Meet a Mumbai couple whose hearts are so big that they emptied out their entire savings to help feed the poor and needy during the COVID-19 pandemic
"If Indians see people in a crisis around them they will come forward to help those in need; whatever they can offer. You just need to step out and see. You will see people like us everywhere: helping those in need," says Mizga Shaikh, the principal of a small school in Malwani, north west Mumbai. The Zeal English School caters to some 350 underprivileged students at a nominal monthly fee.
Mizga and her husband Faiyaz, who works at a perfumes and cosmetics company, and from whose employees' provident fund account the couple has withdrawn Rs 5 lakh in the last four months just so that they can feed the poor and the needy in their neighbourhood and Mumbai, laugh heartily, almost joyously despite his empty EPF account, when one reminds them of do deewane shahar main/raat ya dopahar main/aabodana dhoondte hai/ek aashiyana dhoondte hai, the well-known song from the Hindi film Gharonda.
"We don't know what the future holds for us. But now we are going with the flow. Whatever comes our way we are happy to embrace it," says Mizga when asked about their dream home.
That Rs 5 lakh was meant to make the down payment to get a home loan to buy a home that they had been wanting to buy for themselves and their children, Aliza and Izaan.
They were all set to do so, but then COVID-19 struck and with it exposed hundreds of people, most daily wagers leading a hand-to-mouth existence, parents of children who studied in Mizga's school, in their locality who were left to fend for themselves without any means of livelihood due to the extended lockdowns in Mumbai.
So, when help from NGOs and other contacts these couple could get in touch with dried up, the couple decided to do the unthinkable: dDip into Faiyaz's PF savings to feed those without any mean of survival.
As word spread about their good deed, blessings began to pour from all corners of the country. Word also spread how the couple is helping the poor and the needy. So, the calls from those in need of rations, food kits, etc have also begun to multiply.
One such call also came from Mahindra and Mahindra Chairman Anand Mahindra who offered to deposit Rs 4 lakh in Faiyaz's personal account as a gesture of appreciation for the selfless work the couple has been doing.
"Mr Mahindra said I can keep that amount in my personal account and continue what I am doing. While I am overwhelmed by his generous gesture I told him I cannot keep that money for myself, but will spend it on the needy shall the need arise," says Faiyaz.
Ask him about his home for his children and he says, "We leave it to almighty Allah. Let Him give us only what we deserve. No more."
"Any house in Mumbai is a dream house. Even if I were to live in a shanty in this city, that too would be a dream house," adds Mizga.
While donations have been coming in from across India the money is far too less to meet the growing cries of help from not just their immediate neighbourhood, but from across the city, says Faiyaz.
"As Indians, as human beings, we should work together to help bring succour to the underprivileged and those less fortunate than we are. The children who are the future of our country, our world, should get the best education irrespective of their religion, caste or financial condition. It's only then we can make India and the world, a better place to live in," says Mizga.
Mizga and Faiyaz spoke with Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com about their motivation and the help they are getting for their noble work.
What inspired you to help the poor during COVID-19?
Mizga Shaikh: When the pandemic happened, the country was under a sudden lockdown. Nobody was prepared about how to deal with it financially.
Most of our pupils come from below poverty line families. 90 per cent of these people work as daily labourers.
They go out every day, earn their living and get food on the table for themselves and their children.
They were able to sustain their lives for the first few days after the lockdown. But once their means of income and savings started getting exhausted, these parents and our pupils started calling us for help.
Some didn't have rations at home and so were going hungry.
When we did a survey on our own we realised that the situation was very, very, pathetic; some of our students had slept without food for two days or more.
We told ourselves that we need to do something about their situation. At least help them with daily rations or food.
That was our motivation and then we started contacting non-government organisations and other contacts we had for help.
Initially, these NGOs provided us with readymade khichdi; some offered ration kits. This continued for about two months, but the lockdown continued beyond April-May.
And the needs of these people were immense; they were sitting home without any work and so no income.
Their savings, whatever little they had, was over.
The NGOs we were seeking help from were also stretched with the load they were facing. So, at that time, my husband and I decided that we had no other alternative but withdraw funds from his employees provident fund.
The funds in my PF account were for buying a house for our family. We wanted to use that money as down payment for our house and the balance would have come from a home loan we were planning to take.
Faiyaz Shaikh: We started diluting that amount (the PF fund) by giving ration to the needy; slowly and gradually, without us realising, we had spent about four-and-a-half lakh from my PF account. And it's still going on.
If you continue this way, you will soon exhaust all your PF savings...
Mizga Shaikh: It's almost exhausted (both laugh); it's almost exhausted.
He had Rs 5 lakh in his PF account and today we are almost done with that (both laugh again).
So, what next? What happens after that? Will you stop helping the poor once these funds are over?
How do you plan to continue to help the poor and needy after your funds are exhausted, which I am sure they will soon?
Fayaz Shaikh: You know what? When the media started covering our story, from the first day our report was published, from the same day we started getting calls from people across India.
So many people were blessing us and a few actually started donating to us to keep up with what are doing.
We had paused a little for want of funds, but after getting the donations we began providing food and rations to the poor in Ambujwadi, Malwani.
Yesterday (July 27) we gave food to 150 families worth Rs 80,000 that would help them feed themselves for the next eight to 10 days at least.
While donations are pouring in from across the country they are not much. The number of people calling us for food and rations has gone up substantially over the last three-four months.
