Beyond the slums

Maria Conceicao is battling to raise Dhaka’s street children out of poverty. Without further funding, eight years’ work may be wasted, leaving hundreds of young Bangladeshis facing a bleak future.

Dhaka is a city of the poor. Beneath its gleaming towers, Bangladesh’s capital is bisected by shanty towns, labyrinths of dark alleys crammed with flimsy, makeshift shacks. In its poorest slums, corrugated-roofed huts open directly into lanes strewn thickly with litter and channels of fetid sewerage. The stench can be overpowering. A quarter of Dhaka’s 12-million-strong population lives crammed into these narrow rows, many surviving on less than $2 a day. More than 300,000 migrants swell their number each year, swarming the city in search of jobs. It has little to offer them. Unemployment and underemployment are rife and pay is poor. In the garment industry, the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy, the minimum wage is just $38 a month – less than half that guaranteed to workers in Cambodia. For the children of slum-dwellers, the picture is just as bleak. Crushing poverty forces many to trade school for work, by begging, selling trinkets, or toiling long hours in factories and stores. Denied an education, the result is a slavish cycle of penury, where the children grow up reliant on any available scraps of work. These were the scenes that greeted Dubai resident Maria Conceicao upon her first fleeting visit to Bangladesh in April 2005. The then 28-year-old airline hostess was struck by the grim existence of Dhaka’s poorest families, and the begging children that punctuated the drive from the airport to the hotel. The compulsion to help, she says, was overwhelming. “The poverty starts as soon as you leave the airport,” she says. “All you see is people begging, trying to earn money. I was appalled by it. I knew that I couldn’t be someone who just turned a blind eye and said; ‘Oh, it’s a third world country.’ After the things I’d seen, I couldn’t ignore it. When I got back to Dubai, I began to plan how I could help.” Portugal-born Conceicao is the first to admit this is personal. Adopted at the age of two by Cristina Matos, an Angolan refugee and mother of six, she saw uneasy parallels with her own life. “Every single child there, I related to. I feel like it could have been me,” she says. “I had someone who adopted me, who gave me a home, a roof and a life. What if that hadn’t happened?” Conceicao, a petite brunette, started small. For her birthday that year, she asked friends and colleagues in Dubai to donate clothes, toiletries and other essentials to her, rather than buy gifts. The result was a 100-kilogram shipment that was dispatched to Dhaka, and distributed among a handful of families. By July 2005, Conceicao was on the fundraising trail, drumming up enough money to take 39 slum children from the streets, and enroll them in local schools. “It started very slowly; I had no big plans, no business proposals,” she says. “Everything I did, I was just trying to meet the needs of these kids.” It was often an uphill struggle. Both parents and children recoiled at the idea of full-time school, and Conceicao resorted to bribes to keep their attendance rates up. With little grasp of local prejudices, it was months before she realised that, despite diligently attending classes, the children had barely mastered the alphabet or basic counting. Their lower caste status, Conceicao discovered, meant the teachers ignored them. “I faced so much resistance, but I had to understand the culture and its limitations,” she says. “People think I was welcomed with open arms; it’s not the case. When I first approached them, those 39 kids didn’t want an education; they didn’t know what that was. They wanted the clothes, the food I gave them.” Conceicao opened her first school in 2005, scraping together enough money to rent two bedrooms, install furniture and hire staff. Under the banner of the Dhaka Project, her activities spilled into offering medical and dental care to slum dwellers, building wells and roads, and rolling out free primary and secondary education. At each juncture, she sought the help of a tight-knit circle of fundraisers and volunteers to keep the charity afloat, as the number of children in her care grew. “Each time I asked for help, then I took the skills of other people and put them where they needed to be,” she says. “When the kids, say, needed a dentist, I found two and asked them to help me. When we needed to set up the wells, something I know nothing about, I found a company and asked for help. Everything I’ve done is on those terms. I put my faith in other people.” Eight years on, much has changed. Conceicao’s brood has exploded from 39 to 600 children, spanning from eight to 17-years-old, while her charity has stretched to encompass seeking out jobs in Dubai for her school-leavers