Returning to Grassroots
By Shaahidah Riza
The happy chatter of children fill the atmosphere in an education centre in Kattankudy, sheltered from the blistering rays of the sun. A positive vibe engulfs this institution, known as Hope Centre where students and teachers alike, enjoy the indoor garden whilst engaging in educational activities.
OPEN Education Centres (OEC) provide a unique opportunity for students to engage in educational activities that supplement their school education and also open doors to broaden their proficiency in areas of arts, culture and technology. Hope Centre is a component of this franchise. A brainchild of Dr. Seyed Alavi Sheriffdeen, the OEC franchise is open to students from myriad backgrounds. The franchise comprises four other similar institutions, including OPEN Centre for Education, Empowerment Centre for Education, SMILE Centre for Education and Peace Centre for Education. A unique feature of these education centres is that they function as recreational and academic centres, which provide students with support in their school education and also teach them life skills. The education centre also facilitates parent-teacher meetings, a concept that is foreign in the Eastern Province education sector.
"We try to finish the school textbooks in advance, so that we can focus on skills development. We inculcate a strict regimen on etiquette and discipline, and provide them with the confidence to be adaptable to any circumstance," Dr. Sheriffdeen remarked. "In the beginning we had a few hiccups as the parents were not exposed to this level of sophistication. But, when they observed the attitudinal change in their children, who were being trained on maintaining cleanliness and order, they fully support this venture. Many of them were from a very poor background, due to the war, and were also malnourished. They need a clean and comfortable environment away from their parents, to diligently engage in studies."
Dr. Sheriffdeen utilized expert advice to develop the conceptual plan of the franchise, and invested in unique architectural design. With an indoor garden, and state-of-the-art technological resources, the students enjoy comfort when they engage in their educational activities. The entire franchise has about 500 children in its care.
The Eastern Province, where Kattankudy is located, was ravaged by the three-decade-long war. This hampered the education of the children in the region, some were bereft of a systematic school education, whilst others who enjoyed this luxury, did not have the same educational resources which their peers in other parts of the country enjoyed.
Dr. Sheriffdeen, who was born and bred in Manchanthoduwai, a small village adjacent to Kattankudy, was also a victim of war. He was not more than 24 years of age, when his father and little brother were gunned down by the LTTE, whilst they were observing their prayers, which is now known as the Kattankudy mosque massacre. The family lost its breadwinner and shelter as they became displaced and moved from their native village. The burden of taking care of his widowed mother and siblings fell on young Sheriffdeen's shoulders. Whilst continuing his law studies, he prioritized the welfare of his family. However, the political and the ethnically motivated riots that prevailed in Sri Lanka was not a conducive environment to facilitate his education further. As a result, he explored options abroad, and went on a scholarship to Deakin University, Australia.
Two Masters Degrees in Education and Information Systems and a Doctorate in Education later in Australian universities, Dr. Sheriffdeen decided to make a substantial contribution to the education for children of the place where he grew up. In 2003, and the subsequent years, he had been making sporadic visits to Sri Lanka. During this time he initially set up a scholarship fund to support needy students out of his personal coffer. These students were from various parts of the Island.
"I gave these scholarship funds to those whose progress can be monitored. I didn't just give them the money and walked away. If I plant a tree, I want to see the tree growing; I want to see it bear fruit, even if I don't get to eat it. Over the years, I learned lessons and consulted my friends who are involved in such community projects in Sri Lanka and overseas. Drawing from their experience, I felt that I had to change the mode of operations," he said.
Since 2009, his visits to the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka became more frequent as he explored the needs of the community. Setting up own education centres was felt as an urgent need of the community to make any impact. With his myriad of educational qualifications, Dr. Sheriffdeen, who has a long teaching career in Australia and other countries, is armed with his background in academia, chose the education sector as it was the most non-controversial, yet crucial sector to invest his time and money into.
