DUBAI // Splashing around in a school swimming pool this week, the seven newest recruits to summer camp looked like they had known their Dubai peers for months, not days. For almost all of them, this is the first time they have been away from their home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Until three years ago, Sujon Ishaq, 12, Shewly Akter, 11, Taslim Hossain, 14, Shah Alam, 14, Mosharaf Hossain, 15, Bilkis Akter, 13, and Milon Mia, 12, did not have passports and had never visited, let alone attended, a school.
Outcasts in their own city because of their families' low social status, they could not speak their national language - Bangla - properly, much less English, and Dubai was a place they knew nothing of.
Today, despite sharing jokes - in almost fluent English - with their summer camp leaders, their three-week mission in Dubai is a serious one. They hope to secure a place at a Dubai school where they can continue their education and gain international qualifications. "When I came here to visit in 2008, I saw children studying here and had a lot of dreams that one day I too could come and study," said Mosharaf, who Libra camp staff say possesses a terrifyingly fast spin bowl.
Like his travelling companions, the articulate teenager has outgrown the free education provided to him by The Dhaka Project, a non-governmental organisation established by the Emirates Airlines air hostess Maria Conceicao four years ago to provide education and health care to the children from Dhaka's slums. In a bid to provide the next step for the children, Ms Conceicao established The Maria Project, aimed at empowering them with the tools they need to enter adulthood and become self-sufficient.
"If I can finish my studies here, I would be able to go back and work as a national defence officer, and show other people what is possible," Mosharaf said. "We only need an opportunity." His companion, Sujon, a talented artist, wants to be a cardiologist. "It is expensive to get treatment for the heart, so most of the poor people die because they have no money," he said. "I want to help them and make a hospital in my village."
Ms Conceicao, who organised the visit with the support of the Emirates Airline Foundation and local sponsors, said: "They need internationally recognised education certificates so that they can go on to great careers and contribute to their home country. They have gone as far as they can at our school. The schools in Dhaka will not accept them and they deserve a chance." During the three weeks they are here, the education group Taaleem, which owns several private international schools in the UAE, has agreed to assess the students with a view to providing those eligible with future scholarships.
Ms Conceicao, grateful for Taaleem's support, is anxious that the older pupils find a school, and sponsorship, for this coming academic year. Attempts to enrol them at schools in Dhaka had proved futile. Ms Conceicao attributes this to the stigma attached to their social background. Clive Pierrepont, the director of communications at Taaleem, confirmed that the group is looking into creating "long-term education opportunities for students from The Dhaka Project" but said the purpose of the children's visit was, primarily, to ensure they could adapt happily to life here.
Each child would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, he added, and assurances would need to be made that any child accepted at a school could remain sponsored there for their entire education - with a view towards college and university. In the meantime, the children are making the most of free access to the Libra summer camp at Dubai British School, which is also providing an opportunity to assess how they adapt to their peers and surroundings.
"They have excelled in everything," said Danny Phillips, operations director at Libra. "They are really intelligent, bright children and have mixed immediately into the camp. One of the boys was even showing us all how to measure water pressure using a plastic water bottle - he was so charismatic. "Their English is good, they are very respectful and they just want to make the most of every moment. They are used to challenges in life, many of them have come from backgrounds we cannot ever imagine. It is quite humbling to see how quickly they have adapted and how grateful they are for everything."
For more information, or to find out how you can help, visit www.mariaproject.com.pt or email email@example.com @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org This article has been altered to correct the website address of the maria project.