A founder at 19, he is breaking barriers to opportunity and inclusion for migrant workers

Like most people, Sazzad Hossain initially thought giving back to society was something he would do after completing university and making a decent living. But personal interactions with migrant workers in Singapore highlighted their urgent needs and inspired him to found SDI (Social Development Initiative) Academy, a social enterprise that empowers lives through education.

By SGN | 1 Dec 2021

At the age of 19, Sazzad founded SDI Academy, a social enterprise that promotes upward mobility and social inclusion among migrant workers through education.

When he first immigrated with his family to Singapore from Bangladesh at the age of 10, Sazzad struggled to fit in.

The greatest barrier was that of language. His poor command of English hampered communication, hindered socialisation, and impeded opportunity – causing him to fall two grades behind his peers.

In his early teens, Sazzad began interacting with migrant workers in his neighbourhood, conversing with them in Bengali. “Some of them would ask for directions,” he recalls. “I got to know their stories, and they’d treat me like their younger brother.”

These migrants wrestled with the same difficulties, the same language barrier that he had experienced. “A lot of them were struggling to navigate and assimilate into Singaporean society,” he says.

At their request, Sazzad began teaching English to migrant workers right after his O Levels, using the same materials and pronunciation guides that had helped him master the language. His lessons were a perfect fit for the Bengali speakers, and his classes grew in popularity.

One day, Sazzad learnt of a technician who had suffered a serious injury because he couldn’t understand the safety briefing in English. His hand was charred while repairing an air-conditioner and had to be amputated.

More than miscommunication or social isolation, Sazzad realised that a lack of language skills could lead to life and death situations. “I have to start right now, with whatever I have,” he thought. Sazzad took time out to design a proper curriculum, then founded SDI Academy in 2013, when he was 19 years old.

Sazzad is an Obama Leader of the Obama Foundation Asia-Pacific, a community engagement programme that connects 200 emerging leaders across the Asia-Pacific

Charting the Paths of Migrants

Today, SDI Academy primarily serves migrant workers from Bangladesh, India and China in the construction, marine shipyard and process (CMP) sectors.

Aside from English communication, programmes cover computer literacy and financial literacy, skills that improve both their personal lives and career prospects. There are also courses in entrepreneurship, since most migrants who spend their prime years here return home to start a business.

Although financial sustainability has always been a challenge, Sazzad says the academy won’t turn away migrants who are keen to learn yet unable to pay the course fees.

Past students of SDI Academy

The work at SDI Academy doesn’t stop at skills development. “We don’t just run courses,” Sazzad explains. “We do the roadmapping of their career prospects.” Through partnerships with other institutions, the team finds opportunities for scholarships and further education.

To help migrant workers feel a part of Singaporean society, the academy nurtures social inclusion through events that bring locals and migrants together. Pre-COVID, there were gatherings at Christmas or Ramadan, where migrants would break fast with locals at their dormitories.

Hardest Hit by the Pandemic

When the pandemic struck Singapore’s shores in 2020, migrant workers were hit hard. The number of infections within their communities rose steeply, and they were placed under strict and persistent lockdowns.

The focus at SDI Academy shifted. “We shut down our physical operations and concentrated on the immediate needs of migrant workers,” Sazzad recounts.

With their limited resources, his team distributed whatever food, dried goods, masks and hand sanitisers they could. “We saw Singaporeans come together to support the migrants. It was really heartening to see that people do care in times of emergency.”

SDI Academy was also part of a governmental taskforce and advised larger organisations who had the capacity to impact a larger pool of migrants.

Sazzad with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a National Day event in 2016

The Learning Never Stops

Meanwhile, their technical development team fast-tracked a mobile learning app and launched it in June 2020, roughly six months ahead of schedule. In place of physical classes, courses on the app offer a mix of pre-recorded lectures and live interactive sessions.

As mental health issues came to the fore, the team added modules on topics such as journalling, yoga, and breathing exercises. “We even did a psychological first aid course with Singapore First Aid to teach migrants to detect signs of distress among other dormitory members and step in to help them,” Sazzad shares.

