A Discussion with Xavier Gomes, Manager, Notre Dame Literacy School, Dhaka, Bangladesh

With: Xavier Gomes Berkley Center Profile

June 4, 2014

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Fellowship, in June 2014 student Kendra Layton interviewed Xavier Gomes, manager of Notre Dame Literacy School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Founded in 1971, the school is part of the Literacy and Health Care Program for the Children of Slums at Notre Dame College (a prestigious secondary school co-located with the literacy school) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The program is also supported by Misereor, a German Catholic development organization, and the Congregation of Holy Cross Society of Priests. In this interview, Xavier Gomes reflects on the unique partnership between Notre Dame College and the Literacy School, the perception of the slums, and the strengths of being a mission school.
What are the origins of Notre Dame College?

Notre Dame College first created the school in 1972, medical services, and then other programs in response to a large number of people who came here during the Liberation War in 1971. During the war, they faced many dangers. Father Willard, Father Vannes, and the Holy Cross Society established the school. Now more than 1,000 students come during the morning, afternoon, and evening shifts to receive education from kindergarten through eighth grade. In the morning students go to their work places and after their job, they come here. 

What are your main duties as manager?

We provide residential support, health care, and food for students from the slums. During the daytime I do my duty as manager. I oversee the project and I give advice to teachers and staff. During the evening shift, I do my duty as headmaster and ensure the school is going well. I maintain the teachers, because at nighttime, the teachers are also college students. They have studies and other duties, but they teach here in their free time.

Could you speak more about how the Notre Dame College students teach here? What makes the partnership so strong between this program and Notre Dame College?

It is not only a relation, but a philosophy of Notre Dame College (NDC). Many rich students come to NDC, but NDC believes they are not only for the rich people but also for the poor people. Stemming from that philosophy, they started this program for poor and low-income people. Every January we select students to come from rural parts of Bangladesh. They teach here for one year from January to December. In exchange for their job, the college pays their tuition fees, residential fees, and sometimes support for food and other education materials.  

Today we walked through the slums. How would you say the rest of Bangladesh views the slums?

In my opinion, their slum lifestyle is improving. Fifteen to twenty years ago, there were many slum areas. Many have already been closed. People from the slums now get financial support. Day by day, their financial situation improves. Our government is doing better, especially in the health sector and education sector. 

As this is a mission school, what are the advantages of being outside of the formal government education system?

I am speaking not only as a manager, but as a citizen of Bangladesh. There are various kinds of education centers: government, full government, half government, and madrasas. Only the schools that are maintained by missionaries try strongly with their heart and soul to ensure that all of the students who come receive an education. At our school we try to give students education for their lives. On the other hand, when a group of people maintain an educational center with a business or financial mindset, they only try to earn money. Anywhere in Bangladesh you can see the difference between private schools and mission schools. All of our students come from slum areas, and slum people by birth are different from the rest. When they come to us and to our school, within a short time, they become changed as human beings. Notre Dame gives the highest level of education, and they take from the students just a little bit.

Here, I get a small amount of money, but I could not leave this place.

When you say “I could not leave this place,” what makes you feel so connected to this school?

For the last 25 years, I have been here and done my duty here. It is the culture of Bengali people. When you are born anywhere, that place, even if it is a lower place, is heaven for you. You can never forget that place. Most of my lifetime I have studied at missionary schools and spent around priests and nuns. For that reason I have a strong connection, and I have a lot of satisfaction here. Freedom is most important, more than money. Every boss might not give you freedom, but I have my freedom here all the time.

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