Dubai: Mdia, Mariam, Afra and Moza are united in their goal. They want to study. They want an education. It doesn't matter how long it takes.

Despite the average age of the group being 55 years, the quartet is determined to learn, perhaps graduate and even pursue a profession.

Many might scoff at the idea, as it may be too physically exhausting for them, but what nobody can deny is the strength of spirit that exists in each of them - like a shimmering light that shone through their eyes when they started talking about their dreams.

I took a winding road to the Nad Al Sheba Ladies Centre in Dubai to meet 60-year-old Mdia Saif Saeed, 50-year-old Mariam Saif Bu Hannad, 55-year-old Afra Obaid Al Miri and 56-year-old Moza Nasser Al Minhali.

'Studying' is a word that many equally loathe and treasure. But there are some for whom such an opportunity was a dream that was forgotten as life moved on. That is until now, for the centre has helped bring their hopes to life by offering various courses.

Enchanting tales

The students are of all ages, from different backgrounds and walks of life, but I was seeking the older students.

As I walked in for my 10am appointment, I found them waiting in the principal-cum-manager Amnah Ameen Mohammad's office. The room was filled with laughter and conversation, unlike, I am sure, most of our memories of visits to the principal's office.

As I took in their silvery skin, dancing eyes and giggling, I also sensed nervousness, like a gentle ripple beneath the surface. The women seemed curious and eager.

With no prompting needed, they started talking about the journey that had brought them to this point.

As each of their tales flowed out, I felt like a student sitting at the well of history drinking in every word. It was one of the most poignant lessons of my life.

Moza said: "When I was 13 years old, I got married and gave birth to my first child soon after."

She now has two boys and three girls, all of whom are well educated. "Life was hard, we lived a Bedouin lifestyle and had not only to take care of our children and homes, but also had to do physical work like taking care of the livestock and collecting firewood." Schooling was not a luxury that time could afford.

The rest of the women murmured their agreement. Mariam said: "I was married at an older age. I was 15. But I was able to go to a neighbourhood class that was run by a member of our community who was educated. She gave us simple lessons in Arabic and the Quran."

Then their lives took a dramatic turn, oil was discovered and the UAE was formed. Mariam said: "Modernisation started making its presence felt. Today it is a world away from our earlier days and there are very few of our generation left."

However, deep down as the years advance there is a hankering for the old days.

Moza said: "People were close to each other. Now everyone is wealthy, but they have lost that sense of belonging." The centre has helped them find that connection with each other.

Most were lucky to have the support and encouragement of their families and children. For Moza it was a bit of a skirmish. "My daughter didn't feel that it was necessary for me to study in my old age. But I stood my ground, and here I am," she said.

Each of them has found something that she is passionate about. For the sisters Mdia and Mariam, the Arabic lessons in reading and writing and the Quran classes are their favourite. English is the course of choice for Moza and mathematics is the most interesting subject for Afra.

Mdia said: "Earlier, when I would pass by the street signs, they would just look like colourful mosaics to me. But now I can read them. Our eyes were closed, but now have opened."

The hope of attending a university fills the room with charged feelings.

Afra said: "I would definitely like to go. Even though we're older and it's more challenging for us, I would love the opportunity to go to university and continue learning as much as I can."

She added quietly: "I would like to be a mathematics teacher someday."