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
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,