Stories From The Field

Stories From The Field

Susana Militao spent 6 weeks volunteering for us in Dhaka. Read about her experience below:

My volunteer experience at Maria Cristina Foundation started on an extremely hot and humid September night, when I arrived in Dhaka, after taking three long flights all the way from Lisbon. At the airport, waiting for me, was a group of boys, full of curiosity, lots of questions and big bright smiles.
Those smiles were the prelude of many other smiles throughout my stay with Maria Cristina Foundation.
When I arrived at the MCF center, located in the heart of the Gawair community, a big group of children was waiting to welcome me with a big banner saying “Welcome Susana”! They surrounded me, gigling, eager to tell me their names and what was their meaning in Bangla. And so my first day started with a sleepover. One of many that would take place throughout my stay.
My days in Dhaka were filled with ups and downs… but above all, this was a life-changing experience!
My every day started early, going to school by bus together with the children. The Cambrian School and College is located about 30 minutes from Gawair. If it wasn’t for the bus organized by Maria Cristina Foundation, the children wouldn’t be able to get to school. The bus ride is always very lively: most children chat, or better, gossip! Gossiping is something very typical of the Bangladeshi culture. Other children sing and others do some extra studying.
It is important that the children practice as much English as possible, so we keep on insisting with them to speak in English. Most times this is not easy. I came up with the idea that every time someone spoke in Bangla, they would have to pay 20 taka. It was always a good laugh, but of course nobody ever paid! However this worked as a good reminder and they would immediately start speaking in English.
When arriving at the school, the children went to the classes and it was then time for me to concentrate on admin work and organize extra-curricular activities, such as motivational speeches, sessions by influencers. I also gave support to the older children in making their CVs and applications for participating in different leadership courses and workshops.
One of the constants of my stay was having to deal with the slow pace of things, a characteristic of the Bangladeshi culture. Plus Dhaka is a gigantic city. Traffic is unbearable and if you have to go to a meeting in another area of the city, it can take more then two hours to go and two more hours to come back. And all this in the middle of a lot of air and noise pollution. Imagine how it must be to live like this throughout your life. So lots of patience and perseverance is needed to get things done. But when there is a will, there is a way!
Another constant of my stay was the children asking for a sleepover. Some of the smaller children wanted to stay every day, so it was a struggle to make them understand that other children also wanted to sleep over, so it couldn’t be always them. Most children looked forward to the sleepover, because this was a moment to be with friends, have some fun and chat. For me, these were important moments to get to know them better, learn about their lives and families, as well as to teach and reinforce some hygiene habits. For the older children, the sleepovers were mainly a moment to get some quiet time to have group study sessions before exams and, of course, also to chat a bit during breaks.
One of the most important moments of my stay was when I was invited for the surprise birthday party of one of the younger girls. In Bangladesh birthdays are usually not celebrated, but guess that traditions are changing, due to the influence of the Western world.
Personally, it was a very warm-hearted experience: putting on a “saree”, which one of the girls lent to me, and being welcomed into the small one-room tin shack, where the children, parents and grandmother all lived together.
The birthday girl put on a dance show, together with her friends, consisting mainly of Hindi songs. Every Bangladeshi knows a little bit of Hindi, because of their love for Hindi movies and songs.
When the show ended, it was time to sing “Happy Birthday” and to eat the cake. It is a funny tradition that the birthday person cuts the cake in small pieces and should put each piece directly in the mouth of the guests. After that, it was time for everyone to eat the chicken biryani. But then it happened one of the usual power cuts and we had to wait about one hour in the heat, until the electricity came back and it was possible to eat. It was really lovely to see how a family that has so little, made such a big effort to give their little girl a memorable birthday party.
Another moment that really marked me was when I went with a group of girls to a Female Rugby Tournament. Since there are no competitions for their age group, they have to compete in college tournaments, in order to get more practice. This then is really difficult, because all the other girls are older and with much more experience. But it was amazing and really impressive to see that, although it was extremely hard, the girls showed a lot of resilience. Even when getting some minor injures they kept on going! They showed how much strength they have to keep on fighting and never give up when facing new challenges.
In the end, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Maria Cristina Foundation is: one big family. A family, where everyone helps each other and knows how to have fun together. But also a Family where everyone quarrels, screams and gets mad at each other, when facing difficulties. And that is love. Because when you care, you show all your emotions and all the layers of your being. 
Now, after six weeks, 24/7, I like to think that I’m also part of the big MCF Family.

