|A mighty heart|
|By Megha Pai|
|Friday, January 27, 2012|
Sharjah resident Abdul Mannan Jamaluddin wasn’t exactly rolling in money when he started a free school in his hometown in Bangladesh but, as he says, when your heart is set on doing good, help is never far away. Student strength today: 200 and counting…
It is perhaps much easier to be giving and charitable when you have a cool six figure in your bank balance and your next seven generations are taken care of (unless, of course, you are the progeny of Ebenezer Scrooge). But starting a free school in your hometown when you are a security guard living on a Dh1, 200 per month salary, is something to marvel about. So when we heard the story of Abdul Mannan Jamaluddin, we knew we had to meet him and hear his story.
Al Qasba is a well-to-do locality in the plush Buhaira Corniche in Sharjah. Not well-versed with the area and relying mainly on a somewhat malfunctioning GPS (at one point it instructed us to go off the road and drive into the water!), we decided to seek the help of a shopkeeper for directions to Bulbul Apartments, where Abdul is a security guard.
“Oh! You want to meet Abdul!” came the reply. Surprised as we hadn’t mentioned his name, we asked him how he guessed. “He is a bit of a local hero,” the shopkeeper smiled. “After all, how many watchmen do you know who start a free school from their savings?”
Good point. Following the much more reliable directions of the kindly shopkeeper — no need to jump into the Corniche, we were assured — we reached our destination, passing through the graffiti-riddled by-lanes. Abdul was standing at the gate, dressed in casuals, as it was his day off. He invited us to his office, which also serves as his living room and bedroom and offered us tea. A Bangla channel ran on mute on the television. On a shelf above his bed was a small stack of books in Bengali.
After some casual banter and lovely chitchat and tea, we came down to discussing Abdul’s extraordinary feat. He tells wknd. the story — from being a high school dropout to starting a free school in his native village, Belchura, in Bangladesh, where he has educated 200 children in the last six years.
As a child, I used to dream of becoming a lawyer but I wasn’t able to continue my studies after the tenth grade as my father couldn’t afford it. After my father passed away, the burden of my entire family fell upon my shoulders. I came to the UAE in 1989 at the age of 26. The only job that I could find was as a watchman. Due to my lack of education, I was not able to move up in life. That’s when I decided that I didn’t want the same fate for my next generation.
But there was no school in my village and the new highway that was supposed to connect our village to other places, separated us from the only nearby school. Here, in the UAE, parents drop and pick up kids or there are bus services to take the kids to and fro. But it is not so in my village. The parents have no time to keep a tab on the children. The fathers go to work in the fields every morning and the mothers are busy with the housework. So the children go to the school of their own accord — if at all. Despite making several requests to the government, no provisions were made to provide learning opportunities to the village kids.
Every time I saw the excellent lives of the children here in Sharjah, I couldn’t help but wish that the children in my hometown could also have such opportunities. Education is the first step to development. So when I visited home in 2001, I decided to start a free school and I had a few months to do it in before returning to Sharjah.
Initially, my wife didn’t approve of my initiative. I had my own three children to take care of. But I didn’t let that fact deter me from starting the school. I thought to myself, if every person thought only about oneself, there would be no goodness left in the world. Besides, I have very little expenses in Sharjah and I own a small garment business back home that takes care of my family’s needs. So I decided to put in all my savings and most of my salary into the project. Now all I needed was land.
When you have set your mind on doing good, help is never too far away. One day, I happened to mention my intention to one of the village elders. He very generously offered to donate a piece of land that belonged to his family. Amazed at how easily the situation was resolved, I got cracking on building the school.
With the help of the local labourers, I managed to put up a basic building in four months and with the aid of a teacher from the local mosque, I had the school up and running. Slowly but surely, children started coming in too. Soon there were several students in the first grade. I appointed a few more teachers and everything seemed great for a month. That’s when catastrophe hit.
The elder who had donated the land hadn’t asked all the family members before making the decision. Out of spite, the family members demolished the school building and there was nothing that I could do. I was back to square one.
It was time for me to return to the UAE. But I hadn’t given up. I took it as God’s way of testing my determination. For the next four years, I continued to save. It was not a matter of salvaging my image. My cause was bigger than that. I couldn’t fail as the future of the children was at stake.
After four years of saving and planning, when I went home in 2005, I wanted to include the entire village in the work as I knew I couldn’t do it without their help. But the moment I mentioned anything about the school, the people weren’t interested. So I had to come up with something more novel.
I invited the entire village for a feast to announce a wedding. I knew they wouldn’t say no to free food. And they would be curious to know who is getting married as there isn’t anyone of marriageable age in my family.
After the villagers had had tea and snacks, I told them that I had bought land where I intended to build the school and also told them that I didn’t expect them to contribute monetarily. However, I was surprised when a few of them offered whatever they could. Some gave money, while others gave sacks of cement, and some others simply put in hours of labour for the construction.
Before it was time for me to return to the Gulf, the ground floor of the building was ready, and the first batch of 70 students attended class at the school, called Hazrat Abu Bakar Siddique ® Sunni Madrasa.
The taste of sweet success at last was like nothing else. Those who had been sceptical and discouraging, including my wife, were now beginning to realise how good this was for the community.
Since we started in 2005, we have been adding one grade to the school every year. The number of students has grown from 70 to 200. This year we begin Grade 7. My aim is to see that the school expands all the way to Grade 12. Also, I intend to buy a bus for the school so the children from the village and the surrounding villages can be fetched easily. The day we have 100 per cent literacy in my village, I will have achieved my purpose.
For now, the fact that my kids and the rest of the children in the village will never have to live the kind of life that I had to live is reward enough for me. I intend to start a trust so that the progress is maintained even after I am gone.