Understanding English is not always easy, especially for those from low-income families. Starting from a neighborhood mosque, Nadia Sunarto, front row of the photo, fourth from left, established a charity program, Aqila English Course.
A mother of three herself, she hopes the children in the program will be able to master English from volunteers. The 35-year-old’s aim is that, despite floods or financial constraints, the children will one day be able to find good jobs or travel abroad and communicate fluently.
How long have you been volunteering, Nadia?
Well, Aqila was officially established in 2004 with my friend Arie Bakrie — not related to the Bakrie tycoon [laughs]. But the idea of teaching English at a mosque has been going around my head since 1998. Back then, Arie and I were neighbors in Mampang [in South Jakarta]. And Arie, whose house was located right in front of our mosque, started sharing his knowledge of English with the children around the neighborhood at the Al Anwar Mosque. The families in our neighborhood were low income, so they definitely couldn’t afford and wouldn’t even think about sending their children to an English course, which was nowhere on their list of priorities. So I joined Arie in 1999, and finally decided to establish Aqila a few years later.
How many mosques do you now operate at?
Things went great. The reception was good and a few years later we were successful in expanding our course to another mosque called Al Istiqmal, also in Mampang. Our ambitious target was 10 mosques in five years. But the reality was different. Sometimes we found that the mosque-keepers were not very committed to facilitating the course. But since mosques are a meeting point where people of all levels of society gather, we will not give up. I believe mosques are the best location for our program to succeed. Over time, as I was busy having my third child, I moved to another house located quite far from a mosque. So I decided to stop teaching and concentrate more on preparing teaching materials and recruiting volunteers.
How do you recruit the volunteers?
I spread announcements on the Internet, such as through mailing lists and Twitter. And whenever someone is interested, I call them for an interview and a TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language]-like English proficiency test at a mosque. The requirement is quite easy. I prefer Muslims as the teaching is done in a mosque and women need to wear a jilbab. And one more thing: the teacher should be willing to work at night with no payment. But usually the mosque will give them some money for transportation. Now, at Al Istiqmal, we have at least 12 teachers with approximately 80 students in several grades.
Do students need to pay for the course?
Actually we didn’t want them to, but once you get something for free, you will just waste it; that’s been demonstrated by some of our students, who just quit or rarely attended the course when it was free of charge. So we decided to charge them tuition fees, but not too much, just to keep them invested and motivated for study. It’s only Rp 20,000 to Rp 50,000 [$2 to $5] per term, which is about two months of studying. It helps cover the operational cost like making copies of books. Students study twice a week for an hour. It usually starts at 8 p.m.
How do you attract students?
Actually, those who take care of the mosques do the info spreading. They usually announce it over the speakers and give out flyers at Friday prayers.
Any complaints from the volunteers?
Alhamdulillah, the students are quite cooperative, so teaching should be easy. But sometimes, some of the children just quit without any reason or are absent because their homes are flooded. But we understand.
Do you do run Aqila full time?
No. As well as taking care of my three children, I’m also a freelance teacher at Nurul Fikri English Course and translate documents sometimes. My husband supports all of my decisions and my work in managing Aqila. I am happy for that.
Do you have reasons for establishing Aqila other than education?
English is so important to everyone. Look at the newspaper; the vacancy ads always require English skills. And I remember one thing my Prophet Muhammad said: when you want to conquer a country, learn the language first.
Nadia Sunarto was talking to Rilia Maya Wangi.