In September 2017 a wonderful couple from Bangladesh, Radef Anwar and Shoily Shamonti, chose to share a very special occasion with our children: their daughter’s first birthday. In their own words: 

Why did you decide to spend your child’s first birthday with our children in Gawair?
We simply wanted to share our joy with these wonderful children. We hope, if almighty desires, this will be a reminder for our daughter when she grows up that being privileged means not neglecting those who are less fortunate than you are and one should always try, in whatever small way possible, to spread joy. 
What did you/your children learn from the experience?
Ours was a very small gesture, yet the children seemed to enjoy the experience. Just goes to show how little it takes to make these children happy.
Did you feel safe?
What impression did our children/families leave you?
We sensed confidence in these children and we hope they have bright futures ahead. Thanks to Maria and the team for believing in them and providing them a platform.
Would you recommend this to other families? Why?

Absolutely. Spending special days with family and friends is definitely great, however, sharing the joy with people less fortunate than us increases the happiness manifold.

Adrian, an Emirates cabin crew, visited us a couple of weeks ago with some of his colleagues. The children made a strong impact on him and seeing their reality moved him to action to volunteer for us in Dhaka in the future. 
It’s been a long time I wanted to visit the Foundation and I was glad when I could finally make it. We met with Jewel (our co-ordinator in Dhaka) around 12 noon, near the slums where the Foundation works. It was actually quite hard to get there since some of the roads were flooded. 
Jewel was our guide for the day, he was really kind and friendly and he was so helpful during our visit. Firstly, he took us around the slum to visit the families. It was really nice to meet them and see where they live, even if the parents don’t speak too much English, we managed to understand each other and we had a great time. They were really nice and humble. 
After that we went to visit the school and meet the students. The school looks really good. We stopped on each floor and met students of all grades. We had the opportunity to walk into a class and have a little chat with the students there. Their English was so good, and they have such good manners. We talked about what they would be like to be when they grow up, about sports, favourite colours…When I told them I was from Spain they were so excited to know more about it. I also had a conversation with one of the teachers. I asked him about how the school works and also how the kids behave and he told me all of them are really good students.
We also had a chance to meet some students at the school bus, who were so excited to finally go back home after a long day. I realised how important the bus is since all the students live in a marginal and flood-hit area, making almost impossible to get there without bus. Because of that, I think it is really important to keep donating to maintain the school bus.
Finally, I would like to mention that as a cabin crew I am constantly traveling around the whole world, from one side of the globe to the other one. This lifestyle has allowed me to learn so many great things about the world, but I have also seen how unfair, heartless and cruel it is.
I believe in people like Maria Conceicao, I think they are just necessary. They are building a better world, for us and for the future generations. If we do not have and the braveness and courage to be like them, then at least the only thing we should do is support them.
I encourage everyone to visit the foundation – you will have such a great experience and you will contribute to a really good cause.

David travelled to Dhaka for a couple of days in February 2016 to share his love of cricket, to mentor the boys and young men and to see the difference we are making with his own eyes.

I had the privilege of visiting Dhaka in 2016 along with another couple from Dubai. The objective for me was to go and try and be some sort of male mentor, a man the boys could speak to and ask questions about work, life and relationships.

My wife met me at the airport, though in Dhaka people can’t wait for you at the arrivals. They have to wait outside the airport – the first such experience I have had anywhere in the world. I arrived late, so we met the children the next day.

The children are an absolute delight. They all bore huge smiles, the kind of smiles that welcome you and tell you to sit while they bring you a cup of tea, a custom we enjoyed at most houses we visited during the trip.

Our first task was to hand out blankets and, as we were visiting the families, to find out how they were generally. We soon gained a following with children excitedly chattering around us and asking a million questions, the boys especially asking me about my love of cricket. They also invited me to join them for a game or two on their field – a sure sign of acceptance. This also allowed me to have a chat with some of the guys and find out what was happening in their lives. They all spoke about the importance of their education on their future prospects. They understand the chance they have been given to get out of the cycle of poverty and are keen to be the change in their family fortunes.

They also spoke of hopes and dreams they had for their own lives, which is a fantastic sign. Poverty is cruel and can break a person’s spirit, but the fact these children hadn’t allowed that to happen is a huge credit to them and to the work the Foundation is doing. 