and the parents of slum-dwellers. Five children have secured scholarships to Dubai schools, with paid tuition, travel, meals and uniforms until they are 18. In that time, Conceicao’s quest to lift Dhaka’s children out of poverty has taken her to the North Pole, through eight marathons and, earlier this year, to the summit of Mount Everest, as she tries frantically to raise enough funding to keep pace with demand. “It’s just so hard to say no,” she explains. “I don’t want to see these children regress into poverty, because there are no opportunities for them. It’s so important they have access to an education for any sort of future, so I have to find the money for it.” Conceicao’s drive goes far beyond the boundaries of casual philanthropy. In person, she is possessed by her work, blazing with conviction. The Maria Cristina Foundation, as it was formally named in 2010, is, she says, “my whole life”. She devotes her salary to it, and she has sold her car to raise funds for it. Her home has become a halfway house for Dhaka school-leavers and parents seeking work in Dubai; she spends a month drilling them on basic hygiene and social skills before their job interviews. The prospective employer “should never know they are any different to any other candidate,” she says. Underpinning this is the constant battle for funding, and the fight to keep the charity imprinted on the minds of the public. During her grueling Mount Everest climb earlier this year – one of many bids to attract fresh sponsors and raise cash – Conceicao was haunted by the fear of dying before delivering on her promise to raise Dhaka’s children out of poverty. “The most important thing to me is to honour this promise,” she says. “I’m terrified – these kids have so much faith in me. I’ve made them think beyond the slum; I’ve given them dreams. What if now I can’t make it happen?” In March, the Maria Cristina Foundation ran out of funding, a victim of the dive in donations seen after the global economic crisis. With no money to pay rent, the staff and other bills, the foundation shuttered its school and found spots for 400 of its children at local institutes. The remaining 200 children have yet to find seats. For Conceicao, it was a devastating blow. “It was like a hurricane came and destroyed everything that I’d built,” she says. “I’ve dedicated the last eight years to this. But then I thought, no, we still have the kids. So the work goes on.” That work involves sourcing new sponsors for her children, raising enough cash to reopen the school, and digging out new potential employers for those in her jobseekers programme. The price of sponsoring a child’s living costs for a month is $68, or $816 a year. Paying for a jobseeker to learn English, in preparation for moving to Dubai, is around $100 a month or $1,200 a year. But any donation, says Conceicao, is welcome. “Everything helps us. It would be fantastic to have a major sponsor to help the foundation, but everything counts in keeping it going.” Her next challenge, just six months after scaling the world’s highest mountain, is to run seven marathons in a week, stretched over seven continents. If all goes to plan, she will complete the last leg on December 2, in time to mark the UAE’s 42nd National Day. “I live, breathe and sleep this work,” she says. “I’m 36 but I’ve had no life, because the charity has to come first. Until the last child has a job, that’s what I have to do.”

New horizons

Offering a better future to Dhaka’s poorest children meant starting with their parents. In 2009, Conceicao realised that bolstering the income of slum families would be critical to keeping their children in school. Faced with no money, parents were likely to pull their offspring out of class to earn a few dollars in the labour market. Her answer was to launch English classes for the parents, to boost their chances of well-paid employment. It was, she says, a battle. “I had to bribe them,” she says, frankly. “They didn’t see investing in English as a benefit; it was a waste of time. So I gave pocket money to everyone that attended lessons for one month.” Today, the Maria Cristina Foundation funds classes for 26 families at the British Council in Dhaka. A further 100 remain on a waiting list, until Conceicao can raise the $99 needed per adult each month for lessons. The aim is to shape the parents for jobs in Dubai, where monthly wages are more than they could earn in a year in Bangladesh. To date, 30 parents and six school-leavers have netted jobs in the Gulf state, with employers ranging from Emirates Airline to Al Jazeera. Their flights are paid for by Etihad Airways, which also flies the foundation’s scholarship children to and from Dubai twice a year. “Everyone says the kids are the future, which is true, but there is less chance of a future if you don’t help the parents,” Conceicao says. “The poverty doesn’t end.”