Lessons for life

Rizwan Sa­jan’s Danube Wel­fare Cen­tre is help­ing im­prove the lives of the UAE’s blue-col­lar work­ers with free English and com­mu­ni­ca­tion cour­ses. Shiva Ku­mar Thekkepat re­ports

Friday - - Society -

When Aisha Shaikh, a teacher at the DanubeWel­fare Cen­tre, asks a stu­dent in her class, Aneesh, to write a three-let­ter word with the suf­fix ‘an’, he grabs the op­por­tu­nity, races to the white board and be­gins writ­ing with the marker: ‘ban’, ‘man’, ‘pan’, ‘can’.

Un­will­ing to stop at just a few words, he goes on to write all the words he knows that end with ‘an’, and when he runs out of words he knows, he be­gins coin­ing new ones: ‘dan’, ‘lan’... The crowd of 20-odd stu­dents cheer him on, and only when he runs out of space on the white board does he re­turn to his seat.

Wel­come to the DanubeWel­fare Cen­tre, a class­room that op­er­ates in a build­ing in Karama, Dubai, where blue-col­lar work­ers – in­clud­ing taxi driv­ers, of­fice helpers and petrol pump at­ten­dants – are taught the ba­sics of writ­ten and spo­ken English. In ad­di­tion to learn­ing the lan­guage, the stu­dents find their con­fi­dence im­proves mas­sively and it can even give them a new pur­pose in life.

With the hour-long les­son in English over, the work­ers are given a short break to have some tea and a snack be­fore it’s back to lessons with another vol­un­teer teacher, Raya Halet.

The faces are all se­ri­ous and at­ten­tive, pen­cils poised over sheets of pa­per. It’s clear many have come straight from work be­cause they are in their work uni­forms.

Alaapichai, 40, from the south­ern In­dian state of Tamil Nadu, works a 10-hour shift as a mes­sen­ger at a travel agency in Bur Dubai, but makes it a point to at­tend at least three classes a week. “My friend who at­tends the class told me about it and I de­cided to check it out,” he says, painstak­ingly choos­ing his words, but stub­bornly re­fus­ing to re­sort to his na­tive lan­guage. “I went to school but was not con­fi­dent com­mu­ni­cat­ing in English. Now I can un­der­stand, and can spell and write my name. I can also speak to cus­tomers in our of­fice, and not just nod or shake my head. I have three daugh­ters who go to school in In­dia, and I will one day com­mu­ni­cate with them in English.”

Most other stu­dents at the cen­tre are in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions. Some may be barely able to com­mu­ni­cate in English, but all are de­ter­mined not to use their na­tive tongue while talk­ing among them­selves and to visi­tors.

Wa­jid Ali Khamin, 25, an at­ten­dant at Eppco, had stud­ied up to grade nine in his na­tive Pe­shawar, Pak­istan, but couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate in English. “Now af­ter nine months here, I can,” he says. “Ear­lier I used to make many spelling mis­takes, but now I have im­proved a lot. My of­fice co­op­er­ated by ad­just­ing my shifts as well as ar­rang­ing trans­port. My dream is to learn English so well that I’ll be able to teach my col­leagues who are afraid to come here.”

His com­pa­triot, Ab­dul Rah­man, 36, is less con­fi­dent, but still stands his ground, re­fus­ing to speak in Hindi al­though strug­gling in English. The RTA driver has two daugh­ters go­ing to school in Pe­shawar, and dreams of the day he can speak to them in English. “In­shal­lah, one day,” he smiles shyly. And then a look of de­ter­mi­na­tion crosses his face. “No, def­i­nitely!”

That, says Rizwan Sa­jan, founder and chair­man of the Danube Group, is the pur­pose of the cen­tre. The wel­fare as­so­ci­a­tion, li­censed by the Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity, has reached out to the com­mu­nity with a se­ries of ses­sions aimed at the av­er­age blue-col­lar worker. In just over a year since the first cen­tre was set up, Danube has been in­stru­men­tal in chang­ing the lives of 515 work­ers. Next month,

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