The next day we had arranged a picnic in a nearby park, though sadly this was interrupted by some local youths; a stark reminder of the place these children occupy in society; but it also served to reinforce that the work being done by the foundation must not stop. Maria has started something very special here and we are fortunate enough to be able to help her and her foundation continue this work.

MCF have worked hard and continue to work hard to keep these children in education. It is not a 6 month appeal by some big faceless agency, these guys are in it for the long haul and this is how change happens. The boys I met out there are young men, who are starting to ask questions and beginning to envision a better future for themselves and their families, this is all thanks to MCF. There is big change happening and I am thankful to have been a part of it.

Our supporter Dorothee travelled to Dhaka with her daughter Charlotte in September 2016 to visit Rumana, whom she sponsors with school fees. It was an unforgettable experience for all of them and we are so delighted to see Rumana and Charlotte becoming friends.  Read Dorothee’s Dhaka diary below.

Day 1

My daughter Charlotte and I are still not realizing where we are going as we find ourselves at the gate at Dubai Airport as the only blonde/white passengers out of about 400 people. People are very friendly and curious about what we would be doing in Dhaka.

The process for getting a visa on arrival in Dhaka was really easy and everything was super well organized. A member of the airport staff greeted us first and led us to Jewel (MCF coordinator in Dhaka), who was waiting for us outside.

We went to the hotel, which was a very normal hotel. The smell is something you need to get used to. It is not a bad smell, just a very different smell. It is very humid.

Around 9pm we still decided to explore the neighborhood and Jewel took us out for pizza. That was the moment when I got a feeling an adventure was starting. There were rickshaws everywhere, the streets were hectic, noisy and overwhelming.

I got thousands of questions from Charlotte and felt sorry for that guy that earns 30 Taka to take 3 persons on one cycle rickshaw through bumpy and difficult roads. And we complain when pulling our two kids in an ergo dynamic stroller. Really?

Day 2

Charlotte woke me up hungry and saying this is a difficult country to sleep in as the clinking noises of the rickshaws are permanently around you. I tried to take a shower, but the water was cold and the glass door didn’t shut completely.

Breakfast: it all looks yummy…but do you have toast? Of course, white toast and cornflakes made our breakfast, while listening to most romantic Bollywood songs.

Jewel asked us to wait for him at the hotel, but we couldn’t wait to step out and take a walk around the block. Men carrying thousands of bananas on their head or carrying about 20 dead chickens in each hand were definitely worthwhile sights for taking this walk. Charlotte got tired and we soon headed back to wait for Jewel and make up more little presents from all the material we brought.

Then Jewel came to pick us up. It was quite a ride to the slums and the closer we got, the more impressive it was. All of a sudden there were no more houses or trees, but just people, people and people and dirt everywhere. The poor man that pulled us was getting so sweaty and even asked if we needed shadow. We had lost sight of Jewel and when the guy said that’s where you wanted to go, I wasn’t so sure, until a boy with a cell phone came running towards us and shouted my name. It was Jahidul, Rumana’s brother. So this is it, that’s the place we came for.

When we walked into this 100m pathway with one-room houses on each side, lots of girls came screaming towards us holding a big sign: WELCOME DOROTHREE. And a girl saying, hi, I am Rumana and welcome to my house.

We were so well received by all these people of this tiny ‘road-community’ and went to the house of Rumana, which is about 12 square meters and where all belongings are under or around the bed. We were offered 7up, bananas and boiled eggs, which I kindly refused, but Rumana said I had to eat one, eggs are healthy.

We started giving out some presents we had taken, but in two seconds those 12 square meters were totally invaded by kids, so we had to stop for the time being. We went outside instead and used the jumping ropes we had brought, the girls danced to their music and the polaroid camera I brought proved to be a big hit with everyone. Everyone wanted a picture, the magic one, the one that is white and turns into a picture. Their eyes were as big as watermelons and their smile so pure. The disappointment was huge when the 40 papers were finished. So we went inside and started to do loom bands, which were the second big hit. From 3-year olds to 50-year olds, everyone wanted to do their own bracelet, and they learned it so fast.

After spending about 2-3 hours there, we left with Rumana, her friend, her cousin and her brother to have a fun day out, where Rumana could chose anything she wanted to do. We started by having lunch at a shopping mall with AC, at KFC. Then a huge ice-cream just nearby, before we went to the amusement park, where they couldn’t get enough of the different rides. Once back in the shopping mall, we checked out the movies, but ended up on a bull fighting game, in which Rumana did very well.

