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SFC Group MD helping those in need

Putting a smile on the faces of poor children and the elderly is what gives Dubai-based businessman Kesavan Muraleedharan the greatest joy. For more than three decades, he has been funding the education of poor students as well as taking care of the elderly in a village in India, finds Zenifer Khaleel

  • Muraleedharan (seated) at a school his trust built in Kerala. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Physiotherapy supports people at an old age home. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • An incense stick manufacturing unit run by Murali’s charity. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Muraleedharan says we are bound by duty to help the needy in whatever way we can, no matter how small. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Arun Mohan’s future looked bleak. Although he excelled academically, the then 18-year-old from the southern Indian state of Kerala wasn’t sure if he could continue his college education as his family was too poor to support him. “My father, a labourer, could put me through school only with great difficulty,” he says. “And then when I was in my first year of college, he died from a heart condition. I am the only son and my mother was unemployed. We could barely survive as we had no savings.’’

To make ends meet, Arun decided to take up a part-time job as a cleaner in a garage after college hours. “I needed to earn some money so my mother and I could have at least two square meals,’’ he says.

But it was becoming increasingly difficult for Arun to juggle his studies and his job. “My study load was increasing and I realised it would be impossible to do both. The money from my part-time job was not enough. I was considering giving up college and taking up a full-time job so we could have some food on the table.’’

Then, by sheer chance, a friend introduced Arun to a man named Kesavan Muraleedharan.

“I didn’t know him but my friend told me he had helped hundreds of poor students, so I decided to meet him and request him to help me as well,’’ says Arun.
That was five years ago and it turned out to be a turning point in the young man’s life. Muraleedharan, a Dubai-based businessman and philanthropist, who also hails from Arun’s village, Anchal, heard the young man’s story and was moved by his plight.

Arun says, “I remember him telling me to go to the nearest bank and open an account there. I did that. He then asked me for the account number and from that day, provided me with a monthly stipend of around Rs3,000 (Dh200) which allowed me to continue my studies and earn a degree in engineering. He also used to write letters to me regularly, encouraging me to study well and do better. I listened and thanks to him, I now have a job with a telecom company in Kerala, India.’’

Arun is not alone. Another boy who was able to continue his education despite his family’s poverty was Ritesh. Four years ago, he passed his Grade 12 with flying colours but his father, Soman*, who worked as an office boy in the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, was unable to raise funds for him to study at an engineering college, which was the boy’s dream.

“I was wondering how to help my son when I came to know about Murali – as Muraleedharan is affectionately known – and how he helps poor students,’’ says Soman. “I told him about my son and showed him his marks sheet.’’

That was all that Muraleedharan needed. He promptly made arrangements for Ritesh to study at the Vidya Academy of Science and Technology, an educational institution he is involved with that caters exclusively to students who are denied opportunities of higher education due to their financial constraints.

The centre in Kerala admits students based purely on merit. Around 20 per cent of the students are provided education free of charge. Ritesh, who will graduate next year, is hoping to improve his family’s conditions. “I am indebted to Murali for having given me this opportunity to study,’’ he says. His father is also overjoyed. “My other children are also enthusiastic about their studies and their brother’s success has also given them hope,” says Soman.

Helping is a way of life

Charity is something Muraleedharan is passionate about. He and a group of philanthropic non-resident Keralites set up The Vidya International Charitable Trust in Kerala in 2000, of which he is the founding chairman. The trust offers monetary help to poor children so they can pursue their studies. Over the years, it has helped more than 10,000 people including over 500 students who have been able to get a better education and a better life.

Muraleedharan, 54, is married to Beena and they have three children – eldest daughter Dr Revathy is married and settled in Kerala, son Rohith is a business management graduate and daughter Radhika is in her final year of undergraduate studies in Manchester Business School in the UK, specialising in Management and Finance.

Muraleedharan arrived in Dubai in 1976 and joined KM Brothers, a food distribution company, as an accounts clerk. Through hard work he rose to become the area manager, then managing partner of the company in Abu Dhabi. In 2000 he ventured into his own hospitality and food business called the Southern Franchise Company LLC (SFC Group) with interests in India, the UAE, and British Virgin Islands dealing in food, catering and life support services, healthcare and dairy farming.

