Changing the world, one English lesson at a time
People & Society Articles

Changing the world, one English lesson at a time

Sazzad speaking at an event

When Sazzad Hossain first arrived in Singapore with his family, the Bangladeshi boy was not able to speak any English. He even had to drop two levels and enter Primary 4 instead of Primary 6.

But it did not faze him. With help from teachers and friends, he polished his English and scored an A for PSLE – surprising even himself.

Today, the 24-year-old undergraduate is helping migrant workers in Singapore learn English. Together with some friends, they set up SDI academy, an education-technology social enterprise that teaches English language skills, IT and financial literacy to migrant workers.

“The most rewarding thing about teaching someone a new life skill is seeing the change it brings to their everyday lives,” he said.

For Sazzad, who is now a Singaporean, he is familiar with the struggle of migrants who feel out of place due to differences in culture and language.

Recalling his own experience, he said: “Not being able to express yourself or tell others how you feel is a frightening situation. I did not know anyone here and what made it worse was that I did not have the means to make friends either.”

A stranger in a foreign land

Sazzad came to Singapore when he was 11, along with his parents and younger sister. His father had secured a position at a local engineering firm and relocated the entire family here.

At that point, Singapore seemed like a world away from Bangladesh. His poor command of the English language also meant he was unable to communicate his thoughts and feelings with anyone outside of his family.   

It did not help that he had to drop two levels when he entered a local school, Yuhua Primary School, due to a difference in academic prerequisites. This was a huge blow to Sazzad, a distinguished student who hailed from one of the most prestigious schools in Bangladesh.

“Looking back, this was a time of confusion, frustration and loneliness as I had to leave my life behind and start from scratch,” he said. “I didn’t quite know how things would turn out but I always knew I wasn’t going to give up that easily.”

Friends, family and beyond

School, however, provided Sazzad with an opportunity to adapt to Singapore and pick up English.

The vibrant and multicultural atmosphere was a welcome reprieve. Seeing friends of different races and backgrounds mingle together made him realise that he wasn’t a stranger.

Even though he was struggling to read and write in English, he had two teachers, Ms Kavita and Mdm Hia, who made sure he was not left behind. They would go the extra mile to coach and give him extra practice session outside of class time.

His friends also helped. “My classmates were very friendly and patient with me because they were willing to take time to understand what I was trying to say while also correcting me whenever I mispronounced a word,” he said.

“It literally took the entire ‘village’ to educate me and make me feel part of the wider social fabric.”

Paying it forward

Sazzad teaching in a class
Sazzad going through basic meet and greet phrases with migrant workers. This is his way of paying the kindness he had received forward – in his early days in Singapore, teachers had coached him in English, while schoolmates made sure to include him in their activities.

After going through the struggles of assimilating into a foreign culture, Sazzad was determined to help other migrants ease into Singapore.

In 2012, during his national service (NS) days, he started conducting informal English lessons for migrant workers every weekend. He held classes on park benches near his home at Lakeside.

As the weeks progressed, word started to spread and more migrant workers signed up for his classes.

But when a migrant worker friend had to amputate his hand because of a workplace mishap due to his inability to read a warning sign in English, Sazzad felt that he had to do more.

“When I visited him in the hospital, I knew I had to scale my classes beyond the handful of migrants if I really wanted to impact the masses,” he said.

After completing his NS in the Singapore Police Force, he wasted no time setting up SDI Academy. He also received help from Singaporean friends Valerie, Manas and Zann, who joined the effort to scale up and formalise the curriculum.

Initially, the academy reached out to mainly Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi migrant workers but it has since expanded to more nationalities by conducting other lessons in Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin, Hindi, Burmese and Tagalog

When he first started, he taught 134 migrants. Today, the academy impacts the lives of over 6,300 migrant workers in Singapore. Sazzad and his team also conducted classes overseas to educate Syrian and Rohingya refugees.   

Bringing people together

Apart from helping migrant workers improve their English, SDI Academy also acts as a bridge for Singaporeans to get to know migrants through activities like potluck and sing-along sessions.

“At SDI, we believe that learning is a two-way street,” he said. “While our Singaporean volunteers teach the migrants English during lesson, our migrant brothers also teach Singaporeans how to cook or even speak Bengali.

For 31-year old Bangladeshi migrant worker Saiful Islam, attending the English classes has helped to improve his job prospects. 

When he first came to Singapore two years ago, he had a limited command of the English language. These days, the administrative and data processing officer at a local shipping firm is able to reply work emails with greater ease and communicate meaningfully with his superiors at work.

“In my line of work, having a strong command of English is very important,” he said.  

He cites the graciousness of the Singaporean volunteers as a crucial factor in his English-learning journey.

“Whenever I am lost or unsure about a particular word, I can just call or message any one of the volunteers and they will help me out right away. When you are in a foreign land, having someone you can trust makes a big difference.”

Migrant workers like Saiful are usually very touched at how friendly Singaporeans are, and how easily they can bond over the simplest of activities.

Added Sazzad: “They feel that they learn much more than just the language itself. Friendships are forged, values are inculcated and most importantly, barriers are broken.”

Singapore’s greatest strength, he noted, is its melting pot of diverse cultures where differences are celebrated and people are welcomed regardless of their ethnicity and background.

“In a world that is increasingly become more polarised, Singapore is definitely a prime example of what we can achieve when we all come together as one,” he said, adding that he envisions a future of greater unity amid diversity here.

For someone who was once in the very same shoes as the migrant workers, Sazzad hopes that his unique life journey will continue to help him along his way.

“I am able to see things from a perspective of a migrant and their struggles with language and integration while also being able to see things from a Singaporean's perspective – this perfect mix has got me to where I am today,” he said.

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