“We are small birds who have been given the chance to fly. Maria is my hero. She brought the first ray of hope into my life when there were none. I constantly look to her for inspiration and this school is just a small attempt to pay back for the remarkable benefits I have gained thanks to her tireless efforts.”
Sumon Azad has few memories of playing with toys, flying kites or chasing friends for fun while growing up in rural Barisal in Bangladesh. Instead, what he remembers are the toiling hours spent in the hot sun, lugging heavy, sharp-edged farming tools in his tiny hands when he was five. “I used to work as a helper in a paddy field from dawn to dusk carrying water, meals and farming implements for the farmers,” he recalls.
His workload doubled every harvest and sowing season but it was the princely sum of 20 taka (Dh0.86) that he took home to his ailing father each evening that made the drudgery seem worthwhile.His mother worked as a low-paid textile labourer and when Sumon was six, the family moved to the capital city, Dhaka, in search of better prospects. Here, she found employment in a large garment factory and could now afford to send him and his younger siblings to school.
But it wasn’t until six years later, when Sumon was about 12, that the “first ray of hope” as he calls it filled his life. Hearing about the Maria School – part of the The Dhaka Project set up in 2005 by Maria Conceicao that offered free education, clothes and medicine – Sumon’s father approached it, asking that his son be enrolled as he was bright. After spending seven years at the Maria School, where he completed his high school education, 19-year-old Sumon moved to Dubai where he attended a five-week cabin crew course at the Dubai Aviation College. In February this year, he qualified and is now working as a member of the cabin crew on Emirates Airline.
“For the first time in my life, I am able to dream; to have a vision of a future held with promise,” he says, choking with emotion. “I feel as if the hardships of the past are just a memory; the opportunities that now lie before me are immense.”
Maria Conceicao went on to establish the Maria Cristina Foundation (MCF) in 2010, which believes in trying to break the cycle of poverty by giving poor people in Bangladesh marketable skills.
Equally grateful to the Foundation for opening new doors and providing a window to a better tomorrow are three of Sumon’s friends – Tipu Sultan, Rubel Rahman and Habibur Rahman Saddam Hussain – who joined him in Dubai for the same cabin crew course last year.
They too have completed it and are now working for the airline. Rubel and Habibur, both 18, used to carry heavy flasks full of several litres of hot water and milk, making and selling tea after school hours, in their village in Bangladesh.