Maria Cristina Foundation is a charity set-up by a Portuguese-national to break the cycle of poverty of hundreds of children, youth and adults living in the slums of Bangladesh.

It all started in 2005 when Maria Conceição set foot on the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka while on a 24-hour break as a part of her job with the Emirates airline company. Used to travel to luxurious destinations frequented by the rich and famous, Maria was appalled by what she saw in Dhaka. The desperate struggle that slum-dwellers have to face on a daily basis motivated her to take action and make plans for what would become the Maria Cristina Foundation.

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Over one million people live in Dhaka’s slums, according to the latest census. © Maria Cristina Foundation

Maria Conceição was inspired by the example of the woman who raised her after her mother’s death. This woman took care of Maria even though she had six kids of her own to feed. Named after her adoptive mother and role model, the Maria Cristina Foundation has been in operation for 12 years now and provided education to over 600 Bangladeshi children and adults. The majority of those children, especially girls, would never have got past fourth grade without the foundation’s support.

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Many Bangladeshi girls under 14 are forced to marry and have children. ©Maria Cristina Foundation

The cast system is prevalent in Bangladesh, according to the foundation, and society still relies on many out-dated social norms. “These norms confine and limit women in what they could become, sentence girls younger than 14 to marriage and motherhood and allow the slum-dwellers to see themselves as the lowest of the low”, states the charity in a press release.

Their goal is to break the cycle of poverty through education. And they are also doing that by training children’s parents to get a better job and sometimes even start their own businesses. More income means that parents can provide for their families without the children working.

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Teaching parents the importance of education is part of the foundation’s mission. ©Maria Cristina Foundation

Maria Cristina Foundation currently supports 131 students, who go to one of the best-renowned private schools in Bangladesh, where they study side-by-side with children from wealthier families.

In May, 12 students graduated from high school and were the first in their families to do so. Four of them have won scholarships to study in Bangladesh, UK, USA and Canada while others are planning to go to university or have already found good jobs to support themselves.

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Maria Cristina Foundation currently supports 131 students. ©Maria Cristina Foundation

From Mount Everest to the English Channel in the name of philanthropy

Maria abandoned her career as a cabin crew working for the Emirates airlines company, but her job didn’t get any easier. On the contrary, it has been a real struggle raising funds for the education of hundreds of people. “In the early days there seemed to be an abundance of money in Dubai, but when the recession came, donations and funding disappeared almost overnight,” Maria says.

This pushed her to take desperate measures to raise awareness and make public appeals for help. In 2010 Maria summited Mount Kilimanjaro, which didn’t get the attention she expected. A year later she made a successful trek to the North Pole and in 2013 became the first Portuguese woman to summit Mount Everest. Since then she has run several ultra-marathons on every continent, holding six Guinness World Records. This year, on August, Maria has attempted to swim the English Channel, but after seven hours fighting against strong currents she was forced to stop.

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Students holding photos of Maria’s challenges. ©Maria Cristina Foundation

Maria had no training nor any particular athletic inclination before embarking on these challenges. As a matter of fact, she only learned to swim a year before the Channel crossing. Every challenge Maria takes is for fundraising, but ultimately what she wants is to give a positive message for children in slums: no matter what the expectations of people or society, you can always achieve a whole lot more. cgparkas


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