A chance encounter with a teenage girl and her distraught baby inspired Rezwan Hussain to open a school for girls in the slums of Dhaka’s Rayer Bazar.
Rezwan is the founder and principal of Ariel School. He is also an assistant professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), where he teaches economic development, business, and English composition.
In the spring of 2015 Rezwan was walking the slums near ULAB when he met a 14-year-old girl carrying a baby. Her baby. The baby’s arm appeared to be broken. Rezwan rushed them both to a nearby hospital to oversee treatment for the infant. He learned that the young girl got money by begging. The father of the child did little or nothing for the family. Rezwan glimpsed the future — “perhaps only thirteen-and-a-half short years from now” — when the little baby with the bandaged arm might be carrying her own child.
“I thought, ‘This is nuts. The one thing that might break this cycle is education. Getting young girls in school and keeping them there.’”
Shortly after this incident Rezwan watched his economic development students give a hand washing and hygiene info session for kids in this same slum community. When the session finished he asked one of the parents, a rickshaw driver named Billal, if the kids would be heading off to school now that the presentation was over.
“Billal said, ‘Probably not. Half the kids don’t go to school.’”
Rezwan was shocked. Universal primary education is the law in Bangladesh. Though at $25 for admission fees and $6 a month plus expenses, it’s no wonder so many youngsters don’t go to school. As Rezwan was leaving, Billal shouted, “Hey — why don’t you start a free school?”
Rezwan needed more info about slum children and school attendance. His students did a random survey in Rayer Bazar, seeking the poorest of the poor, especially households with a young daughter.
“My students asked residents if their daughter was registered in school. Most said, ‘No.’”
Rezwan’s idea began to percolate. The goal was to teach preschoolers, specifically girls aged 3–4, from the poorest homes, the ones with little or no income, with thatched roofs and tin walls, shoddy electric and gas feeds, and contaminated water supplies. As most of the adults did low-paying work — if any — even the seemingly paltry expense of $6 a month was unfeasible to most. Rezwan’s challenge was to figure out how to get slum parents to enroll their daughters when the household had next to no income.
“If the tuition were free, of course that would help. But what if it were a girls-only school? Would that increase enrollment?”
Thus the survey asked slum residents another question: Would you consider sending your daughter to an all-girls school? Ninety percent said Yes.
Ariel School wants to empower its preschoolers. Like many young girls in Bangladesh, these female students face pitfalls: dropping out, child marriage, poverty.
Beliefs also play a surprisingly large role in whether a young one stays in school. While money and costs are without doubt obstacles, warped beliefs (“We’re poor, we’re not supposed to be in school”) have a profound influence on attendance, particularly so for female students. Rezwan believes that providing girls a safe sanctuary like Ariel at an early age will instill habits, skills, routines, and beliefs powerful enough to influence these girls to continue their studies — hopefully long enough to avoid the fates of so many young slum mothers.
Perhaps equally important, but overlooked under the towering shadow of intergenerational poverty, is how basic knowledge — counting, learning the alphabet, writing one’s name — and physical activities like singing and dancing can lift a little one’s spirits, relieving stress, if only temporarily.
In the summer of 2015 Rezwan began searching for a classroom. After a few dead ends, he got lucky. Once again his students figured into a fortunate chain of events. Out wandering the neighbourhood one day they found a space behind the local high school. It was on the second-floor and needed renovations. But it was a space.
Next, teachers. Since Rezwan hadn’t any money to pay teachers he looked for volunteers among his own students and others at ULAB, via the college’s community service program. More than 100 were registered volunteers in the program. Almost effortlessly Ariel School had a staff — even before it had a curriculum or supplies. Thanks to Rezwan’s sister’s friend, who runs a well-known, private K–12 school in Dhaka, books were delivered, a curriculum was drawn up, and teacher training was organized.
Ariel’s washroom facilities are the last pieces of the puzzle and, as of this writing, are in the process of being installed. The school is set to open in early April 2016.
“What I’ve learned,” says Rezwan, “is that things don’t always go according to plan. Trying to start a preschool in the slums of Dhaka is unpredictable. In Bangladesh everything takes far longer than you’d expect. But, I also got lucky. I asked people for their help. I had a vision and thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?’”
This isn’t the end of Ariel’s story. In fact, it’s just the beginning.
We need YOUR support — your donations — so that we can feed these 25 preschoolers at Ariel and others like them on our wait list. As Rezwan says, “One small, healthy meal would encourage attendance, build morale, and promote the physical and cognitive development of the children.”
Please help us give these little girls a chance to forge their own positive destinies. Together we can break the vicious cycle of poverty and despair that is all too common in Dhaka’s slums.