The SDI Academy mobile learning app includes modules on mental health and a speech recognition function that translates migrants’ concerns to English in real time.

Remote learning has been a boon for migrant learners. The cost of a course has fallen from around $300 to just $15. Members of the public can now more easily donate scholarships and volunteer as a facilitator in live sessions, strengthening the bond between locals and migrants.

Within a year or so, SDI Academy has reached around 10,000 migrants through online learning, compared to the 8,500 trained in physical classes over the previous seven years.

Moving forward, Sazzad hopes to transition into a hybrid mode of instruction – part online, part offline. “There are elements of the physical classes that we can’t really replicate,” he says, explaining how migrants benefit from face-to-face interactions with classmates, sharing notes and seeking advice.

An online English session with volunteers from Singapore Land

Food Is Their Only Luxury

Another aspect of migrant welfare that concerns Sazzad is nutrition.

Because the vast majority of dormitories and employers don’t provide meals, migrant workers order from caterers, who operate on low margins and hence provide low quality food.

Nutrition affects migrant health and productivity, Sazzad says. What’s more, food is the only luxury migrant workers allow themselves, since practically the rest of their income is remitted back to their home country each month.

This is why he started a second company, DoorMart, to provide nutritious meals for $2, inclusive of delivery. “For migrants, even $2 is still quite expensive,” he says, “so we have one for one: $1 is paid by migrants and the other $1 is sponsored by companies or locals.”

DoorMart also caters to the tastes of migrant workers. For example, Bangladeshis tend to dislike vegetables in general, but that’s because back home they eat dishes of mashed vegetables called bhortas. “We introduce this into our meals so that they get the nutrition, but in a way that is culturally appropriate for them,” Sazzad says.

Sazzad with staff and volunteers at SDI Academy

They Give More Than You Know

Migrant workers contribute more to society than we know, according to Sazzad.

While largely involved in blue-collar construction work in Singapore, many are leaders in their home country running their own social enterprises.

Here in Singapore, migrant workers have been organising blood donation drives on their own initiative. In one activity before the pandemic, they taught and led locals in the renovation of one-bedroom rental flats.

Given their strong family values and aptitude for interacting with the elderly, Sazzad believes there is great potential for migrants to serve Singapore’s ageing population, and that it would be a fruitful idea to bring these two communities together.

Tales of Transformation – (Left) Nazrul Islam is a multi-talented individual whose passions include marathons and motivational speaking. He has a degree in workplace safety, and SDI Academy is arranging a scholarship for him to pursue his Master’s. (Centre) Lessons at SDI Academy improved Saiful Islam’s English by leaps and bounds, a story he shared at TEDxNUS. With his employer’s support, he took up a course in Autodesk Inventor and was redeployed to do design work. (Right) After completing multiple courses at SDI Academy, Faiz Ullah obtained a diploma and was promoted at Keppel Marine from general worker to assistant engineer. His on-the-ground experience provides insights and value to his company that new entrants wouldn’t have.

A Role Model for the World

SDI Academy’s aim is to create a one-stop platform for migrants – one that facilitates education, career growth and social inclusion. “We want to establish a successful model here in Singapore, then replicate this in other communities,” Sazzad says.

He considers Singapore the ideal testing ground, since it is a highly developed country with a large population of migrant workers, and the government and local residents here are more willing to step forward and build this ecosystem.

Work has begun in countries like Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Australia – all of which expect to see a rising influx of migrants – and Sazzad says he hopes to be able to advise more governments on how to better support migrant workers.

“Singapore can be a role model for the rest of the world in terms of how we treat our migrants, how we include them in our conversations and in our society in general.”

Sazzad seeks out Bangladeshi and Singaporean food when he travels abroad. Here he is sampling Bangladeshi cuisine in France.

You can learn more about SDI Academy and DoorMart at their websites.

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About Sazzad

At the age of 19, Sazzad founded SDI Academy, a social enterprise that promotes upward mobility and social inclusion among migrant workers through education. His accolades include Ashoka Fellow, Obama Foundation Asia-Pacific Leader, and Forbes 30 Under 30 2021.

Connect with him here.

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