Explaining further he said, "I had an urge to come back and do something substantial to the place where I was born. Especially when I see corrupt politicians, and failing development initiatives, I noticed that education was increasingly becoming a commodity where innocent people are cheated and expected quality education is not being delivered. Therefore, based on my long observation, with consultation of my wide network of friends and expertise, I planned and established five education centres in the East." Apart from locals, people from Australia, Germany, Singapore, Netherlands, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Fiji, Turkey and the UK have visited these educational centres.
He refers to this project as a business, where he charges the students with a nominal fee to pay part of expenses. He believed that it would ensure continuity and will therefore be valued by the community. He also explored the tuition institutes in the region and realized that their services were disingenuous and exploited the naivety of the people.
In 2010, a year after the war ended Dr. Sheriffdeen established his first centre. Drawing a picture of contrast in his visits during the war with his post war experience, he explained that the journey from Colombo to the Eastern Province was hassle free and bereft of the obstacles that were prevalent during the war time. He chose the Eastern Province to set up his first education centre due to the familiarity he had with the environment and the people. But, why focus on the Eastern Province, alone? Perhaps, he fostered a sense of responsibility to the place he grew up in. Maybe, he felt that he owed the people of the Eastern Province. Dr. Sheriffdeen's response was an emphatic no.
"I don't look into such aspects. Wherever we go, we have to do good for the people. I don't limit my community work to one community, region, or to a single ethnic/religious group. It is directed to all who needs it. If I decided to base my project in another part of the Island away from the Eastern Province, especially in the aftermath of the war, I would be treated with suspicion or would be forced to deal unnecessary bureaucratic procedures, which would hinder my work," he explained.
Dr. Sheriffdeen proudly remembers his parents, past schools, teachers, universities, friends and mentors who contributed to honing his thoughts and outlook in life. He added that his Islamic faith and experiences and knowledge he has learned in Australia have taught him to serve humanity and not to harm anyone on Earth, but to work for the wellbeing of humanity and not for any particular group.
His aim is to produce at least 100 other people with the same passion and goal to serve communities and people that are disadvantaged. He initially funded the education centre through his personal account, due to the success of it, many from his wide network of friends decided to chip in as well. Dr. Sheriffdeen welcomes anyone who wants to contribute to his projects to deliver quality education. He strongly believes that poverty shouldn't prevent anyone from being educated. He finds his resource people for the institute locally, and would subject them to a thorough interview. He also facilitates education experts from overseas. Many such experts have visited his centres.
Handing over the reins
Despite all his investment, Dr. Sheriffdeen does not want to wield his position as the founder 'forever'. He explained that the institution focuses on creating, highly skilled, determined and talented individuals who will take the reins after him. "We want people who are out of the clutches of racism, sincere, dedicated, and hardworking individuals to be part of our team. I am not after money. I don't need so much money anyway. I can take care of the basic infrastructure. The institution is of high quality. Therefore, I need top strategic planners to handle these, including educators, language specialists, and empowerment experts," he said. The need for such resource persons is dire, as the three decade war prevented the existing resource people from garnering superior skills. A man of fiery personality, he keeps a close eye on his students and his staff, lest the quality of his hard work and investment is compromised much to the detriment of the plethora of students attending. Thus, he assesses the success in the number of students retained over the years.
"My focus is empowering youth through education by broadening their network to make them to take active roles in the nation building process, so they will construct and lead a decent civil society in future. So we take extreme care in academic excellence, personal development/ leadership skills and discipline. If a child underperforms academically, we will assist that child, but we will not tolerate indiscipline," Dr. Sheriffdeen said.
With all the investment of sweat, money and time, put into this venture, he is confident that it can sustain in the future. He is also willing to assist others who are interest in replicating this model in other regions. The institutes have been progressing for seven years, will Dr. Sheriffdeen, hand over his 'baby' to another?
'Yes', he responds, with a smile, "when I find the right, dedicated and hardworking person who can serve the community effectively, God willing."
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