RATMALANA: Charity begins at home, well at least close to his work place in Borupana Road. For just a few metres down the dusty road is Hindu College, one of 25 schools which Fouzul Hameed supports through his My Friend initiative, a project which helps underprivileged children in and around Colombo.  It is morning break [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The measure of a real man is not in the clothes he wears but the things he does


Fouzul with what he loves most ­– helping children. Pic by Amila Gamage

RATMALANA: Charity begins at home, well at least close to his work place in Borupana Road. For just a few metres down the dusty road is Hindu College, one of 25 schools which Fouzul Hameed supports through his My Friend initiative, a project which helps underprivileged children in and around Colombo.  It is morning break at Hindu College as we meet Hameed who has some good news to impart to the younger children – “if anyone gets a grade 5 scholarship, I promise them a laptop”.

Hameed, who keeps a finger on the pulse of his charity work, is making one of his regular school visits. We had requested some pictures of himself but having ransacked his cupboard he had come up empty.  “I have a number of shots of me and Angelo (Mathews) together. Do you want them,” asks Hameed. The Sri Lankan cricket captain is an ambassador for My Friend, but I say no as we want to focus on Hameed, and request if he can make himself available for a photoshoot at one of the schools which gets his largesse.

Helping everyone
We decide on Parakrama Maha Vidyalaya in Narahenpita, but then find out it is closed for holidays. I suggest another school in Maligawatta, Darussalam Maha Vidyalaya, but Hameed is a bit concerned of the image he might portray taking a picture at a Muslim school – his critics might charge that he is helping his own community only.  Hardly the case for …, Hameed, managing director of Hameedia Group, is colour-blind when it comes to race and religion helping Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus alike. Yet, he is sensitive, so we settle to meet at Hindu College, close to his office and factory where he churns out menswear for ‘real men’. That is a buzzword which his marketing people have come up with. But as far as Hameed is concerned, everyone matters. He is a real man. “Early in my life I was taught that caring and sharing for others is very important. I grew up in a middle-class family.

We were not rich but what we had, we shared with others who were in need. We were told that if we made money, to make sure we looked after the poor,” he recounts.  It was his grandmother, the matriarch of the family from Aluthgama, Beruwela, who instilled the fundamentals that hold true today – charity must be given with a good and true heart.  The clothing business was started by his father’s uncle in 1925 but it was only in 1949 that the first Hameedia store was opened in Wellawatta. Today there are 18 stores plus another 10 of the Signature brand. Three factories including the one in Ratmalana, produce everything from shirts and suits to belts and shoes.  Everyone from Mahela Jayewardene to Kumar Sangakkara to the Sri Lanka cricket team wears his shirts and suits with pride. But Hameed is humble to the core. He dips frequently into his past to remind him how fortunate he is. It helps to keep him grounded.

Charity, first principle  in good business
“The principle behind our business is charity. Whatever we do is for charity. My mum always reminded us that we came with nothing into this world and we will go with nothing, but if we can help people, then we must. I’m happy whenever I can help someone,” he says.  But being the shrewd businessman, Hameed does not believe in just lending money for as the poet wrote, a fool and his money are soon parted. Instead, he delved into his own past and experiences, and decided to give lavishly to children, helping by educating them.  “I never went to university. I failed in Maths. But one thing I was good at was English and this has helped me tremendously. Without English it is very difficult to get a job these days. Even if you are a driver or a housemaid a little bit of English can open doors for you,” is Hameed’s simple but spot-on take on life.  Five years ago, Hameed and Mathews decided to come together and create a foundation – My Friend – which would help schoolchildren with their needs, be it a malu paang for breakfast or a monetary scholarship.

“We did this as a CSR project. I founded it with Angelo being the face for the programme. His presence has helped hugely. He gives his time freely and we go to schools of all communities and give books, bags, shoes, breakfast scholarships, laptops.  “Our job is to motivate these children and tell them come to school rather than being on the streets. We are now involved with 25 schools in Colombo but we soon hope to take this islandwide and add another 25 schools,” Hameed explains.  Expansion has meant it has become difficult for his staff – all of whom have been told they have to give some of their time to charity work –to carry out the projects resulting in collaboration with Rotary as well as the UK’s City and Guilds institute.