Around 6pm we decided to go back and found 2 auto rickshaws to take us back. What we did not know, was that the prime minister was to come and all of a sudden we were totally blocked as the road had been closed. There were millions of cycle and auto rickshaws, cars and buses all in one big concert. We decided to walk until a road that might not be blocked. This was not the best idea, as once we were on the major street bridge they decided to release the road block and we had thousands of vehicles driving up to that bridge, that was not meant for people to walk on.

After an exhausting walk I saw a 5 star hotel and offered to order a taxi. Jewel was shocked, but I convinced him that we deserved it, that it was late, and the girls had school tomorrow. You should have seen their eyes when they stepped into this hotel car, with AC, electric windows and seatbelts. 

Day 3

After a really good night of sleep we left the hotel by car to go to the school. I was stupidly expecting a campus such as the schools in Dubai. That was not really the case. The school is the three upper floors of a skyscraper. As Charlotte says, the school looks like a shopping mall, because in the middle of the building you can look down to the other floors.

But then all the students are very clean in their uniforms and well behaved. They are all listening very carefully to their teachers and although we created a big excitement, no one was late in class. The biggest hit was once more the Polaroid camera. I am just so happy I took it and just wished I would have had an infinite amount of papers as every single student wanted a picture with me or Charlotte for them to keep. As did the cleaning ladies, the nurse, the headmaster – simply all of them. We went through the different classes from grades 1 to 9 and were asked all sorts of questions.

Jewel told me that the foundation urgently needed about USD 1000 to cover a small snack for each child as school starts 8am and finishes at 2.30pm, and 4pm for those who need extra classes. On top of this comes the commute to school, so the kids are very hungry and not all of them get something from home to carry along.

After some time, we took over one room and set up all the donations we had, prepared in a 100 bags and called the MCF children grade by grade to hand them this little gift over. They were so happy and so well educated. Many of them asking to shake my hand and you could see in their eyes that this gesture meant a lot to them. I was especially impressed by a boy in grade 10, who took the initiative to give extra classes to the MCF children who were not getting good grades. This means, investing his own time he could use to get better grades, to help the other children to make it. This is what I would wish for my children. Them accepting to do less well, but help others out.

Once we left school, we took with us, Rumana’s brother Jahidul, the dad, Rumana and of course Jewel. We first had a pizza as Charlotte and I were starving (3pm) and we both appeared to be a bit fussy about food. I think all we had eaten so far was white toast and pizza and lots of sweets that we had brought. After the pizza we started our promised shopping journey. We went to a big furniture place/carpenter’s and negotiated on the desk, the wardrobe and the chair and of course the transportation to their place. I think they were really impressed to see my great negotiation skills, from a blonde lady, but thanks to my job at Multilem, I have become an expert.

Then we went to get shoes for Rumana and her brother, easy. After this we were off to the supermarket. The prices shocked me as we spent almost the same on shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, milk and a few things more as we did on furniture.

Last mission, and difficult enough was getting swimming suits for the waterpark adventure tomorrow. There are no swimsuits as such where we looked, only leggings and swimming t-shirts. So we got those for Charlotte, myself and Rumana and Jewel was happy enough to get some sports jerseys and pants.

After we arrived at the hotel with Rumana, another adventure started. The girls showered together with warm water, a cool shower, washing their hair, their bodies, brushing teeth etc. All the normal things for us were new to Rumana and at the beginning she was a bit shy, but Charlotte made her feel comfortable right away. So we put body lotion, perfume and then the girls started their make up session. Now we are all super good smelling, waiting for the pizza, but Rumana really wanted to call her dad. I thought she must be homesick, but guess what? She really wanted to know how the new wardrobe looks in her home and make sure they keep space for her things.

Day 4

Once my alarm went off at 6.30 am I got Rumana ready for school and down to breakfast. We ate dal and parathas, which are a typical breakfast here. Her brother, who was supposed to show up at 7am was still not here at 7.45 and I got a bit angry as I wanted Rumana to be in school on time. But then again I guess it must be really hard to be on time considering the traffic.

