DUBAI // School concerts seldom have much of a surprise twist. But last week, the dénouement of the end-of-term show at Uptown High School changed the lives of seven Bangladeshi students forever.
Sujon Ishaq, 12, Shewly Akter, 11, Taslim Hossain, 14, Shah Alam, 14, Mosharaf Hossain, 15, Bilkis Akter, 13, and Milon Mia, 12, feared that by the end of the evening, their expired tourist visas would force them to return to the slums of Dhaka.
But when they filed on stage in front of an applauding audience, the woman who had brought them to Dubai, Maria Conceicao, burst into the auditorium. She had rushed back from Abu Dhabi to surprise the students. In her hand were seven passports, complete with freshly stamped visas.
That moment had been a long time coming. Five years ago, Ms Conceicao, a former Emirates Airline flight attendant, established the Dhaka Project, a non-governmental organisation that provides healthcare and primary education to poor children in Bangladesh. For the seven children and 493 others, it was their first time attending school.
Fearing primary school would be the end of their education, Ms Conceicao launched the Maria Project as a next step, in a bid to find long-term education for the students. Taaleem, the UAE's second largest private school operator, invited the seven children, handpicked by Ms Conceicao, to come over for the three-week Libra summer camp in August at the Dubai British School.
"We wanted to see if they would adjust to life in Dubai," said Clive Pierrepont, the director of communications at Taaleem, which runs the Dubai British School and Muhaisnah's Uptown High School. "They did fantastically well, and integrated with the other kids in camp seamlessly. We offered them scholarships to attend Uptown because they had so much potential."
But to enrol as full-time pupils, the children needed residency visas. They could not even go back to Dhaka to see their families during school breaks, as they risked being turned away on their return to the UAE. While Ms Conceicao applied for the visas, they attended school and lived with host families - parents of other pupils, a teacher and the consul of the Swiss Embassy.
Their early challenges were not confined to filling the gaps in their knowledge, said Erika Elkady, the deputy head at Uptown. Life in Dubai was drastically different. They wore shoes, when they had gone barefoot; they were fed when before they had gone hungry.
"These kids are so motivated and work so hard, none of them need extra English classes any more and three of them are done with learning support classes," Ms Elkady said. They get along with their classmates and do their homework on time, she said, and "unlike some other students, they have been able to stay out of trouble". However, they were classed as guest students. "We could not enrol them on their tourist visas, so we could not issue them with report cards for all the incredibly hard work they have been doing and for all they've achieved."
Mr Pierrepont said he had rarely seen "the phenomenal courage and determination that these young people have displayed, to put adversity behind them and grasp with both hands, the opportunities that have been presented to them". He said the children's presence had helped put the world into context for their more privileged peers. "They have really brought the school together."
When the visa applications were rejected because they had no sponsor, Ms Conceicao confided in John Bergl, a friend of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Over dinner, Mr Bergl told Sheikh Nahyan of their difficulties and the Sheikh offered to sponsor them.
Now the children are back with their families in Bangladesh. Ms Conceicao will pick them up in January, in time for when term starts on the third. When they return, it will be as full-time students, said Mr Pierrepont. "They will finish their school careers here, inshallah, and with the determination they have shown, they will realise their ambitions to become doctors and human rights lawyers and engineers, so they can fulfil their dreams to go back and make a difference in their communities," he said.
Ms Elkady added: "If Sheikh Nahyan had not have sponsored these kids, we would have to send them back to the slums knowing that their chance at furthering their education would be over."