How a generous effort by a Pakistani-American IT professional is helping meritorious orphans to excel in life.
Sitting attentively with his notebook, he listens silently to the teacher. Dressed in a black hoodie with bright yellow lining, he’s joined by about a dozen more of his classmates, most of them much more rambunctious than him, spread across the length of a corner sofa.
Murtaja Abidoun, 15, doesn’t say much, but has a shy smile when he speaks. Here he has friends. He enjoys playing games with them after school. His favorite class is English and he loves practicing taekwondo.
At home, Abidoun doesn’t have any siblings to grow up with. He lives with his mother, uncle and grandmother in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. And he says that he doesn’t remember his father, because he was just a baby when he died. For Abidoun, having a social circle and safe space is crucial to keeping him grounded.
And that’s exactly the type of space that Zeia Syed was hoping to create when he started the World Academy of Development – an attempt to help orphaned children in areas of the world facing poverty. Syed is the managing partner of an IT management consulting firm based in the United States that implements software solutions for mid- to large-scale clients, such as Bank of America, Union Bank, Toys R Us and Beckman Coulter. Hailing from a deeply religious and spiritual family, he says that the most valuable lesson he learned was through his parents.
“They taught me that from whatever money I earn in life, I own only a portion of it,” Syed explains. “There is a portion that belongs to a family member in need, a portion that belongs to widows and orphans and a portion that belongs to a general person in need. Knowing this, if I choose to keep all that I earn, then I will have actually usurped the property of another human being.”
His mother went on to cash the first paycheck he earned and then split it accordingly. He then started regularly contributing to a small programme that his parents ran in Pakistan which helped needy families with food and monthly provisions.
“I was then lucky enough to marry a woman who shared the same desire to help others,” he says, adding that she pushed him to start a new project. “We felt a desire to do something for those we felt were most in need, the most helpless of all beings – orphaned children.”
They reasoned that even homeless adults could at least fend for themselves, but an orphaned child is completely powerless. However, they wanted something different from the traditional “feed them and clothe them” model. They wanted instead to transform orphans into wealthy, philanthropic adults. And so the idea of the World Academy of Development was born.
“It is important to note that not one step, not even our initial desire to help these children would have been remotely possible without the help and intervention of our Creator,” says Syed. “Throughout this journey I have witnessed miracles in every step along the way.”
The initial donor base for the project consisted of other family members and friends, but soon expanded to include other people who believed in the cause. The first location was meant to be in Pakistan, but ended up coming together in Iraq. The academy first opened its doors in Karbala in 2015, but soon after another one opened in Taxila, Pakistan – just an hour north of Islamabad. And when recent plans to open an academy in Nigeria fell through over safety concerns, a new location emerged in Morocco. Syed recently visited the place to build the groundwork for the academy there, and says he hopes to open one on every continent.
With the stated goal of eradicating poverty at its source, these centres don’t give financial handouts. Rather, they serve to teach children English, maths, physics, character building, ethics, and martial arts. The Iraq location is an after-school programme, but the ones in Pakistan and Morocco are full-time schools with boarding facilities.
The Iraq academy aims to help the children build upon what they learn in school and assist them where they might be struggling, with all the locations attempting to give them a chance to become well-rounded individuals, with authority figures available to lean on in the absence of their own fathers.
Syed also created a unique business model to sustain the academies. The top administrators serve as volunteers and the founders pay all administrative costs, including bank fees, marketing and fundraising. And outside donations go towards all costs directly benefitting the students – including books, teacher salaries, rent, food, etc. Knowing that 100 percent of donations go towards the children also gives people more of a reason to donate.
This financial structure also attempts to balance helping the families while allowing them to maintain their dignity. The main idea behind the initiative is to help the children become role models in their own communities and become prosperous bread-winners and community leaders.
“Our goal is to have at least 70 percent of our graduates develop into wealthy, philanthropic leaders,” he says. “As they begin to earn money, they will strive towards opening, leading, and sponsoring their own respective academies. By multiplying our efforts in this way, we strive to permanently crush the cycle of poverty in impoverished areas of the world. It’s a long-term vision.”
These young teenagers come from different cities and tribes, but their mothers now live with the rest of their families in Karbala, meaning these children with different affiliations grow up together and become friends, which also serves as a societal unification method.
For the first group of children, the organisers approached a local school in Karbala that was catering specifically towards orphans. They explained the idea and mission of the project to the principal, asking for children who were fast learners and willing to sacrifice a lot of their time. They then chatted with the boys and spoke to their families, who eagerly agreed to participate.
Most of the boys were brought on in this way, and currently, the academy in Iraq has 19 children, who joined when they were between 12-14 years of age. But talks are in place to bring in around 10 more. The academy stays with the same group of children through college or until they are able to secure significant earnings.
Barely able to contain their excitement, many of the boys are full of energy, willingly participating in the day’s lesson. Mustafa Thamer, 15, is one of them.
“I love English because it’s the language of the world, and it empowers me,” he says beaming. He’s been at the school for four years since it first opened, and says he wants to be an architect when he grows up.
Born in Baghdad, Thamer moved with his mother and brothers to Karbala when he was 11 years old. “We didn’t live very well when we first came here and had to live with my grandpa, but we have our own house now,” he says.
Thamer is the third of four boys, and his father worked as a policeman until he died of a heart attack. His eldest brother is married and works at Earthlink. And his youngest brother likes to do parkour, even though it caused him to break his leg in an accident.
He says his dreams for the future include having a big home, owning lots of companies, having a big family and just being happy.
“It’s nice forming a relationship with the orphans,” says Ali Jassem Tekmaji, 28, who is an English teacher at the academy. “It’s just nice to help out, spend some time with them, help them to succeed and to follow their dreams.”
