What inspires Maria Conceição, a Portugese resident from Dubai, to surrogate 600 plus children from the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh for the last nine years through the Maria Cristina Foundation? While most social initiatives start off with passion, with Maria it is history repeating itself. For her, it has been a constant learning process: Altruism coupled with bandaging, then facilitating and now empowering. Yasmeen Maqbool discovers.
Life has indeed come full circle for this former Emirates Airlines flight attendant. Leading a cushy lifestyle in Dubai, in one of her trips to Dhaka, she visited a slum and life changed. Something close and very personal in her life was being played back to her by destiny. “In these little slum – children all I could see was myself. The two – year – old child who grew up in a foster home,” she says.
Her ‘adopted mother’ Maria Cristina Alves da Cunha Matos, who was a widow herself and had six mouths to feed, did not think twice when she offered to adopt Maria from her ailing mother. Cristina’s values and her benevolent generosity did have its undying effect on Maria. Her one act of a kindness inspired Maria to generate this ripple effect and today she is ‘Cristina’ to many a ‘Marias’.Maria learnt young – when you see something is not right, just fix it. And since then Maria believes in:
“If not we, then who?
If not now, then when?”
In July 2005 she found the Maria Cristina Foundation (MCF) with the support of her family, colleagues and friends – a charity project that facilitates educationin Bangladesh. Starting with a one-room school Maria has since been developing and running humanitarian projects focusing on providing sponsored education to the children and assisting in getting jobs for about 50 adults.
But this sure has been a journey, an arduous one. She established a nursery for babies, a preschool for toddler, a primary and secondary school equipped with a library, IT center, a canteen, a first aid center and a dental center. Furthermore, she established a training center for adults in sewing, beauty skills, carpentry and welding. Maria realized the importance of creating a garbage disposal system infrastructure, built roads in the slums, public lavatories, water-wells, and over 700 birth certificates issued and vaccinations provided to the community.
Seeing a metamorphosis taking place, local contenders and authorities resorted to vandalism. It is then that Maria understood that to ensure the enrichment of her 600 children she would have to take the community in the vicinity along with her. And thus, in spite of her restrained resources she gathered the mettle to refurbish four local schools, have their kids also vaccinated, and provide them also with the basic hygiene and dental care.
In 2010, Maria brought a group of seven slum – dwelling children to study in the UAE, who were earlier studying at Maria’s Dhaka Project school (TDP), to complete their secondary education in Dubai, by placing them with host families in the UAE.
And in this herculean task she has been fortunate to receive the patronage of HH Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the UAE Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research. HH Sheikh Nahyan sponsors the children’s visas and the fees of their parents studying English at British Council in Dhaka. And once they complete their English training Maria trains them to find employment in the UAE. But it has not been easy. “In truth, I have knocked at many doors here in Dubai – support groups, private sector organisations, corporate houses, schools etc – I barely can manage to get any support or help; most engage in hollow talks alone,” she complains.
In order to facilitate the education of the children until they are 18 years, Maria went on an expedition to Mt Everest to raise funds. She believes, rather than handing aid, empowering people benefits them, their families and the community at large.
Maria also pushes her own physical limits in pursuit of her cause. Maria completed the 777 Challenge – 7 marathons in 7 days across the 7 Emirates in 2011 and then the seven continents last year. Since then Maria has been focusing on fund-raising. “We are trying to find companies or individuals who are willing to sponsor children through education. A year’s school fees is around USD1000 per child,” details Maria.
Destiny and her work with the children further sensitized Maria to be compassionate to her biological mother who had lent her for adoption. She convinced her seven estranged siblings to forgive and be more accepting towards their mother, who was then suffering from Dementia/Alzheimer’s. “Being with my children in Bangladesh and reliving their bitter experiences while working closely with their parents, was a moment of revelation to understand the tough choices a parent has to make at times. It was tough to relinquish the resentment we bore against our mother for the past two decades, but it is important to let go.”