Once Rumana left, I got Charlotte and we went on shopping with the hotel car to get shoes for Sharmin (the girl my mother sponsors), two cell phones for the little girls (they are super cheap and simple – USD 20) so the girls can call their relatives to tell them where they are. A simple school commute can take up to an hour depending on traffic and sometimes the girls finish only around 5pm, which means travelling in dark. Once shopping was done we went to the school to hand out remaining items and to get Rumana out of school for the waterpark.

I was a bit worried as we wanted to take Sharmin along as well, but she was absent from school. When they are absent, nobody really knows why. We tried to call the one number, which is related to her, but nobody picked up. So, sad enough, we left without her.

The trip took us over an hour, to the industrial area of Dhaka. Would never have imagined an attraction park this side of the city. The big Fantasty Kingdom looked really big on the website and is really popular. Once we arrived, it was not quite the Atlantis from Dubai, but Rumana and Jewel’s eyes were big! Pictures had to be taken in every single corner. Then we put on our ‘non existing’ swimsuits, leggins and a swimming t-shirt.

Whoever thought Dreamland waterpark in the UAE is a bit ‘dirty’ or not hygienic should come here. I think we were the only ones that made an effort to put on leggings and a swimming shirt, all the others were wearing normal clothes and enjoying the rides so much. For the main ride, the tiger slide, there were about 5 boats for which you need to literally fight to get on the ride. A tall Bangla guy was extremely friendly and helping us over and over again to get one. Basically, it was an amazing adventure for them. I think it was Rumana’s first time in a pool.

We had a late lunch around 5pm and left with all the food we couldn’t eat wrapped up, as Jewel said, don’t waste the food. He turned out to be so right, during the trip back many kids knocked at our windows and we could give this food out, as well as candies that I always carry along. After 1.5 hours back on a bumpy road we finally made it to the hotel at 7.30pm, where 8 lovely girls from grade 10 were waiting for me for the ‘girls’ chat.

This was basically a chat about who I am, what I want to be, is it ok to have a boyfriend, marriage, independency in the future and many other things. I invited them all for a great meal and we really had fun, although I realized that they were worried about their future, finding certain things unfair and determined to do their best to change their future, mainly to help their families and village. Out if eight, five wanted to be doctors, all with the same reason – we want to help our village. I was truly touched by these young wonderful ladies who had made it all the way to come and see me.

This trip is far too short. I have started to make a list of what they need, apart from education. Although the school fees are the most important thing. The fact they can attend school, not only gives them a future, but also ensures a ‘healthy environment’, to be mixed with other children, to learn manners and to basically have a much bigger chance to break the poverty cycle. But still, things like the loom bands, the trashbags, the Polaroi make the few days of my stay such a joy for them. After all they study six days a week until 2.30 or 5pm and only have 1 week of summer vacation.

Day 5

 Jewel’s phone was broken after he jumped into the pool with it. Since he was late, Charlotte and I left with all the gifts we had left over to school and found Jahidul and Rumana. We were so welcomed in the school and went into some classes. After Jewel arrived we went to Gawair, looking for Sharmin. I had been a bit worried about her, as she had been absent for two days and I knew her mother went working abroad and nobody was really looking after her.

After a while we found her elder sister’s house, which was a very sad moment, as her sister is 14 and was due in two weeks. Jewel said she used to be one of their students, but when sponsors dropped, so did the support for some children and they had to drop out of school. The sad result is what we saw today. After being a while with her and her neighbors and handing out gifts we went to see Sharmin’s house.

The way to her house impressed me, I have rarely seen that much garbage and kids swimming in a pond full of garbage. Sharmin told me they are not swimming, they are fishing. That sounded even worse. But then her house was a good surprise, it was not much bigger then the others, but it was in a proper building on the second floor, with a fridge, a TV and a music station. Her 15-year old brother is looking after her and the neighbor lady looked really nice. Sharmin danced for us. She has so much potential, it was absolutely beautiful to see her dance with her sparkling eyes.

We left the slums to go to Jewel’s house. He had kindly invited us to a pasta lunch with ketchup before we went off to school with Sharmin. I had promised to invite all grade 10 to a lunch. Their eyes were so big when they could choose anything they wanted to eat, and especially the boys were so kind and polite, thanking me over and over again, and saying that this meal was so tasty. Then time was rushing and we left. It was so hard to leave these kids, who were asking me over and over when I am coming back, that I had to promise, when I would come back, what was the names of my friends who were coming soon…

Feedback from Sinead and Tiberiu, who visited Dhaka in September 2016 and who each sponsor a student – Asma and Aklima respectively.

