Arriving from Hyderabad, India in 2000, Zainab Banatwala lived in many cities in the USA, before finally settling in Houston. She had worked as an accountant in India, but later decided to move to the US and found work in a drycleaning establishment in Dallas. With a teenage daughter, making ends meet was difficult on her basic salary, so her sister encouraged her to inquire about the Skills Development Initiative (SDI), a part of the Ismaili Council’s Quality of Life (QOL) portfolio. Motivated by the suggestion, she decided to learn more about it and see if it could help her seek better employment.
In March 2022, Zainab enrolled in a four-month course as a pharmacy technician, and soon found work at a pharmacy Micro-fulfillment Center, filling prescriptions to be shipped. Her income has since increased, as has her quality of life, and she is grateful for the opportunity to have upgraded her skills — albeit in a new career — that allows her to work four days a week and spend more time with her daughter, now enrolled as a nursing student.
“I should have done it a long time ago,” said Zainab. “I am divorced and this is my bread and butter. The skill of a pharmacy technician has made me financially stable, and I can support my daughter’s college tuition fees. The support I have received from QOL has thankfully made me independent.”
Pursuant to Mawlana Hazar Imam’s guidance to the US leadership on improving quality of life, a six-month program was developed in the US to assist Jamati members in obtaining a GED (high school equivalency) so that they could live more productively and comfortably.
Today, the SDI/QOL education initiative has expanded into offering life-enhancing pathways for Jamati members from all backgrounds; these include English language competency, obtaining a GED, vocational training programs in accounting, IT, healthcare, education, cosmetology, trades, and external programs through partnerships with community colleges and other educational institutions. In the past four years, approximately 1,750 individuals have participated in SDI programs offered in-house at SDI Centers, Jamatkhanas, online, or through external certifications.
Besides providing additional income opportunities and more financial stability, new careers can be mentally stimulating and allow for new experiences and personal growth. Malika Lirani, who migrated from Mumbai to Kampala over a decade ago, came to the United States in 2021 with her husband and two young children. She worked at a gas station as an accountant, but needing additional income, took a two-month SDI cell phone repair class.
Upon completion of the course, Malika managed to find work at an Ismaili-owned repair shop, where she earns commissions and says the impact on her income has been significant. She is now considering entering into a partnership with the repair shop. Malika now has “more time to attend Jamatkhana, and Early Childhood Education classes,” she said.
The SDI program owes its success to teams of dedicated teacher-volunteers (including TKN volunteers) for subject-matter expertise and also to motivate participants and encourage them to complete the courses. Eligible Jamati members can receive grants and loans in partnership with the Aga Khan Economic Planning Board for lifelong learning purposes, as well as job placement assistance upon completion of various SDI classes.
By providing essential resources and assistance, the SDI program is transforming economic prospects and creating a brighter future for all involved. Zainab, Malika, and others can now hope for a more inclusive and equitable future, with their destiny in their own hands.