thought the city would be my shot at a beautiful life.”

Dressed in shalwar kameez and rubber shoes, he looks like a strange misfit at his place of work - a child in a man’s clothes, caught in an unlikely place.

Recently, his father fell suddenly ill in Muzaffargarh, forcing Khurshid to abandon his medical ambitions and find a job to support the family - as it turned out, the tandoor was the only place that agreed to employ the bright young medical student. He cannot afford a place to live off his wages, and the sole option available to him now is living at a nearby madrassa - a religious seminary running on private funds, where some of the most marginalised youth of society get free shelter, food and learn the Quran.

With a critical lack of alternatives, unemployment and rising poverty, the enrolment of children and youth at madrassas has become increasingly high. The largest madrassa in Punjab, Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arbia of Deobandi School of Thought, based in Garden Town, Multan, is running 21,633 seminaries across the country. It houses and feeds 1.4 million boys and 0.7 million girls across the country. Tanzimul Madaris, a close second board of religious seminaries of the Barelvi school based near Azadi Chowk, Lahore, has 1 million students in Punjab. Wafaqul Madaris Al-Salfia based in Faisalabad holds 27,369 students while Wafaqul Madaris Al-Shia located in Model Town, Lahore, has 450 madaris with 18,000 students across the country. The representatives of all boards of religious seminaries say that the numbers of students are increasing across the country and across all seminary boards. There are around 15,000 madrassas in Punjab with 2,400 based in Southern Punjab alone, according to a section officer at the Punjab Home Department.

“In my madrassa , there are 22 students who have the same background as me from District Multan alone, and we feel fortunate to at least have free food and shelter,” Khurshid says.

“There are a total of 65 students and 44 of them came to Lahore from other cities. Together we give each other strength to keep going because we are all in the same boat,” he continues.

For many children and young adults, life in their madrassas becomes the only community living they know. Without schools, recreation and jobs, often times far away from their families, they feel they can belong somewhere when all is lost.

Ameer-ul-rullah, 15, from Buner in KP, was forced to seek shelter at Niaz Mosque and madrassa in the Bilal Gunj area — a congested part of the city behind the shrine of Hazrat Data Gunj Bakhsh, when he lost his family in a road accident.

“A friend of my father brought me here because I had nowhere else to go... now I have learnt 11 chapters of the Quran,” he says proudly.

Few children seem to be living and enrolled in madrassas for the primary purpose of learning the Quran. At Madrassa Tarteel-ul Quran, located on Queens Road, Mozang, 13-year-old Bashir Ahmad, the son of a doctor in Swat, is the only child out of 65 students who is present by his family’s will, free of any financial considerations.

Qari Amjad, administrator at Madrassa Tarteel-ul Quran says a vast majority of children enrolled at his madrassa have lived there for years solely because they get free food and a roof over their heads.

“Largely, only handicapped children or those belonging to extremely poor families are sent here,” he says. “Is this not a double standard within the Muslim community?”

The charity of seminaries in Lahore extends to thousands of adults travelling from other cities in the hopes of finding work.

The spokesman of Jamia Qadsia says every day, between 200 to 300 people eat three times a day at Jamia Qadsia — a famous religious seminary near Chauburji. Thousands of other labourers and people who work near the shrine of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh live on the ‘langar‘ – donated food they receive from the bazaars and streets surrounding the shrine.

“I am working at a construction site nearby and come here every night for dinner,” says Muhammad Saleem, 43, who has come to Lahore from Sahiwal. “I make Rs 300 ($3) a day, and that makes it impossible to eat from my own pocket.”

A survey conducted for the purpose of this story using a limited sample, found that almost 70 percent of children who study at madrassas in Lahore belong to other cities, especially students who only learn the Quran by heart. Ninety-eight percent students who study Dars-i-Nizami (eight-year course of Islamic studies involving all subjects including Islamic jurisprudence), belong to other cities instead of Lahore or to far-flung areas of Punjab.

Rana Zia Abdul Rehman, President of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, says the responsibility to provide free and equal education to all citizens rests with the state under Article 25A of the constitution. “Madrassas are a parallel welfare system of education and nation building,” he says. “This is state failure.”