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Lounge Heroes | Mizga Shaikh steps up in Malad’s hour of need

This former fashion design freelancer and her husband dipped into their PF savings to supply ration kits to hundreds of migrant families and workers in Malad’s Ambujwadi area

Mizga Shaikh.
Mizga Shaikh.

The lockdown was so sudden," says Mizga Shaikh, 38, recalling the initial months of the covid-19 pandemic in Mumbai and the calls for help. For 10 years, Shaikh and her husband Fayaz, 45, have been running an informal educational institution, Zeal English School, for underprivileged children in Malad’s Ambujwadi area, home largely to migrant workers. Most of the area’s 22,000 families “migrated to Mumbai from other states in search of jobs. They have shanties, where they are living without pucca walls or a roof over them. It’s just tin sheds and plastic," Shaikh explains on the phone.

Fayaz began work in this area with a balwadi, or pre-school, programme with two teachers. Shaikh, moved by the children’s enthusiasm for learning, took over from there, since the nearest school was 2km away. “We started the school with a minimum fee of 100 a month. For the last 10 years, we have been serving the children with the best we can do. This year, six of our students appeared for their class X examinations and five of them scored good marks," says Shaikh, a graduate in fashion design who did freelance work in the sector before taking up teaching. Today, they have applied for registration and have a staff of 12. “I gave up everything and took up this project full-time," she says. Fayaz continues to work in the private sector, as a manager in a cosmetics firm.

The pandemic-prompted lockdown changed everything overnight. Shaikh started getting calls from the students and their parents, seeking help. Thousands of families in Ambujwadi were running out of ration; many of them don’t have ration cards and were unable to access government programmes. “That time, we both went to assess the situation.... Our students came out and said they hadn’t eaten for two days. That’s when we started contacting NGOs. Initially, we got things like khichdi, which we started distributing, and it would cover 1,500 people per day. This continued for almost two months. We also asked (NGOs) for ration kits," says Shaikh.

The lockdown, however, had to be extended repeatedly and Shaikh’s contacts could not help further. By May, they had run out of donors, she says. “We reached a standstill on what to do next. All these people were relying on the ration kits and donations...that’s when me and my husband withdrew our Provident Fund money, amounting to 5 lakh." The couple had been saving up for a home but decided to put that plan on hold. “When this need emerged, we were left with no other option. We gradually started using this money to buy ration and distribute it among the people in that area," she adds. “This happened in May and we are still doing it."

One ration kit costs Shaikh 700-750. It contains 5kg rice, 5kg flour, 1kg sugar, 1 litre oil, 1 packet of salt, tea and two types of pulses. The price depends on the quality of rice they get, she says. Once the media began highlighting their work, they started getting calls from other parts of the city. “We have reached out to 1,800 families now all over Mumbai," says Shaikh.

“We have started distributing ration kits in Dombivali, Borivali and wherever else we are getting calls from," she says. Some of the families go to the school to pick up the ration.

“We are helping people get medical assistance as well," says Shaikh—be it providing medicines or even ferrying people to hospital. On one occasion, when there was a call from Dongri, she asked one of her friends to assist and then reimbursed the friend. “We have been giving cheques (to buy medicines) to people who have a proper doctor’s prescription, " says Shaikh.

They got relief last month, when industrialist Anand Mahindra and some senior employees at consultancies and telecom companies offered donations. “Our work has flourished (since)," she says.

Through it all, they have lived with the fear of infection—and worry about using up their savings. The couple, their two children and Fayaz’s mother currently live in a rented flat in Malad. “Of course, everybody was worried about the future. Everyone’s job is at stake. My husband didn’t know what would happen with his job, that was a big question mark," says Shaikh. “Since the school was shut down, there was no source of income from there as well," she adds.

But despite “a little bit of hesitation"—on whether they should secure their future or help the children and their parents—they decided to go with the flow, says Shaikh. “Upar wala sab dekh lega (God will take care of us)," she adds. “Let’s see what the future holds and pray for the best."

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