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"I run to secure the future of my children in Dhaka."

Maria Conceicao is the founder of Maria Cristina Foundation. 

It all started in 2005 when Maria visited a slum and a hospital in Dhaka while on a 24-hour break as a part of her job with the Emirates Airline in. The desperate struggle the slum-dwellers face daily made a deep impression on Maria and she decided to change their lives. Little did she know that her own life would also be turned completely upside down. Maria cancelled her next holiday plans and instead spent two weeks in the slums starting what grew to become the Maria Cristina Foundation.

Maria was born in Portugal to a mother who became sick when Maria was 2 years old. An African immigrant, Maria Cristina Matos, who worked as a cleaner, agreed to look after Maria until her mother got better, but she never did get better. Maria Cristina raised Maria as one of her own, despite already having 6 mouths to feed.

Maria Cristina foundation has been in operation now for 10 years and provided education to over 600 children. It has always been a struggle to fund the foundation. “In the early days there seemed to be an abundance of money in Dubai, but when the recession came, donations and funding disappeared almost overnight,” Maria noted. Maria then had to take desperate measures to get attention, raise awareness and make public appeals for help.

In 2010 Maria summited Mount Kilimanjaro, but this didn’t get enough attention. In 2011 she made a successful trek to the North Pole and walked a marathon on each of the 7 emirates in the UAE in 7 days. In 2013 she became the first Portuguese woman to summit Mount Everest and since then has ran 7 ultra marathons on 7 continents in 6 weeks, 7 ultra marathons in 7 days and 7 marathons on 7 continents in 11 days. She holds 6 Guinness World Records.

Maria didn’t have any athletic inclination before embarking on these challenges. Many, including personal trainers, advised her not to attempt such ambitious feats. She still decided to push forward out of desperation to raise awareness and funds, but she also hopes that her efforts give a positive message to the children in the slums. She wants the children to realise that despite the expectations of people or society, you can achieve much more.

Several of the children the foundation has been sponsoring are soon heading for top universities and careers thanks to the opportunities they’ve received.

Maria herself has received several awards and recognition for her work, including European Union Woman Innovators Award, Emirates Humanitarian Woman of the Year 2009, Emirates Woman of the Year 2009, Most Inspiring Woman of GCC 2010, Sustainable leadership Award 2013, Inspiring Change Award 2014 and several more.

Watch Maria tell her story at TEDx Dubai

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