Only yesterday (July 27) India's legendary businessman Anand Mahindra called us and offered to help. He was so generous and kind-hearted that he offered to transfer Rs 4 lakh that I have spent from my PF account into my personal account.
He said I can keep that amount in my personal account and continue what I am doing. While I am overwhelmed by his generous gesture I told him that I cannot keep that my money for myself, but will again spend it on the needy shall the need arise.
On the one side I am getting calls from people across India blessing us for our deed and on the other hand we are also getting calls from the needy asking us for food and rations.
Tell us about the home that you have dreams of buying for which you have no down payment money now.
Faiyaz Shaikh (laughs): To be very frank, right now the feeling is we are having two families: The families that we have at our home; the other family is the people who, despite all their financial and existential odds, come to educate themselves at our school.
These children, their parents and the needy community around us are our second family. We cannot abandon them in these times.
So, whatever we are doing, we are doing it for our second family. That's it.
We want to know about the home you have dreams about.
Faiyaz Shaikh: We live it to almighty Allah. Let Him give us only what we deserve. No more.
Mizga Shaikh (laughs): Any house in Mumbai is a dream house. Even if I were to live in a shanty in this city that too would be a dream house.
We have two children -- daughter Aliza, 13, and son Izaan, 10 -- in our family, so obviously we are planning to buy a small house, maybe a one-room or two-room apartment, whatever we can afford at this stage in our lives.
Our affordability depends on the home loan we would be eligible for (laughs).
At present, we are staying in a rented house.
How did your children react to your decision to spend your PF savings on feeding the poor?
Mizga Shaikh: Actually, nobody was aware about what we were doing and how we were funding it.
Nobody in our families was aware that we were dipping into our savings to do what we are doing.
Faiyaz Shaikh: Now because of the media stories they have come to know about what we are doing. We are glad we have received genuine appreciation and support from our parents and our children too.
Faiyaz Shaikh: Now, it's up to God; with God's good wishes, Insha Allah, we will buy our dream home one day.
Mizga Shaikh: We don't know what the future holds for us. But now we are going with the flow. Whatever comes our way we are happy to embrace it.
Let's see when we will buy our house. See, planning doesn't work; that we have experienced.
It's God's will that gives us the courage and the strength to do what we are doing.
It was God's will that we spend my husband's PF money for His own people. In that sense, the timing, you can say, was perfect. We are glad that money is being spent for an important purpose.
Could you tell us about the school that you run?
Mizga Shaikh: That is our second family. I am running the school for underprivileged children for the last ten years. Our motto was never to make financial gains from the school.
We charge Rs 100 per month for Jr KG students and the maximum we charge for Class 10 is Rs 350 per month.
We want to cater to these children so that they get better education and they have a better future. That has always been our school's motto.
Only last year we had our first batch of six SSC (Secondary School Certificate) students pass out with decent marks. Three out of these six are now studying in colleges and have plans to pursue studies till graduation.
Right now, we have 350 students studying from Jr Kg to Class 10 in our school.
Mizga Shaikh: Yes, that's true. They don't have enough to make ends meet so how can they pay the fees?
We have waived their fees for three months at least. Let us see what happens from here.
While we are providing online classes to students who have the means to do so, we are also supporting them offline.
As of now, we are not calling students to school. What we do is write notes in a book and we call parents in groups of ten, turn by turn, and give these notes to them for a week.
We have made a WhatsApp group for every standard and teachers upload educational pictures, graphs, audios and videos in these groups so that children can learn at home without having to spend on costly hardware like computers or an Internet connection.
Based on this study material, children are given home work. A week later, parents come with this homework to the teacher for correction. The teachers after correction gives home work and study material for the following week.
How are you paying teachers if you don't earn any fee income from your students?
Mizga Shaikh: We have to pay them. They also come from the same socio-economic background. We are paying them. They are also dependent upon us for their incomes in a staggered manner. We have also not cut their salaries given their financial condition.
Values that you have cherished all your life...
Mizga Shaikh: I can only say that all Indians have a big heart.
If they see people in crisis around them they will come forward to help those in need; whatever they can offer. This value is cherished by many, many Indians like us.
You just need to step out and see. You will see people like us everywhere: helping those in need.
For us, humanity is the value we cherish and I have come across so many inspiring people who have done the same.
We Indians don't see religion, caste, region when we see people in need. They are just as human as you and I.
Your message to fellow Indians...
Faiyaz Shaikh: We have seen lot of people in Mumbai who have lent a helping hand to those in need and done a fantabulous job.
We have grown up seeing such fantastic people around us: not just NGOs, corporates, charitable institutions but people in their individual capacity have done every time this city has suffered for whatever reasons.
We have also seen such examples across India. This is one of the greatest achievements of India and Indians.
Through Rediff.com, we would like to request fellow Indians to help us, donate to us or donate and forward help to hundreds and thousands of people like Mizga and Faiyaz across India who are trying to help the poor and needy in whatever small way they can.
We just need help from people who can come forward and help us take our work ahead.
Mizga Shaikh: As Indians, as human beings, we should work together to help and bring succour to the underprivileged and those less fortunate than we are.
The children who are the future of our country, our world, should get the best education irrespective of their religion, caste or financial condition.
It's only then we can make India and the world, a better place to live in.
If you would like to help Faiyaz and Migaz help the poor and the needy, please contact Faiyaz at 9892484631