Canadian expat on how Dubai inspired her to help educate slum children in India

Dubai: Around 300 children in India are now studying in an open-air school initiative facilitated by a Dubai resident.

Canadian national Zel Ali is committed to underprivileged children’s education and wellbeing projects, thanks to the huge inspiration that she has drawn from Dubai, the city she has been calling home for over two decades.

Passion for Compassion

“Dubai has one tagline for me. It’s the roadmap of my passion for compassion. This is where I started it. So it means a lot to me,” Ali told Gulf News.

Coming from a diplomatic family of Afghan origin, Ali had lived in India and Canada prior to settling in the UAE.

“Dubai was an ideal home for us due to its values of diversity and cultural integration, which align with our beliefs. Transitioning from Canada to Dubai was smooth because both places value multiculturalism and acceptance. Dubai holds a special place in my heart as it is where my boys were born, where I began my career, and where my passion for compassion developed,” said the mother of two.

Ali’s journey from working in advertising and PR to philanthropy was inspired by a series of life experiences that led her to the next phase, she said.

While running a PR firm that she had founded, Ali witnessed multinational brands’ commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. It sparked her interest in charitable activities. And Dubai government’s own initiatives like Dubai Cares gave her a direction towards the field of education.

Dubai holds a special place in my heart as it is where my boys were born, where I began my career, and where my passion for compassion developed.

– Zel Ali, Dubai-based PR executive and philanthropist


As she got involved in philanthropic activities with nonprofit organisations and NGOs, Ali said she saw philanthropy as her true purpose. “I felt that excitement in me and I started realising that I wasn’t actually doing it for the causes. I was doing it for how fulfilled I felt. I was doing it for the changes I was bringing in.”

Driven by a desire for personal fulfillment and a commitment to positive change, Ali eventually joined the boards of some of those organisations. Her transition to philanthropy allowed her to utilise her expertise and network to make a positive difference in the world.

The India connection

Owing to her husband’s roots and her father’s diplomatic career, Ali had strong connections with India.

“I got involved in a school there where I treated it like a corporation, focusing on turnkey solutions and not taking ownership. My initial goal was to make a difference. I started participating in food programmes and realised the medical needs of the children. I also got involved in initiatives related to the welfare of kids in de-addiction centres,” Ali recalled.

This journey with around five projects lasted for about five years and Ali felt they had a profound impact on her, similar to when she became a mother. “Education became a natural focus for me as I had a strong passion for empowering children and it was easier to provide access compared to other areas that involved more legal complexities,” she said.

Open-air school

Among her philanthropic initiatives, she holds the open-air school initiative in India the closest to her heart. It was just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that Ali got connected to the project that is empowering around 300 slum children living in nearby clusters of slums in East Delhi.

It was started by a young MBA student, Satyendra Pal, a slum child himself who had self-educated and received a scholarship to a prestigious university.

“He had started tutoring underprivileged children from the slums in open classrooms, under the concrete slabs of a metro flyover. When I saw the photographs of these open-air classes for the poorest of poor children, I was deeply moved and decided to support the initiative,” said Ali.

Hundreds of kids study in batches. Dozens of students move in and out as their families relocate from slum to slum. Also, theirs was the only school that remained open during the Covid pandemic as they just had to sit a little further away from each other to keep social distance and use masks and sanitiser

Supporting slum kids

The open-air school that Pal named “Panchsheel Shiksha Sansthan” found a new patron in Ali, who started calling it “School of Hope”.

“She has been supporting us ever since with teachers’ salary, school uniforms and other monthly expenses. We are indeed grateful for her support and kindness in coming down personally to visit us whenever possible,” he told Gulf News from Delhi.

Ali flies down every six weeks to visit the students and spends over a week working to improve their situation.

“People that I have taken with me get shocked seeing how poor these children’s families are. They have to walk for a few kilometres, crossing the busy roads to reach the nearest government school. The young children who get basic education here go on to enroll in the government schools when they become big enough to do that. But, they also come back here for afternoon tuitions.”

Taking a step forward

Ali said she has not been content with providing only the teachers’ salaries, their clothes, slippers, uniforms, books, stationery and sponsoring their celebrations.

“These families don’t have electricity and proper drinking water. The slums they live in on the banks of the river Yamuna get flooded during rains. These children need medicines, and nutritious food. We are helping them improve their lives with solar lighting and clean water.

“There are three makeshift classrooms now. We are working on building more structures for their classrooms. I make sure that we take one step forward. We are going to register into a foundation and we hope we can give them permanent schools called “Schools of Hope” and provide more opportunities for these children,” said Ali.

Supporting refugee kids

Another initiative that Ali is proud to be a part of is the UNHCR Solidarity Circle. As a member of this group, she collaborates with other leaders, philanthropists, and individuals to support the education of refugee children through the UNHCR’s Aiming Higher initiative, which sponsors higher education for refugee youth globally.

Ali believes that education is crucial in providing refugees with the opportunity to live as human beings, experiencing love, care, respect, and dignity.

“I think a lot of people underestimate the need for education for the underprivileged… We think food, medicine and clothing will be enough for them. And the world is offering that a lot. But we’re not thinking what will happen in several years down the line; education is needed to ensure a better future for them.”

Ali believes in the power of individuals to make a positive impact in the world and wishes to see more individuals devoting time for impactful philanthropic activities.

“Globally, only three per cent of refugee kids have access to higher education and the aim is not very high. It is to literally reach 15 per cent of them in the next five to 10 years and that is already a challenge. That is how behind they are and we are talking about just basic access to education that everybody can contribute for.”

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