Khalatpur, West Bengal: Saima Khatoon’s father died when she was a year old. Her mother washed utensils to support young Saima and her brother.

“I want to join the state civil service," says Saima, now 17, and studying humanities in her pre-university course. Her mother and brother still live in a remote village in North 24 Parganas.

Meanwhile, Kashmira Khatoon, another student from Joynagar in South 24 Parganas, who topped the class X examination among girls, says she wants “to become a doctor".

Saima and Kashmira, who are not related to each other, are among 1,836 Muslim girls and boys who stay and study at a network of residential schools run by the Al Ameen Mission in five districts across West Bengal. This year, 115 of the mission’s students made it into engineering colleges and 69 went on to study medicine. A couple of thousand more students attend tutorial classes and the day schools run by the mission. These are open to students of all religions.

“I was inspired by the Ramkrishna Mission, whose institute of culture I used to frequent," says Nurul Islam, the general secretary of the mission, who is based at the organization’s first and biggest establishment in Khalatpur, some 75km from Kolkata.

“I was very impressed by the selfless service of the Ramakrishna Mission monks. Since our religion doesn’t have the system of celibate monks, we are trying to put together husband-wife teams who work and stay on campus."

Showing the way: Nurul Islam with students of the Al Ameen Mission campus at Khalatpur, Howrah. (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)

In 1976, while still studying in class X in his village, Islam set up the Khalatpur Junior High madrasa, the Arabic word for any school, though it has become more synonymous with religious schools in recent years. Even today, in a corner of the sprawling 70 bigha (about 23 acres) compound, stands the pale-green madrasa. A little beyond it is Islam’s greatest achievement—a school and hostel for about 300 girls. The residential school caters to students from class V to class XII.

But soon after he set up the madrasa, he says he realized that the community sorely needed an institution of mainstream learning.

“Our youngsters stay away from studies because their parents are not educated and send them into manual labour," says Islam, who is also a political science teacher. “Muslims who stayed back in 1947 have been badly off and wrongly believe that more children would mean more hands to labour and bring in money to the family, but the biggest handicap is that they don’t know how to dream."

It was to overcome these hurdles and to give them what he calls a mainstream education that Islam established Al Ameen Mission in 1986. “Al Ameen means The Truthful and Trustworthy and is associated with the Prophet," explains Islam. “I felt that if we could come out of the traditional madrasa system, there could be a chance of keeping these kids in school."

Toofan Ali from Murshidabad is one of the early Al Ameen success stories. The son of a Murshidabad criminal, he is now a Union government employee. Around 20 others from Ali’s village, which had no access to higher education, have now joined the mission.

The hostel for Islamic Institute of Culture was set up in 1986 in the madrasa itself, its operations literally funded by collecting one fistful of rice from every home in Khalatpur.

“I would then sell the rice at the local haat (market) and the money would be used in running the hostel," recalls Islam.

Then, Islam and his friends went to local businessmen asking for zakat (alms)—typically 2.5% of yearly income—that traditionally could have gone to a madrasa to set up a secular school. Some 20 years later, the mission is still mostly run through these zakat donations.

“Muslims throughout the country contribute to the mission, which has about 25% seats reserved for poor, destitute and orphans," says Islam. “Apart from this, there are many individuals who have come forward whole-heartedly to help the Al Ameen Mission."

One-third of the students pay half their fees. Admission to the schools run by the mission is purely on the basis of merit. “No student with an impeccable academic record is turned away if he/she can’t afford to pay the fees," says Islam.

Just as Islam is recounting instances of local merchants donating sand, cement, stone chips to fund the mission, one of his staff members runs up to announce jubilantly that a local merchant has agreed to supply wood for a fresh set of doors and windows.

“See, that’s how we manage," says Islam.

(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we are running through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians —both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to