"No one has ever become poor by giving."
This quote from The Diary of Anne Frank is wrapped in a lesson close to Shahra Jafar Ali’s heart.
Hers is a story of resilience, kindness and paying good fortune forward. When Gulf News readers first heard about Shahra six years ago, she was 17 years old, a good student and someone devoid of all hope.
She comes from a family of humble means; her father died when she was about 10 years old, her mother - who is a Sri Lankan national and worked as a housemaid - had two younger siblings she needed to support.
Shahra’s dreams rested on an education she had no means to undertake.
It was in these dire straits that she wrote in to Xpress, a now-retired sister publication of Gulf News.
When reporters first met Shahra, - the Indian expat, a teenager back then was sitting in her one-bedroom Nad Al Sheba house surrounded by the accolades she won in school for sports and academics.
It also proved to be a turning point in her life. Within days of publishing her story, scores of Good Samaritans in the UAE stepped forward to help her.
The biggest support, however, came from Australia’s Murdoch University Dubai, which granted Shahra a 100 per cent scholarship in a three-year BSc Computer Science programme. This aid was worth Dh140,000.
Readers step in
In 2016, Shahra graduated with distinction in two majors: Computer Science and Business Information Systems. She also bagged the university’s prestigious Vice Chancellor’s award for academic excellence in Information Technology (IT).
That November, she landed a job as a lecturer at Murdoch university.
Shahra now works as programme coordinator for the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] streams of the Curtin Dubai Foundation Program. And she’s not done studying. She is working on completing her master’s degree -MSc. Information Technology (Software Systems) - and is preparing for her PhD in addition to other professional certifications.
She also has another mission, one she’s taken on from her mother, Fathima. “It was like a dream come true [this journey]. I still cannot believe it all happened for me so well. I just want to keep doing a good job and educate my siblings."
Fathima explained: “I always had a dream for my children to be educated. That happened with Shahra getting scholarship. Now she is helping to educate her brothers. I am proud of her."
Then and now
“Thanks to a scholarship and hard work, I was able to do it [take my mother's mission forward]. I will now help my brothers to become financially independent as well,” Shahra told Gulf News.
The sibling pride is evident. “One of my brother[s], Mohammad Jafar, has just graduated from Murdoch University with 75 per cent marks in BCom Finance and Management. He had some scholarship, the rest I pitched in, thanks to my job as a lecturer,” she said.
And the feeling is mutual. Mohammad, who is only a year younger than Shahra, said: “My sister is my inspiration. She never gave up and stayed positive through all the hard times we have been through. She is my idol.”
Their other brother, 17-year-old Majid Jafar, has “secured 80 per cent in science stream [and] has received 50 per cent scholarship to study BSc in cyber security at Curtin University. I will start funding his college now”, says Shahra.
Majid said he knows well what the chance Shahra was given has meant for his entire family. “I don’t know where we would have been had it not been for the break Shahra received. She valued what was given to her and she ensured she took the opportunity given to her with responsibility.”
He wants to do the same.
Fathima added: "She [Shahra] also told me that in her life she would like to help people who are in a situation like her. I hope that she will do this soon.”
It's a pet project she is working hard to achieve, says Dan Adkins, CEO, Transnational Academic Group (infrastructure provider for Curtin University Dubai) and Shahra’s mentor.
“She has shown the kind of person she is through all of the extra work she puts in helping at-risk students, providing tutoring and orientation to new faculty members, and through putting both of her brothers through university,” he said.
This is a family committed to making the most of every opportunity they come across and to help others navigate any choppy waters as well. Shahra’s mother, Fathima, says: She also told me that in her life she would like to help people who are in a situation like her. I hope that she will do this soon.” For giving, they believe, will not make you poor; it will leave you enriched.
Shahra’s journey: A timeline
1991: Sri Lankan Fathima comes to the UAE on a maid’s visa and falls in love with Indian Jafar Al Kader Ushen working as a public relations officer for an Emirati family in Dubai
1994-2004: Fathima marries Ushen while still working as a maid and they have three children - daughter Shahra and two sons.
2005: Shahra is 10 years old when Ushen dies in a car accident. The Emirati enrols Shahra and her brothers in Crescent English High School, pays for their education, arranges accommodation and gives them Dh2,000 per month to meet other expenses. [“I cannot thank the local sponsor of my father. They paid for my school education and my brothers up until the time I could start earning. They have continued to let us stay in a one-bedroom area of their house. That is such a massive saving for me. I am so grateful. The money I am saving on paying rent, I have been able to allocate that for my siblings’ education,” says Shahra.]
2006-2013: Shahra wins numerous medals and trophies in school but hits a road block after grade 12.
December 13, 2013: Xpress publishes report highlighting Shahra’s plight after she approaches the newspaper seeking help.
December 17, 2013: Murdoch University Dubai grants Shahra 100 per cent scholarship after reading the report and enrols her for BSc Computer Science programme.
January 2014: Shahra begins college at Murdoch University.
February 2016: Shahra wins the vice chancellor’s award for academic excellence.
March 2016: Shahra is all set to graduate after getting distinction in two majors.
November 2016: Shahra secures a job as a lecturer in Murdoch university. She begins to help pay for her brother's college education.
July 2019: Mohammad has graduated and is now on the lookout for a job. Shahra has enroled her other brother, Majid Jafar, at Curtin University where she is currently a lecturer. Majid has won himself a scholarship, the balance will be funded by his sister. A proud 55-year-old, Fathima retires and continues to live with her children in the UAE.