Firstly, a very large thank you goes to Jewel (our coordinator in Dhaka). He does a very good job and definitely gives a lot of his time to the students, who respect him a lot and you can see this from the way they interact with him. The schedule that he put together for us really helped make the best of our trip.

All of the kids that we met were lively, confident and vivacious with excellent manners and respectful despite not having so much in terms of money or belongings. We were really delighted with the quality of their education and you can see this from how they communicate, both Asma, Aklima, their friends and the older grade 12 students.

The guidebooks that we got for Asma and Aklima, which they asked for to help with their studies, were actually really challenging. We were delighted that their primary focus is on their education. Although the slum is a difficult place to live and very basic with dirty streets, the rooms belonging to Asma and Aklima were really nice and tidy and well organized.

We took a lot of books and materials to the girls and I would like to see that this is shared with the community so that other kids can benefit from the educational tools, I’m not sure how this can be achieved but we impressed on both Asma and Aklima that they should share the books with their friends.

Tiberiu took toys donated by his nieces and that was a great idea as they were really popular, so I’d recommend that other volunteers take fun things like toys as a balance to educational gifts. The phones were an excellent idea and actually all the kids seemed to have phones, definitely the grade 12 kids we met. This will help us build relationships with the girls and really are essential if we want to build a mentoring relationship with them.

Since my return I’ve been messaging Asma very often and receiving detailed messages back, I will call her at the weekend to see how she is getting on and what books she is reading and her thoughts on them and Tiberiu will do the same with Aklima and we will also arrange the odd combined Skype call through Jewel. We took Asma and Aklima to the rollercoaster park with their friends and they really, really, really enjoyed this experience, so if any other volunteers want to take kids out then this is definitely recommended. We were also due to go to a historical building on the other side of Dhaka but when we got there it was closed so in future it would be recommended to call ahead.

Both of us would like to take Asma and Aklima to Dubai during their breaks perhaps next year, but link this to getting A+ results so they can get an insight into our lives and culture. Both of us love travelling and I think it’s one of the best ways to learn and it’s also good for building confidence. I think both of us plan to visit Dhaka and the girls and their friends about once a year.

Thank you for this great experience.

Our long-term supporter Darko Pavic visited Dhaka in September 2016 with his daughter Mara.

They had a busy week meeting the students and their families, giving workshops on career choices and capturing the people and places of Dhaka. Read more about their experience on Darko’s blog.

Rachael Yates visited Dhaka in May 2016. Here are some of her thoughts.

When I found out I was going to Dhaka, I knew immediately what I wanted to do and after a little bit of research I stumbled upon the Maria Cristina Foundation and decided to email them. I explained I wanted to help in whatever way I could with the short time frame that I had. The response came back immediately and was so warm and friendly that I was even more excited to help out. I was given the best advice, some trainers that I had offered to take out with me and donations of toys and clothes from friends to take with me, too. Everything was so well organised and I didn’t have to do anything. I was told who would be meeting me, where I could meet them, I had their numbers and I was told what I’d see and who I would meet.

Upon arriving in Dhaka I was met in my hotel and taken to the school. Driving around in Dhaka was definitely a new experience for me, with no road markings and people walking wherever they could I was definitely scared! But luckily for us we had a taxi driver who made us feel safe! On the journey to the school I couldn’t help but to be shocked at what I could see around me, there were so many people with lost limbs begging at the windows and when the trains passed we could see so many people sat on the roof to avoid having to pay for a train ticket. I just couldn’t adjust to what I was seeing, this was one of the saddest parts of my trip as this was what made me realise how much this country needs help. Finally we arrived, but unfortunately for us the children were on their summer holidays, however we were told all about how the school works, how the children are doing and we got a tour of all the classrooms. It was an incredible experience! 

Afterwards we were taken down to the slums to meet some of the families that the charity sponsors and to give them donations. The best part of my trip was meeting the children. They were all so beautiful and happy and desperate to show us their houses and where they lived. They wouldn’t let go of our hands and had so many stories they wanted to show us. It was sad to see how they lived and how squashed they could be, but the children were so happy and proud of where they were from. 

This experience taught me so much, but the biggest lesson I learnt was to stop taking things for granted and to appreciate everything in life. It was an incredible experience, one that I will always hold close to my heart. And hopefully one day I will be able to return again.