Even while he was with KM Brothers, he used to set aside a portion of his salary to help the poor – be it for education, marriage or medical treatment.

Muraleedharan credits his charitable vein to his father. “I learnt a lot from my father [Kesavan] who owned a rice mill and paddy fields in a small village called Anchal in central Kerala,’’ he says. “He was a hard working man with noble values and principles, which he was keen to inculcate in all his seven children. He helped anyone who came knocking on our door for aid or assistance. He died eight years ago.

“My mother Rajamma is my source of inspiration. I remember when we were growing up she would never turn away anyone who came to our house for help. As soon as I started earning, she instilled in me the values of charity. We are bound by duty to help the needy in whatever little ways we can.

“In fact it was she who suggested that I start distributing rice free of cost to poor people in our village in Kerala way back in the 80s. It was from this idea that all my charity activities began. I’ve always wanted to help the less fortunate and the moment I began earning a fairly decent salary I began to give some of it to charity.’’ As his business prospered, the philanthropic activities also increased in proportion. “I am convinced one complements the other – the more I help people, the more my business prospers. Helping people is a wonderful feeling,’’ says Muraleedharan.

When the volume of social and philanthropic work increased, to make the efforts more streamlined he set up the Muralya Foundation headquartered in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala in 2006. Beena is the director of the foundation. It has a group of dedicated professionals who spearhead its operations. The core areas that the organisation focuses on are education, health care, and social welfare. All the expenses of Murlaya Foundation are met exclusively from the resources of Muraleedharan.

Far-reaching support

The foundation has a plethora of initiatives including the Anchal Hospital for Mother and Child, which provides free medical treatment to poor villagers. More than 10,000 people have benefitted from this programme.

Muraleedharan is also the Chairman of “Care and Share Foundation” which is headed by the Malayalam film star Mammootty.

He has also adopted a 60-year-old Government-aided Vocational Higher Secondary School, located in a remote town in Kerala. He pays for the books, uniforms and other educational materials for 500 poor children. He has also funded the building of a four-storey structure equipped with modern teaching facilities at a cost of Rs2 crores (Dh1,364,450).

Apart from providing medical assistance to the poor he also funds heart operations for poor children. Since its inception, this organisation has saved the lives of over 200 children facing life-threatening heart conditions.

He also supports several other charities that look after destitute and poor children and elderly people as well as physically challenged people across the state. One of the core activities of Muralya Foundation is caring for the elderly. It takes care of around 100 elderly people who are either abandoned or live in old-age homes. What makes him and his activities different from other foundations is the personal attention he gives to every one of them. “I make it a point to visit them as often as I can... I try to fill the void their children and loved ones have left,’’ he says.

Sixty-eight-year-old Shivadasan A. is one of the recipients of his help. A widow, she has only words of praise for Muraleedharan for helping save the life of her son. “My son, an auto rickshaw driver and an alcoholic, was diagnosed with cirrhosis three years ago and needed urgent medical care. I did not know who to approach until somebody told me about Muraleedharan.

“I contacted him and he promptly agreed to foot the entire medical bill for his treatment. But more than that it was his soothing words and advice to my son which helped change his life. Thanks to him, I got back my son,’’ she says. Today the young man is a healthy teetotaller.

Muraleedharan strongly upholds the belief that there are no shortcuts in life. Hard work and dedication are his mantras for success.

“One of the greatest pleasures I get in life is seeing a smile on the faces of the elderly who have no one to lean on,’’ he says holding the hand of Fathima Beevi, an 86-year-old widow. She is eternally grateful to Muraleedharan for giving her a new lease of life.

“I was abandoned by my four children and had no one to turn to as my relatives did not want to take care of me,” she says. “I was almost begging on the streets when Muraleedharan came to know about my condition four years ago. Since then he has provided me with regular food and a monthly pension. He also gives me a set of brand new clothes during all festive occasions and makes it a point to visit me at least once a year.

“I thank God for sending me a new son to take care of me at this old age.”