Young charges excel in sports
A hard-core sports fan – he captained Zahira College at football and cricket and was also a useful hockey player – Hameed is keen that children take up sports, especially team sports which he believes can help mould a solid character.  No surprise then that he was over the moon when he received news that his young charges at Darussalam Maha Vidyalaya had beaten DS Senanayake and drawn with Royal at junior rugby.
“You’re talking of kids from two different backgrounds. Those children from Royal and DS come from a different world when compared to the kids from Maligawatta. These children live in houses which are the size of our toilets. In most houses the entrance is small and there are no windows.

They are the poorest of the poor. “We give these kids breakfast; it is almost a bribe so that they will come to school. Their parents are not bothered whether they go to school or not. But these kids have proved that they are talented. All they need is to be given a chance in life, an opportunity,” says Hameed passionately.  The man who backed Sri Lanka Cricket when no one had even thought that our ambassadors should be well dressed and groomed – Hameedia was supporting SLC back in the days we won the World Cup in 1996 – is forever on the lookout to see how he can make a difference to a child’s life.

Selling joss sticks
The other day he was parked in front of Abans in Colpetty when he noticed a young kid selling packets of joss sticks. “He was about nine years old. I asked him what he was doing here. He replied ‘I’m selling this so that I can buy a bag to go to school’. I found out that his dad had passed away and his mum was sick. He said he went to a school in Wanathamulla.  “I told him to get into my vehicle and we went to his school which was a Tamil school. He had sold 10 packets of joss stick and made 100 bucks from each. I took his address and my team in the office is now communicating with him and trying to help him.”

For every 100 kids who drop out of school, there is one success story. Hameed points out to Sri Lanka cricket’s newest hero Kusal Mendis as an example. “His dad is a carpenter from Moratuwa but he made sure his son got an education. The father must be given a gold medal for just look at what Kusal has achieved scoring 176 against Australia. He is one of the few good-luck stories, sadly most parents from poor families don’t care about their children.  “Most kids drop out because they have to help their families. Their dads go missing and they have to help their mums and siblings. It is a tough life but if they can stay on in school, and especially learn English and Math, then they have a chance of achieving something worthwhile.”

Forever on the search for ways to streamline his efforts, Hameed has decided that while reaching out to children is a must, it would also be better to teach the teachers. Soon My Friend will begin a project to teach teachers English, and in this way help spread the language faster.  He stumbled on this idea while helping out at Hindu College. Two years ago, the school had a dismal pass mark in mathematics, only 29 per cent of the students passing their O ’Levels in the subject. Hameed hired an extra math teacher, paid her Rs.10,000 a month for seven months, to give the children additional help. It worked. At the last O ’Levels, the pass mark had risen to 63 per cent.

Inspiring leader
“He (Hameed) has been a big help and inspiration to us,” is the verdict from headmaster Sinniah Jayakumar. “Our students come from a poor background with most parents doing menial jobs but Mr. Hameed’s help has given hope to us. If we have any problem, he is willing to help us.
“A few months ago he donated two football goalposts and we hope to start the sport in school soon. He has guided us and we are ever so grateful for his help,” Jayakumar added.  Hameed is glad that Hindu College will soon form a football team.

He immediately promised boots for all the players. He hopes that one day, one of his schools will be in the big league, beating the Royals and the Anandas.“I’m the chairman of the Zahira School Board. Everyone approaches me to ask if I can help get their children into Zahira. I can’t do that for there is a limit on numbers. So now I’m trying to bring up some of the smaller schools up to a certain standard.  “Business is not all about making money. It is about making money and about giving back to the community. In my small way, I’m trying to help make lives better,” Hameed concludes.

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