SINGAPORE: Into his freshman year at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Mr Sazzad Hossain is busy juggling the demands of his engineering course – and running his own school that has so far taught English to some 5,000 migrant Bangladeshi workers.
Even more ambitiously, the 23-year-old is aiming to double that number to 10,000 in a year’s time. That has meant running between lectures at school; teaching classes at SDI Academy’s various locations; and visiting worker dormitories to hand out flyers, even on a public holiday.
There’s barely time for a break. Huddled over his laptop right after attending a lecture, he’s on the phone with a supplier. “I think there has been a misunderstanding on your side... I need it urgently,” he said. He’d just found out that the printers had delivered the wrong flyers for an upcoming outreach event.
Naturally, his family worries over the impact all this could be having on his studies.
“I am supportive of his idea of helping migrant workers, I’m just not supportive that he wants to do it in the middle of his education,” said his 17-year-old sister Mosammat Nazmun Nahar.
Mr Sazzad, who founded his social enterprise when he was 18 and in junior college, admitted: “My ‘A’ Level results were nowhere near what I’d expected, and most importantly, nowhere near where my parents expected it to be.
Because of that there was a bit of tension at home. My parents were not very happy that I was devoting so much time to SDI Academy.
“But I think that my age is the best time to start something – focus on social impact, rather than thinking about how much salary I’m getting,” he told On The Red Dot, for a series about Oddballs, young Singaporeans who chose to follow their hearts and live unusual lives. (Watch the episode here.)
Mr Sazzad stirred much buzz when his efforts to help Bangladeshi workers learn English first came to light. (Read more about ‘Dr English’ in this earlier story.)
He was 11 when his family moved to Singapore to join his father who was working as an electrical engineer. Although he had attended one of the top schools in Bangladesh, in Singapore he was forced to start at Primary 4 because of his poor command of English. He went on to score an A in English at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).
Through casual encounters with Bangladeshi workers, he learnt how communication was a huge issue for them, resulting in sometimes serious injuries at work. He began giving informal lessons around a park bench.
Today those small beginnings have grown into a massive social enterprise, with classes held at five locations, including at Yale-NUS College. They are run by eight part-time teachers, two full-time staff and 200 volunteers.
My dream is that we empower all the migrant workers in Singapore.
“We want to expand to all the dormitories and organise a lot more events,” he said.
The importance of being fluent in English as a migrant here is something Mr Sazzad’s father understands well. But still, Mr Mohammad Shahid Ullah was torn over whether his son was paying the price for teaching others.
“He spent too much time, night time also he could not sleep… That’s why we worry,” he said.
I told him, you do this one later. Build up your career first then you continue, no problem,
But his son was stubborn. “He is too interested to help people, that’s why he could not stop,” said Mr Shahid.
These days, while they still think his chosen path “weird”, they recognise the impact that SDI Academy has had. During Hari Raya, they invited the students and staff of the academy to their home for Bengali food.
Said Mr Sazzad: “My mother cooked all the dishes... I think that is her way of showing her support for the cause.”
Watch: His story (3:33)
Mr Sazzad says that his ultimate goal is for SDI Academy to be an orientation programme that every migrant worker has to go through upon arrival in Singapore.
This would include lessons on culture norms, safety rules and regulations, which are “very important”. “It could make a difference in life-and-death situations,” he said.
One of those students whose lives the English lessons have changed is Mr Ejaj Ahmmed. Who came to Singapore five years ago with little understanding of local conversational English.
“Now, I can explain to my boss about my job condition, I can explain to doctors about my problems,” the 24-year-old said.
I even have more Singaporean friends. Before, I was very scared to talk to Singaporeans.
It also opened another door for Mr Ejaj – after graduating from SDI Academy in 2015, he is now pursuing a diploma at PSB Academy. “I didn’t imagine that I can study in Singapore. But if you try, you can do it in Singapore,” he said.
Other graduates of SDI Academy who have gone back to Bangladesh are also “doing really well”, said Mr Sazzad.
“In times of difficulties, a lot of success stories from our students really motivated me to continue the journey,” he said.
Watch this episode of On The Red Dot here on Toggle.