Tekmaji has been at the academy for just over a year. He was looking for a second job when the English teacher position opened up. He says he’s formed a strong bond with the children and has become like a big brother to them.
“We play together, have fun. They even call me or shoot me a text message outside of school times, and we’re friends now,” he says. “It’s especially important because some of them don’t have a friend or close family member.”
The academy tries to cater to each child’s personal growth. “For instance, if a kid wants to become a pilot – this is one of our future projects, but we have been working on it to some extent – is that we find academies for pilots around the world and connect our student with that academy,” says Tekmaji. “If another wants to be a doctor, we take him to the hospitals, let him see what’s going on, how the doctors are, what they’re doing, so he can eventually live his dream as a doctor. No other academy does this.”
In addition to academics, the school teaches the children morals and ethics for character building, using religious and secular leaders as role models. Though the academies are not religion based, they take into account and cater to the local communities. The school also teaches martial arts, and learning taekwondo gives the children physical exercise, while also teaching them discipline, self-control, and self-defence.
When bringing on new students, they are given a placement test, which differs by academy. If they pass the exam, and are in financial need to some extent, they are admitted, with the number one priority being that the child is an orphan.
Syed says it’s very hard to reject students who apply and don’t qualify, but adds that “we must constantly remind ourselves of the long-term vision so we don’t fall into the trap of ‘charity’. Our end goal is not for us to open academies, but rather to enable our students to open multiple academies of their own.”
“I like this academy because it has a nice plan,” says Abdallah Jassim, 16, who wants to be a pilot one day. “The plan is mixed with lessons in English, maths, ethics, and sports, and they help us with school.”
His father, who was a soldier for 25 years, died in 2008 when Jassim was only four years old. He now lives with his mother and two sisters. He speaks passionately when talking about the academy, and says that he likes that it works closely with the students’ main schools.
Though they are confined by their circumstances, the students now dare to dream. They excitedly talk about what they want to be when they grow up, which ranges from becoming doctors and dentists to engineers and pilots, even a veterinarian.
Murtaja Abidoun says he wants to become a heart surgeon someday. And he hopes to go abroad because of what he sees as limited options in Iraq.
This is a sad reality for many people in the country, including Islam Alaa, 25. He says that he has a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics, but there aren’t many job opportunities for graduates. He believes that education plays a central role in any country, and that it’s good to spread information and knowledge to as many people as possible. So he says he enjoys working with the orphans and helping them out. “I get the reward for it in this life and the hereafter,” he says.
The school also brings in teachers from abroad in an attempt to teach the children standard American English, and to ensure exposure to different cultures and backgrounds. The academy organises all the logistics for the teachers, including everything from work visas and flights to living arrangements and salaries.
Krystyna Matczak is from New York City. She was a part-time professor, who was also waiting tables to make ends meet when she went to teach at the Karbala location in October 2017.
Driven by a passion to serve children affected by war, she spent six months teaching English at the academy.
“Many children from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen will remain traumatised as adults. My father was one such child, though he fought through World War II Poland. I simply don’t want this to happen anywhere, anymore,” she says.
Matczak’s father passed away six months before she left for Iraq. When she heard about the academy through a job posting hosted by Teaching House, which certified her to teach English as a foreign language, she took up the opportunity.
“Living in Iraq was a culture shock, but Karbala was spiritually restorative, and I am grateful to have served the orphans,” she says. “The academy teaches academic subjects, but perhaps more importantly, fosters confidence in youths, trains them in morality, and nurtures them into the most complete expressions of their humanity.”
“While people will foreseeably continue to be traumatised, I sought what would result if we practiced a different way of relating,” she says. “At the academy I found that children of war, bereft of their fathers, could recover.”
According to the Iraqi Children Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in the United States, an estimated 800,000 children were orphaned by the end of the 2003 Iraq War, with the invasion by Daesh displacing more than 1.3 million children.
And in a country ravaged by decades of war, stability remains a precious commodity. The students – accustomed to their academy’s facilities, equipped with laptops and complete with a taekwondo studio – now attend classes at a temporary location.
The newest wave of protests that kicked off in October 2019 created security concerns that forced the academy to move to a safer space. Most of their schools have been shut down since the unrest began, so the academy is all the more important in filling the void of regular classes.
Tekmaji says that family members of the boys have called the academy to thank them for the project. They say the school has helped their child and their grades in school reflect it.
As part of the endeavour to create wealthy entrepreneurs, the school has adopted a system of financial transactions to teach fiscal responsibility. The students earn tokens through good grades or good behaviour, which they can then use to invest in extra school supplies, or hold onto in order to collect valuable prizes at the end of the year, including phones and tablets.
When asked about challenges, Tekmaji laughs and says: “Sometimes they get on your nerves. I come from my other job and am already tired, and then they start nagging and being stubborn, just being teenage boys. But then I get over it and know that they are generally very nice and loveable, and just good and respectful boys.”
He says a couple of them did come to the school with some bad habits like smoking, but the academy was crucial in helping them to stop. It’s not only helped keep these vulnerable young children out of trouble, it’s also offered a community of friends in which to grow and learn. Some days they will come together after classes and play football or just spend time together.
But one thing currently still missing from the academies, is girls.
“We firmly believe in the old adage: ‘teach a boy and you teach a man, teach a girl and you teach an entire generation’,” says Syed. “We wanted to perfect our model with respect to logistics including housing, security, etc. before embarking on the female student journey.”
He adds that the academy in Morocco has plans to start on day one with girls, with an ultimate plan to enroll girls at all of the locations.