How a Bangladeshi expat is providing aid to poor villagers suffering flood fury

Emirates Airline employee-turned-entrepreneur Nahida Khan is the guiding force behind the charitable foundation that helps poor villagers


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Thu 26 May 2022, 7:49 PM

Nahida Khan, a Bangladeshi expatriate, is a high-flying professional-turned-entrepreneur and philanthropist. For nearly quarter of a century, she served millions of passengers with a beaming smile 40,000 feet above the sea level, crisscrossing the globe in thousands of Emirates Airline flights.

Despite Khan’s high-flying job, her heart always beat for the poor and destitute people of her native Bangladesh. She launched the eponymous Nahida Khan Foundation to help her underprivileged compatriots back home.

A baby step

Khan weighs in on the germinal idea. “I’ve been involved in charity and development work since my formative years. As a young girl, I’d donate my books to poor students in our neighbourhood schools, much to the chagrin of my parents. However, soon they came around and would sponsor many poor children’s education,” she reminisces.

She looks back in wonder about her growing up years in Bangladesh, one of the densely populated countries in the world, which became a sovereign nation in 1971. “I was barely 11 years old when I visited my ancestral village of Islampur in Bangladesh’s Jamalpur district for the first time. I was fortunate to pay a visit to the village because soon it was devoured by the shifting Jamuna river (known as the Brahmaputra in India, which is located north of Jamalpur district). At such a tender age, I got a sense of the haves and have-nots as I came across hundreds of impoverished villagers who were staring at an uncertain future. I was deeply pained that while some of us were fortunate to enjoy a luxurious life, the vast majority have precious little to make both ends meet,” she says.

Jamalpur district lies on the Bangladesh-India border — next to the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya — and faces the flood fury of the mighty Brahmaputra every monsoon.

The hapless villagers have a harrowing time during monsoon, as Khan had experienced firsthand.

“Most of them don’t have basic civic amenities, such as uninterrupted supply of power. Their untold miseries moved me beyond belief. I took a vow that I’d help these poor people someday. My father, too, encouraged me to dedicate to this noble cause,” she says.

A lucky break

Lady luck smiled on her in 1996. Khan got a lucky break with Emirates Airline as a cabin crew, and she went to serve people from across the globe with a big smile.

In retrospect, her pleasant personality and heart of gold has been her biggest assets. Professional success never went to her head, and she never lost sight of her goal: how to stand by her destitute compatriots.

She was haunted by the recurring images of her fellow villagers’ homelessness year on year as the Jamuna river’s flood fury wreaked havoc.

Her philanthropic journey started in 2002 “when a severe flood in Islampur gobbled homes of hundreds of villagers and rendered them homeless”.

The horrific images deeply impacted her, as she immersed herself in a sustainable rehabilitation programme. “I started a programme for the flood-hit, including providing food for 100 children each from three separate villages such as Kulkandi, Moradabad and Pathoshi,” she says.

Saviour of the downtrodden

In 2005, Khan put her performance bonus by her employer, Emirates Group, to good use, as she bought a plot of land to provide a temporary shelter for 100 homeless villagers. “Initially, I helped the downtrodden villages by dipping into my monthly salary. I could visit my charitable projects at frequent intervals because my job allowed me to travel at the drop of a hat,” she adds.

However, Khan had a tough time in running her charity programmes. “There were innumerable obstacles — both financial and technical — in running these initiatives. I tried to overcome the challenges by registering my projects with the Bangladesh government’s ministry for social welfare,” she says.

Khan was clear from the outset how she would help the poor and the needy. “My intention is not to give handouts. I’d rather like to see them stand on their feet. Education and skills are the key to be self-reliant and able to live a life of dignity,” says Khan.

She has been running a free primary school for around 200 underprivileged children since 2015. She started a separate sponsorship programme and vocational training drive for meritorious pupils since 2005, and so far, 60 of them have availed the opportunity.

Around 360 villagers have received free medical treatment. She has been organising free medical camps for flood-hit villagers and supplying medicines, thanks to financial aids that are collected in Bangladesh and abroad. The funds come in handy during medical emergencies, such as organ failure among children and accidental injuries. Senior citizens and people of determination are eligible for free medical aid as well.

Khan is also focusing on women’s empowerment that helps them earn their livelihood. Data shows that 670 women are engaged in sewing and stitching and 60 of them are working in Bangladesh’s flourishing sector. The foundation distributes livestock, poultry, and cycle rickshaws to villagers to sustain their livelihood.

Khan is looking to expand her charity’s footprint beyond Islampur and Bangladesh. Several ambitious projects are on the anvil, such as training people on pisciculture, rural handicraft products that could be exported in international markets and earn foreign revenue.

Plans are afoot to start computer courses for youth, which will help them join the information technology sector.

A unique tourism programme — travellers from across the world are being tapped to visit the flood-hit villagers — is also in the works.

Tourists can get involved in farming on nature’s lap, visit the charitable school and vocational training programme for women.

Rude career jolt

Khan’s career suffered a setback after the Covid-19 pandemic struck two years ago. “As luck would have it, I lost my dream job. However, I took solace in my father’s last words before he passed away in 2013. He had told me that don’t be afraid of walking alone for good deeds. ‘I may not be around, but you continue to work for humanity. I’m leaving you in the hands of the Almighty Allah and you will always be taken care of’,” she recalls. However, Khan has been unfazed, albeit the rude career jolt. She has found new ways to support her cherished foundation.

Last year, she entered the real estate market as a broker after obtaining her professional training and official licence from the Dubai Land Department. “I’ve started making money to support the foundation. Hopefully, I’d be able to help my foundation grow,” she adds.

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