Sharjah: In late 2006 when Ethiopian troops clashed with Somali forces in Mogadishu, hundreds of people were killed and thousands more were displaced. One of those who fled Somalia was the family of Aniso Abdirahman, who sought refuge in Malaysia.
Fast forward to today, Aniso is now an assistant teacher at Dignity for Children Foundation, a Malaysian NGO that won the Sharjah International Award for Support and Advocacy for Refugees (SIARA) that was given by Sharjah-based The Big Heart Foundation (TBHF) back in 2018.
Dignity for Children Foundation provides integrated education to refugees and displaced persons and TBHF has been supporting outstanding humanitarian efforts by NGOs as well as individuals globally since SIARA was launched in 2017 by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, and his wife, Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, Chairperson of TBHF and UNHCR Eminent Advocate for Refugee Children.
According to TBHF, “SIARA was established to recognise outstanding efforts and initiatives that improve the lives of millions of individuals and families who have been displaced from their homes due to a natural disaster or war in Asia, Africa and the MENA region.”
SIARA Award was critical in funding the costs of the programme in which Aniso completed her education, said Dignity for Children Foundation founders Elisha and Petrina Satvinder.
Paying it forward
Aniso graduated in 2019. She is one of more than 7,000 underprivileged children at Dignity who have transitioned into responsible young adults, capable of providing for themselves and their families. Aniso is now supporting Dignity’s Lower Secondary Programme, where she interns as an assistant teacher.
She said: “I am grateful to all sponsors, including TBHF, for helping me finish my education. My goal today is to educate more girls so that they can stand on their own feet and be educated mothers in future.”
Safe environment for refugees
The tangible impact Dignity had been making in responding to the immediate social needs of displaced families and providing a safe environment for children’s education caught the attention of TBHF.
In 2018, TBHF conferred the SIARA award and the Dh500,000 prize money to Dignity for Children Foundation, in recognition of its pioneering efforts in providing holistic education to children aged 2-18 which addressed more than just academic learning needs but also tapped into every child’s potential to drive change.
Winning the award had been a milestone in the NGO’s 20-year humanitarian journey, according to its founders. The Satvinder couple said they were able to expand the scope of their services to include a greater number of young people at the secondary level
Boost from Sharjah Ruler
At the awards ceremony held in April 2018, the Ruler of Sharjah awarded Dignity Foundation an additional $1 million (Dh3.65 million) to boost their sustained efforts in offering quality education and vocational training to underprivileged families in Sentul (a suburb located within the northern part of the city centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and beyond.
According to Dignity’s founders, Elisha and Petrina Satvinder: “The SIARA Award has been a profound blessing to Dignity for Children in numerous ways. For the first time in 20 years, Dignity — which had rented all our premises until then — managed to move into our first wholly-owned learning centre and expand our work to accommodate more secondary-aged youth.”
The new educational centre building named after TBHF features six classrooms for up to 95 high school students in the 16-18 years age group, and is part of the learning centre, which already caters to 1,751 students. It also includes the main offices, school restaurant, a bakery, and meeting rooms.
“Most importantly, SIARA has given Dignity International coverage and bolstered our reputation as a humanitarian organisation, opening doors of opportunities and enabling us to continue growing, networking, and improving the quality of our services for the children. Our NGO is also inspiring other grass roots initiatives to never give up serving the communities in need,” added the founders.
Elisha and Petrina Satvinder started their community work in 1998, after realising early on that initiatives like career workshops, grocery drops and even job placements were insufficient to truly break the cycle of poverty.
Elisha said: “Poverty is a deep seated, multifaceted issue and often takes more than one generation to halt its grip. We recognised that education, on the other hand, was a powerful tool that empowers as well as protects since children who are in school can escape the clutches of exploitation, child labour, and other social ills.”
“At Dignity, we have striven to make excellence our motto, as we believe that high quality education can help children and youth rewrite their story and drive societal change in a long-lasting way, becoming shining examples for other members of their community,” added Petrina.
The couple said the impact of a global award on a local initiative cannot be understated. “It is a reminder to the world that real change happens at the grass roots, working directly with communities. To initiate widespread social transformation, what is required is an awareness of social issues and the willingness of the international community to pay due attention and funnel support and resources to such work,” they added.