When I was at a Zoom conference with Labony Akhter and Aklima Akhi, never could I have imagined what these bubbly teenagers had to face in their lives.
Labony's mother died while giving birth to her and her father was a drug addict. She was raised by her grandmother.
When she was two, she was adopted by a woman and her stepbrother used to hit her.
In 2008, Labony joined the Maria Cristina Foundation (MCF) because they were providing free education, books, stationery, and even food.
Aklima Akhi has a similar story. In a slum in the capital's Uttara area, Akhi's mother lived with her three children when her drug addict, abusive husband left her. The youngest of them, Akhi, was four years old then.
In 2011, Akhi joined MCF because they were providing free education and for her mother, it was a big thing as she could not afford it.
Akhi and Labony completed their HSC last year and now they are in the UAE doing internships at a local automobile store.
All they need now are sponsors so that they can join the Instituto Politecnico de Braganca in Portugal.
Labony wants to be a business owner and Akhi wants to be a chemical engineer. They can not wait to join the next semester but they need money for that.
A Beacon Of Hope
The Maria Cristina Foundation was formed in 2005 by Maria Conceicao, a Portuguese woman.
The foundation has provided free food and education to 600 slum children of the capital.
Currently, 200 of its students are studying from grade one to 12 in the country and 22 are in Portugal already pursuing higher studies sponsored by donations.
Maria was an Emirates flight crew when she first came to Dhaka and the first thing that caught her eyes was the immeasurable poverty of Dhaka's Korail slum.
That was when she decided to do something for the slum children.
Maria said, "You see, I was adopted and raised by an African immigrant woman named Maria Cristina who taught me that s/he who can feed six, can also feed seven. I took inspiration from her and vowed not to have children of my own but instead adopt children in need to pay forward the love and care I received from her."
In 2005, Maria started with a few families in the Korail slum, she provided them with some donations that she collected from Dubai.
She said, "I had no idea what I was setting myself up for, but I knew that I had to do something, so I made a start."
Later Maria realised that just some money or donations were not going to help the children.
They needed decent education to make a real difference in the long run. So she decided to commit for the long run.
She said, "I made a promise to help these children finish their education, a privilege I did not have for myself."
How Does The Programme Function?
The programme covered only one slum of the capital- Korail slum. But later MCF developed a school of its own at the Gawair slum area and the families moved there.
Although the school closed after some years, the foundation enrolled its students in Cambrian school for further studies.
Now the remaining students are studying at Daffodil International School and Milestone College and the expenses are provided from the foundation.
One thing to be noted here is that although the foundation sponsored 600 students in the beginning, currently the number is 200. They did not take any more students after that.
Maria said, "We have been taking care of these children's education for the 12 years of their total education- from primary to HSC. Many have left us, some are studying in different grades in schools, and some are in college. Labony and Akhi are in the UAE, doing their internships and 22 others are in Portugal at the Instituto Politecnico de Braganca."
She let us know that the university fees are comparatively lower in Portugal and MCF has a special agreement with the institute, which allows the students to pay local rates instead of the foreign students' rates.
Jahangir Uddin is in the second year of International Business Management at the institute and has the status of a working student.
He works full-time and takes classes at night. It guarantees that, for now, what he earns is enough to pay his expenses.
Jahangir said that his father was a rickshaw-puller and his mother used to work as a house-maid. It was normal for Jahangir and his two younger brothers to have only one meal a day.
"We had no food. My parents could hardly ensure two meals a day. And if my father did not have a job, we would go hungry. But now I send money to my family in Bangladesh and they are doing much better."
Chasing Bigger Dreams
From MCF, students have also gone to other countries- one in the USA, one in Australia, two in the UAE, and several others in Bangladesh on local scholarships.
"We also have two students about to start their Master's degrees, one in Australia and one will be in Europe", Maria told us.
Several of the interns are currently waiting to start university; they are raising the funds needed for paid internships.
Maria said, "These students are the first from their families to have an education and an internship outside the country. Their experience in Dubai will help them learn new skills and hopefully raise some funds to go to university."
Jahangir told us that from the UAE to Portugal, the challenges are mainly financial, to cover costs of visas and travel.
Also, visas and travel permissions can be very difficult for these students.
But MCF has good support from the UAE embassy in Bangladesh, which has validated the foundation's work.
As Maria shared with us, even in Dubai as interns the students perform really well.
We talked to Bachir Gemayel, a Lebanese expat in Abu Dhabi who is the owner of Al-Masaood Automobiles in the UAE and a friend of Maria.
Labony and Akhi are doing their internship in his store. He said, "These students perform really well."
Bachir was inspired by Maria's story from her biography 'A woman on top of the world' so much that he wanted to work for her cause.
Last February, Bachir climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain to draw the world's attention to Maria Conceicao's social work.
In an article published in an international daily, Bachir Gemayel said, "Maria Conceicao is like an angel, what she has done for the children is amazing. Then I learned that she lives in Dubai. I contacted her and that is how we started working together."
In the next five months, Maria has plans to take 14 more school students from Dhaka to Dubai for paid internships.
To Maria, restoring balance is the way to resolve all the chaos around us and working together is the key to restore that balance.
Her foundation welcomes others to join and give a hand to the works she and her team do. The most important things that these students need are funding and donation.
Maria said, "We need to raise enough funds to pay for the students' education, internships programmes, and university programmes. We have had people do skydives, donate on their birthdays, run marathons, hold coffee mornings, and many more to raise awareness and funds. So there are so many ways to raise funds."
There is an option for online donating on their website: https://www.justgiving.com/maria-cristina/ and https://www.globalgiving.org/.../maria-cristina-foundation/
The organisation needs volunteers to help with writing grants and sponsorship proposals and to help with social media campaigns, marketing, fundraising, and mentoring and coaching the students.
They also welcome volunteers in Dhaka, where they can meet the children and offer skills to hold workshops, organise events, etc.
The money raised from selling Maria's biography is also spent on the cause.
There had been times when the MCF school was robbed by a local man, Maria was accused of child trafficking and even a case was filed against her.
She could not get into Bangladesh as the police would have arrested her.
But still, she did not leave these children. Or as Labony and Akhi said, "We call Maria our 'spirit mom'. No matter how tough the situations are, a mother never leaves her children. Without her, children like us could never have imagined being where we are now".