Friday, January 27, 2012

A watchman who started a free school from his savings

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.

Why 'waste' money in space?

The launch of a new space mission, and even more so the failure of a spacecraft (as we witnessed recently), invariably leads me to face the following question from students and acquaintances: why do we waste that kind of money in space pursuits when we have so much poverty and suffering that we should be trying to alleviate here on earth?

That's a good, well-meaning question, and it deserves a good answer. There are several arguments that one can bring up in addressing this concern.

First, one must examine more closely just how much money is being "wasted" in space projects and compare that with other human expenditures.

The total space budget of all nations on Earth is less than $40 billion (Dh147 billion). Nasa's budget for 2012 is $19.5 billion (that is 0.5 per cent of the entire US budget); ESA's (the European Space Agency's) budget was $5.65 billion in 2011; the Russian space budget amounted to about $2.5 billion; China's is $2 billion; India's is $1.6 billion; plus small amounts for smaller countries.

The whole human expenditure on space projects, including all satellites, rockets, spacecrafts and the hundreds of thousands of people who work on that, increases by less than 1 per cent each year!
Contrast this with the world's spending in the military sector (armament and personnel): a whopping $1.6 trillion in 2010, the US part representing 42 per cent of that! That's 40 times more than the worldwide space budget, and that amount increases by about 5 per cent each year.

Destructive expenditure
Now, lest anyone think that they are not responsible for any of this (neither the space money ‘waste' nor the scary military budget), I would like to mention a few other kinds of expenses, these being more at the personal level. Each year in Europe (for which we have statistics), people spend about $50 billion a year on cigarettes; Europeans, who constitute only 10 per cent of humans, spend $150 billion a year on alcoholic drinks, $24 billion on pet food, $200 billion on cosmetics, and $1.4 trillion on entertainment and media (music, cinema, TV shows, electronics, newspapers and magazines)!

At this point of the discussion, my interlocutors usually respond with: yes, we humans are clearly wasting large sums of money on destructive items (weapons, cigarettes, alcohol), but does that mean that we should throw away more money in space? There are two ways to counter this argument. One line is to list the numerous and diverse spin-offs that have resulted from space research. Indeed, because space places different sets of constraints on any project, be it a new satellite or a trip to Mars, new tools often need to be developed, and these almost always find applications in our lives here on Earth.
There are, without exaggeration, hundreds of spin-offs, ranging from bio-medical techniques to digital systems, from imaging technology to robotics, where important uses have been found in medicine, meteorology, environmental monitoring (of potential or unfolding disasters), information and communication technology, remote sensing, surveillance, and many other fields.
What must be stressed is that such applications do indeed lead to helping address and alleviate the poverty and human suffering, which the sceptics of space projects insist that we focus on.

Another line of argumentation against the idea that "space projects are a luxurious waste and should at most be left to very rich countries" is more cultural and educational. Indeed, the pursuit of such ‘lofty' projects strongly reflects the intellectual attitude of a given nation: the more we look upward the more future-minded and less materialistic we prove to be. And the more governments push their people to seek discoveries of all kinds (space-bound or earth-focused), the more people will tend to pursue scientific and cultural careers and lift the whole society up in various ways. In many parts of the world, including in this region, students are fleeing the scientific disciplines, seeing them as difficult and not financially rewarding — compared to administrative and business careers. We must do everything to encourage our children and students to invest themselves in those fields, for they are not only fascinating but extremely important. Let us not forget the strategic importance of space, where powers engage in espionage and ‘monitoring'.

Encouragement for students to take on this field and its applications must come in the form of strategic projects, where governments and companies invest for the future. Salaries and rewards must be substantial. But most importantly, society in general, and the vital education and media sectors in particular, must project a bright image of those fields and of the people who pursue them.
It is a shame that hardly anyone can name an Arab or Muslim astronaut (yes, a few have gone up to space), but many can name entire sports teams or movie casts. We need to change this, for our future and our children's.