By Drew Broach
NOLA Media Group, New Orleans
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Masooda Khan is changing lives. Since opening the B&M English Medium School in 2016, it has grown from 65 students in three grades to 190 in five, with plans to continue adding one grade per year.
NOLA Media Group, New Orleans
Long after her husband died and their two children grew up and moved away, Masooda Khan decided to put her savings to good use.
The Metairie resident had socked away profits from her school uniform store off Veterans Memorial Boulevard, survivor benefits from her late husband’s Social Security, gifts from her entrepreneurial son and income from rental properties.
She would spend her savings, she concluded, in a way to honor her parents. But she would do it 8,800 miles from Metairie, in Shahpur, the village in east India where her mother was born and near the one where her father was born.
There Khan has singlehandedly paid to build, furnish and operate a free English language school for poor children. Since it opened in 2016, the B&M English Medium School has grown from 65 students in three grades to 190 in five, with plans to continue adding one grade per year.
Now at age 69, Khan, having put close to $250,000 into the school and hoping to sustain it for students past her lifetime, is organizing the school’s first fundraiser. It’s scheduled Sept. 14 in Metairie.
“My vision, my dream, is for them to become engineers, doctors, teachers, and one day to help not only their families but to help others,” Khan said in an interview.
That might well happen. In one of the world’s poorest countries, where 23 official languages are recognized and a plurality of residents speak Hindi, fluency in English remains a “marker of being middle class, of being employable,” said Jaita Talukdar, an associate professor of sociology at Loyola University and a native of Kolkata, India.
“You become quickly employable both in the country and globally. It is still a marker of status.”
Shahpur is in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal province, along India’s border with Bangladesh. There are other schools nearby, some privately operated and charging tuition and others run by the government, said Christopher Candland, an associate political science professor who specializes in south Asian studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
“But these are out of reach for the poor,” Candland said, “because even government schools charge fees, for examinations, for instance, and have other expenses such as uniforms and books that make them quite unaffordable.”
B&M English Medium School, however, is free to students. Khan hopes to keep it that way.
A diplomat’s daughter
Khan, known among her Indian American friends as Gulnar and to her store customers as Sue, was born in Salar, about 10 miles from Shahpur. Her father became a Pakistani diplomat, her mother a homemaker, and the family moved throughout her childhood to cities in the region: Karachi, Jakarta, Kabul, Yangon, Delhi and Kolkata.
She met her future husband, Abu Khan, a pediatrician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, while she was living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and he was there visiting his family. They married in 1972 and raised two children in Metairie: Farah, who is an IT professional, and Sal, the entrepreneur who founded and runs the Khan Academy free online education platform.
Her husband died in 1990, her father in 1992 and her mother in 2001. Still, Khan returned regularly to India and Pakistan to see family and friends. She bought a small piece of land in Shahpur, mostly as an investment, and during one of her trips began to think of a twofold purpose for it: to build a small house that she could use during her visits, and somehow to make a difference in the community.
“I was visiting, staying with a relative, and I saw all these kids running around barefooted, half naked, playing with dogs, stealing food — just doing nothing,” she said.
After first considering a medical clinic for poor women, she decided on a school. Except for some instruction in the Bengali language, all classes would be taught in English. It would be named B&M for her mother, Badrunnisa, and father, Masud.
After building and furnishing her house and the school, Khan hired a headmaster. Now the school has five teachers, each with one or two master’s degrees, as well as a security guard, janitor and gardener, she said. It opened with prekindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade classes, and has since added second and third grades.
Last year, the Internal Revenue Service certified Khan’s B&M English Medium School Inc. as a 501(c)(3) charity under the United States tax code. That makes contributions to it tax deductible.
An extreme remittance
It’s not unusual for successful Indian Americans to send money back to their native country. Talukdar, the Loyola professor, said remittance typically comes in the form of family support, charitable donations or sponsoring a child, but Khan seems to have taken it to an extreme.
“To be able to give back in this way is pretty commendable because it’s easy to say, ‘I’m done with that part of my life’,” Talukdar said. “When you move away, it’s very easy to see how privilege works, how poverty works. Some people chose to ignore it; some people choose to do something about it.”
Khan just hopes the upcoming school fundraiser will sell out. “It’s the best investment you can make,” she said.
The B&M School fundraiser is a luncheon scheduled Sept. 14 at Andrea’s restaurant in Metairie. Tickets cost $50 and must be purchased in advance by calling Khan at 504.729.7998.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.