DUBAI // Shazia Kidwai has nudged open the door to education for girls in India who had to drop out of school, helping them to achieve their dreams of re-entering the classroom.
With help from the Sharjah-based financial consultant, 20 girls brushed the dust off unused books this month and went back to school in three northern Indian villages.
More than 16 others will also begin learning to read and write as part of an initiative Mrs Kidwai began late last year in her home state of Uttar Pradesh.
The scheme is aimed at helping young women in high schools and universities whose families are daily-wage farm workers and embroidery crafters.
"It's an amazing feeling to know they will be studying again," says Mrs Kidwai, a mother of two who has lived in the UAE for 15 years. "It was tough at first because I had to convince whole families to allow the girls to go back."
She has also received support from two Dubai residents - an Emirati and a Saudi national - who are funding one teenage girl's engineering degree.
Bushra Rahman, 18, had been distraught about quitting college this year because of lack of funds until she heard about Mrs Kidwai's helping hand to young female students.
"I thought I would have to stop studying. I was so upset," Ms Rahman says.
"My parents are encouraging but we have financial problems. It's the same for many girls. But now I can study as long as I want."
Ms Rahman is one of only 19 girls in a 150-student engineering college.
The Indian government covered up to 31,000 rupees (Dh2,600) a year of her tuition fees. The remaining 83,000 rupees is being paid by the two Dubai sponsors. She has three more years of study before she will receive her degree.
"People in the UAE have large hearts and are always ready to help," Mrs Kidwai says, adding both Dubai sponsors wish to be anonymous. "Once they saw it was a genuine plan and their money would help this girl they were immediately ready to help."
The Indian government provides free education and scholarships for girls in state-run schools. But poverty, illness, the death of a parent and concern about sending girls to schools in distant towns are among the reasons they drop out.
Educators believe involvement in village-level education is crucial to tilting the balance.
"The biggest challenge is poverty - the parents are poor and have no interest in their girls studying," says Khursheed Jahan, the principal of Uttar Pradesh's Masauli College.
"We tell them the more you study, the more you can help your family. Shazia is helping girls who had stopped dreaming. She is helping them get back on their feet."
Mrs Kidwai has also organised the girls into mentor groups, in which each grade 12 pupil helps a group of four girls who have never been to school to read and write. Her family is also dipping into savings to pay for books, uniforms and admission fees.
Her husband and two children in Sharjah often accompany her on trips to the Indian villages, and her retired relatives living in India will check on the girls' academic progress. She also constantly stays in touch with them on the phone from Sharjah.
This is already changing lives. Fauziya Khartun, 17, has enlisted the help of her brothers in household chores when she returns to school.
"She has given us so much hope, so much strength," says Ms Khartun, who dropped out of school two years ago after her father's death. She plans to study and help her mother with embroidery work to take care of seven sisters and two brothers.
"I love to study but I had to stop," Ms Khartun says. "I will now work doubly hard."
While Mrs Kidwai aimed to focus on girls, boys queued up for advice when she recently visited Baragaon village to monitor the admissions process.
"I heard her talk to families about how girls should be encouraged but we are confused, too," says Dilshad Ahmed, 18.
After consulting with Mrs Kidwai, who suggested he meet principals and senior students to understand job trends, Mr Ahmed is studying for a management degree instead of a bachelor's degree in arts or science.
"Everyone here studies for a BA or BSc. We didn't know anything else," he says."She told us to talk to people, to find out what helps get jobs. No one talked to us like this before.
"There is a new energy in our village. Children want to go to school."