x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Most inspiring woman learnt giving from an expert

Gulf's most inspiring woman was adopted by a poor, widowed Angolan refugee and mother of six at the age of two.

Maria Conceicao was the final winner chosen by the public and awarded prize money of US$10,000 to help her in her philanthropic efforts in child welfare.
Maria Conceicao was the final winner chosen by the public and awarded prize money of US$10,000 to help her in her philanthropic efforts in child welfare.

DUBAI //A Dubai resident, named the Gulf's most inspiring woman for helping 600 Bangladeshi slum dwellers attend school and two dozen find jobs, learnt giving from an expert.

Maria Conceicao, 34, from Portugal, won an online vote sponsored by Kraft Foods, beating two other finalists selected by three judges from 200 submissions. The prize and US$10,000 (Dh36,730) were given in conjunction with International Women's Day.

Ms Conceicao's acceptance speech moved people to tears as she thanked those who supported her, most especially the poor, widowed Angolan refugee and mother of six who adopted her when she was two.

"Who feeds six, feeds seven," was her foster mother Cristina's motto, Ms Conceicao said. "Her values and generosity are part of my DNA."

Cristina volunteered to raise Ms Conceicao for a time while her mother was struggling.

The mother, later diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, was never able to take her daughter back.

Ms Conceicao lived with Cristina for nine years until her foster mother died of a heart attack. She was then was raised by her foster siblings.

She worked as an Emirates Airline flight attendant for six years and, during trips to Bangladesh, saw the grim life of slum children in the capital.

Ms Conceicao set up the Maria Cristina Foundation to help children attend school for free and find jobs in Dubai.

She raised funds by trekking across the North Pole, and urged others to donate whatever they could - cans of food, an extra bedroom, a ride to work, phone credit.

Many gave, impressed by Ms Conceicao's dedication. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, personally sponsored five Bangladeshi children to study in Dubai.

Etihad Airways agreed to provide plane tickets for others coming to the UAE.

In 2010, one family offered to match Ms Conceicao's airline salary for two years so she could leave her job and perform charity work full time.

Even the slum children who have received her help wanted to give back.

Sumon Azad, 19, received seven years of free schooling and has just got a job at Emirates as a wheelchair assistant. Sumon's monthly salary of Dh2,400 amounts to two years of wages in Bangladesh.

He plans to give Dh1,000 of it to the Maria Cristina Foundation.

"We don't need the money," Sumon said, explaining that his family of six can live off the income of his father, who holds the same job through the help of the foundation.

Rosa Areosa, 46, a South African-Portuguese woman, raised Dh200,000 by completing seven marathon walks in all seven emirates in seven days last year.

"I'm not a wealthy person or a famous person but I can walk," Ms Areosa said.

Com Mirza, a businessman from Canada who helps start-ups, offered to assist in turning the foundation into a self-sustaining organisation.

Mr Mirza is encouraging Ms Conceicao to publish a book, sell merchandise such as calendars and market her charity work as a job-recruitment service. The profits would go toward expanding the foundation.

"When it comes to organisation, or management or monetising herself, she's very bad at that," he said. "When it comes to basically rolling up her sleeves and doing work, she's amazing. She's tireless.

"The more people heard her story and everything that she shared and everything she's done, the more it morphed into more people wanting to help her."

chuang@thenational.ae

To donate, go to this website: mariacristinafoundation.org/