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An epiphany for Maria

  • Published at 07:07 pm December 17th, 2017
  • Last updated at 11:21 am December 18th, 2017
An epiphany for Maria
When a former colleague told me to talk to a Portuguese lady called Maria Conceicao working with youngsters in urban slums, I was not particularly thrilled. However, my interest soared soon after discovering that the woman in question had left her job as a flight attendant to devote herself to making lives of others better in Bangladesh. Maria is in her thirties. One has to admit, she can be passed off as someone in her early thirties and many will possibly be surprised if she is on the wrong side of the age bracket. The reason behind her rather youthful appearance is that Maria is an avid extreme sport enthusiast, who has taken the Ironman challenge six times. More reason to be intrigued. But Maria’s link to Bangladesh has a profound dimension, and her love for Dhaka is manifested in her tireless work with enterprising young people living in urban slums. In Portugal, where she is from, Maria is celebrated as the first Portuguese woman to conquer Mount Everest, in 2013. But there was a driving force which led her to attempt to scale Everest. But let’s come to that later. The epiphany Working as a flight attendant for a respected UAE based airline, Maria came to Bangladesh in 2003 as part of the flight crew, stopping over for a day’s rest. While most of her colleagues decided to take the time off to rejuvenate after a long flight, Maria, being an explorer by nature, decided to take a tour around Dhaka. At the suggestion of a local, she went and visited a slum and was moved by the struggle of the people. “I was touched by the resilience of the women, especially single mothers abandoned by their husbands, raising their children by working as maids, construction aides or as garment workers,” said Maria and added: “While I admired the courage of the women, I noticed that many of the young boys and girls were not getting the right education or skills training that would help them break away from this doomed cycle of degradation.” Many wanted to be sportsmen, teachers or work in five star hotels, but the path for them to move towards their goals was not there, observed the former flight attendant turned humanitarian crusader. With her stay over, Maria went back with her crew and to her world of international travel and glamour. “But the scenes from Bangladesh, especially of the young people with attainable dreams made impossible due to poverty and adversity continued to haunt me.” Goodbye to the glittering profession At one stage, the young woman had to take a firm decision: Would she allow the images from a slum in Dhaka to fade away, or make the recurrent images the base of her life’s calling? The lure of glamour and globetrotting razzmatazz lost out. One fine day, when the plane landed, Maria greeted her passengers for the last time. From now on, her charges would be a little different, her space for working would not be just an aircraft.
At one stage, the young woman had to take a firm decision: Would she allow the images from a slum in Dhaka to fade away, or make the recurrent images the base of her life’s calling?
In 2005, the young woman started a charity, Maria Cristina Foundation, named after her mother to support underprivileged young children in Dhaka’s urban areas to reach their potential. Maria says: The emphasis needs to be on “potential” because, these children would have grown up to pick up any menial job anyway to sustain a livelihood; however, that way, they would have merely survived and their actual talents would have remained dormant, dying out over time, suppressed by the daily grind. But Maria did not have the funds, and so she decided what many would term “daunting.” Or perhaps a little foolhardy. Take up challenges to raise the buck Instead of the conventional way of raising funds by symposiums and seminars, the young woman decided to attract attention by taking on arduous challenges. This led her to take part in marathons in London and Dublin, trekking the North Pole in 2011 and eventually, the Mount Everest in 2013. While Maria was taking up one challenge after another, the charity began work in Dhaka, supporting young boys and girls, transforming their lives, making a path for them to reach their goals. In 2016, after learning to swim, Maria decided to cross the 34 km English Channel to raise awareness about her children in Bangladesh and collect funds. Unfortunately, seven hours into the swim, faced with strong opposite current, and at the advice of her navigator, she had to abort. The physical task remained unfulfilled, the funds raised was around 10,000 pounds. Maria’s gems in Dhaka As per the annual report of the Maria Cristina Foundation, 131 students are currently studying at the Cambrian School and College supported by benevolent sponsors. Some have graduated and have applied and been given admission overseas, while through the foundation, several were lucky to go to Dubai to study. One such person is Milon Mia, 17, who was discovered my Maria and her co-workers in 2009. An energetic boy, he was always willing to learn new things, we were told by the foundation members. “He showed great interest in learning English and surprised all of us by his natural aptitude to pick up the language,” said Maria. “Later, we got a sponsorship for him to study and live in Dubai and, currently, Milon is studying at GEMS Wellington Academy, courtesy the sponsorship of an overseas philanthropist.” Another challenge awaits With the children studying here, Maria is getting ready to take part in another odyssey. This time, her target is the South Pole, having covered North Pole in 2011. “I am already training and the expedition is between Dec 31, 2017 and January 23, 2018. Once again, my aim is to raise awareness about my teenage dreamers in Bangladesh.” Well, we commend Maria for all her efforts and also hope that since her life transforming mission is in this country, she will start campaigning for a trek here to Keokradong, in Bandarban, reportedly, one of the highest peaks in Bangladesh. Surely then her work here will receive more attention. Towheed Feroze is a journalist working in the development sector.