Mohammed Abdulla, 11, walks the half a kilometre distance to his school everyday. He cannot afford to pay the school bus fee but he is happy that he still gets to go to school — and for free.
But this may soon be a thing of the past for Mohammed and his five siblings as well as the other poor Pakistani students who rely heavily on the goodwill of others for their simple needs.
Their villa school, New Al Hilal Private School, closed down last week as part of the Abu Dhabi Education Council’s (Adec’s) emirate-wide plan to shut down all schools operating from residential premises by 2013.
Mohammed’s father, Alaa Ditta, is a labourer of a small construction company that pays him between Dh100 and Dh150 a day. That is if there is work.
“He has nothing. They don’t even have food to eat, so I allowed his children to study here for nothing,” said Shahnaz Sultana, owner of the closed down school.
Mohammed Iqbal lost his grocery business two years ago and is now, together with his family, living with his brother. As a salesman, earning only Dh1,800 a month, he cannot afford to pay the school fees of his three boys in KG1 to Grade 2. For Sultana, it is not new. She has helped educate students for free or for any amount parents could afford to pay her.
“One parent said I cannot afford the fees, I said no problem, send them to me... At least I get to educate their children a little bit, they learn their ABCs and how to count,” she said.
The school, which catered to low-income families for 22 years, charged between Dh125 and Dh150 a month as tuition fees on average and Dh25 to Dh150 as bus fees.
On his own, Isaac Hakim cannot afford his kids’ education. His Dh4,500 income as a truck driver is not enough to cover 10 of his 15 children’s school fees, their house rent and other bills. He got Dh6,000 assistance from the Red Crescent last year and paid an additional Dh4,000 to the school.
With the closure of New Al Hilal, finding a school management that would be as understanding as Sultana is a dilemma.
“If I shift school, how can I pay the fees? I have no other option,” said Hakim, who like other parents, are counting on Sultana to come to come up with a solution. Awal Mir, an Imam at a private mosque, also received Dh3,000 assistance from the Red Crescent last year. But with five school-age children, his paltry Dh1,000 monthly income is not sufficient to send them to school elsewhere. According to Sultana, she has been in touch with the Al Ettehad Private School, which offers similar Pakistani curriculum, to accommodate 200 of her students, including 30 of the 50 students who cannot afford to pay their school fees.
However, when some parents enquired at the school, they were disheartened to learn that they cannot pay the same fees as before.
Dr Afsar Khan, owner of Al Ettehad, confirmed that some parents from New Al Hilal made enquiries with his school but he has not committed to absorb all 200 students.
“The school is open for anyone who comes. Our admissions are open as long as seats are available,” he told Khaleej Times.
Al Ettehad currently has over 570 in its rolls but has the capacity to accept up to a thousand students. With regard to the 30 free-of-charge students, he was non-committal. “Each school has a policy and it is the discretion of the management to give them either 50 per cent discount or free,” Dr Khan said. When their case was raised with the Adec, a statement from the School Improvement Division, Private Schools and Quality Assurance Sector said: “The Adec believes that the students gaining free education were provided that benefit by the owner of their previous school. The Adec cannot expect new private investors to also provide that but, equally, there is nothing to prevent the previous owner or other individuals or organisations in providing support for this community.”
Al Ettehad classes already started on April 1 and the new academic year for the replacement school — Oasis International School — will start on April 8. Time is running fast for the 280 students of New Al Hilal who has yet to find placements.