See the lovely video by Yasmine Mlila, who recently visited our children and had a truly eye-opening experience.

Carlos Freitas, one of our long-term supporters, visited Dhaka in March 2016. Carlos wants to share his experience with Maria Cristina Foundation’s kids in Dhaka and hopes his experience will inspire other to learn more about the Foundation, and most of all: take action.

In his own words: 

It is hard to stay indifferent after experiencing the Dhaka slums first-hand and gaining some insight to the daily hardships of the families there. It is an experience I will never forget.

I work in the corporate world, which means I have struggled to find time for any other travel but business trips. When I finally found some time, I was determined to spend it on doing something that I have always been keen to accomplish – a trip to the slums and Bangladesh to see the outcome of Maria’s extraordinary efforts with my own eyes.

I started following the efforts of the Maria Cristina Foundation before Maria’s unbelievable Mt. Everest summit. She was the first Portuguese female to summit Everest! I heard a lot about her here in Dubai and it was a huge privilege when I finally got to meet her in person and listen to her speak so humbly and movingly about her foundation and children in Dhaka. She is a person, who is willing to give everything she owns to those less fortunate. A lot of us may feel like we have a big ‘debt’ to society, but she is one of the few who took action.

Before I travelled to Dhaka, I had visited more than 70 countries (I love to travel!) and lived in 4 different continents, so I assumed I was prepared for the reality in Dhaka.

I planned my trip last minute and only for a weekend, hence there was not enough time for the Foundation to prepare things they needed me to carry to Dhaka. This was my first mistake. So, my advice to future volunteers planning to visit Dhaka is: please let them know well in advance, so they can gather all the donated school materials, clothing and other donations for you to take to Dhaka. They will give you information on luggage allowance, what you can and cannot bring on different airlines etc. I ended up buying luggage, which I filled with school materials, communication equipment and other things I thought could be useful in Dhaka. The need there is so huge, so I have been trying to create awareness and get more people involved since the day I met Maria.

Back to Dhaka. As I mentioned earlier, I have done a lot of travelling, but Dhaka still managed to surprise me. It’s a unique city, full of contrasts. It’s a vibrant capital city on the one hand, but missed with extreme poverty, where many people can only dream of a bright future. I lived in Africa for 5 years and still travel to a number of developing countries, but the reality of the Dhaka slums is quite hard to imagine without having been there. The extreme poverty hits you in the face as soon as you step your foot inside the Gawair slum area. It is a huge slums, which consists of groups of people living together, who totally lack basic facilities and services.

Maria decided to focus on the kids from Gawair to make sure that some of these underprivileged children can have a brighter future. Her amazing persistence and extreme efforts prove that her values are pure and her heart has always been right.

 On top of other support offered, the Foundation fully takes care of the education of nearly 200 youngsters that now have the opportunity to study in a good quality school, which will hopefully be the catalyst to make a difference in their lives. Good education is providing the foundations of knowledge and the willingness to break the cycle of poverty.

 I have been sponsoring Jamil, and following his progress from far, so it was a great pleasure to finally meet him face to face. Jamil is a very smart, but shy kid, who has been through a lot despite his young age. We connected immediately and he invited me to visit his house and meet all his family. It was a heart-breaking experience and it is very hard to put what I saw into words, however, it was also very encouraging and a motivating experience.

 All the kids fully appreciate what Maria is doing and understand the enormous sacrifices she has had to make for them. The extreme poverty and conditions in the slum are something I will never forget…the lack of sanitary facilities, the hardships, the dirtiness, the total lack of structure to support those in need. It’s very harsh in terms of a visit, however, the joy and happiness of the kids will be enough to prove you that changes can be made. The kids always smile with their heart and they will no doubt make you feel like helping others is the right thing to do and not just a nice thing to do.

 On my second day I had the chance to visit the Cambrian School and College, where Jamil and most of the Maria Cristina Foundation’s kids study, and also meet the school’s principal. I am now certain that all schools and partners the Foundation has chosen are the right ones to provide the kids with enough ammunition to be competitive and ambitious once they are ready to fly! 

A lot more could be said about my Dhaka trip as many moments were unique and unforgettable. All I know is that I will be going back for sure and will be fighting my way to support the Foundation. I leave my deepest thoughts for myself, but please allow me to urge you to get involved and help in any way you can. Much can be done to help the children in Dhaka, but one needs to start.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Winston Churchill