By Courtney Trenwith
She has climbed to the peak of Mt Everest, trekked to the North Pole and recently completed seven consecutive marathons on seven continents, but former Emirates Airline flight attendant Maria Conceicao is now facing an even tougher challenge: raising $250,000 annually to help school 200 Bangladeshi children
Maria Conceicao had spent 18 months staying in flash hotels, critiquing foreign cuisines and remarking on the comfort of various mattresses from Milan to Mauritius and London to Australia. Then the Emirates Airline flight attendant was handed a 24-hour stopover in Bangladesh.
“Normally I ask the hotel concierge ‘what are the landmarks, what can I see?’” Conceicao says, beginning what becomes an emotional story, even 10 years later.
“He looked at me like I was really ignorant [and said], ‘there’s nothing to see here, do you want to go to the Mother Teresa Orphanage?’”
The orphanage had organised a trip to a local hospital, where one of its 16-year-old girls had just given birth to twins.
At the time, Conceicao was a relatively naive 27-year-old, relishing in the luxury of her Dubai-based job. But her life was rattled in a few eye-opening moments.
“After going to the hospital in Bangladesh, I just wanted to throw up,” she says. “It was filthy, dirty, lacking hygiene. There’s no beds like we have here, they stay on the floor and they have to fight and compete for floor space. I thought it was so inhumane.
“The doctors’ jackets were not white and clean, they had blood stains. I thought I was in an abattoir. I couldn’t understand how someone who is really sick and goes to a hospital and a doctor to get better, could get better [at that hospital]. Going to that hospital was like meeting suicide, their situation would have been worse.
“When I went back to the hotel, I was disgusted and angry. How could people be living like this four hours away [from Dubai]?”
Conceicao’s impression was heightened by the fact she herself had just spent a week in a plush, private hospital in Dubai with an advanced kidney infection.
“Living in Dubai, we forget what life is outside of this,” she says, honestly. “[After the Bangladesh trip] I tried to go back to my routine. I went to the supermarket to buy a Häagen-Dazs ice cream and I remember clearly, it was AED21 ($5.70). In Bangladesh AED21 buys 21 kilos of rice. I couldn’t eat that ice cream and I thought, ‘I’m not going to live like this’.”
Conceicao sold all her belongings in Dubai and, along with donations from friends, cancelled a planned 10-day adventure tour in New Zealand for her birthday and instead returned to Bangladesh to set up a school.
Since then, the Portuguese former orphan has literally been to the top of the world and morphed into an extreme athlete, a fundraiser and a surrogate mother in an attempt to give 200 deprived children a chance to have a life – a real life.
Last month, she ran a mind-blowing seven marathons on seven continents. And she would have achieved it in seven days if it were not for an endless blast of bad weather in Antarctica, her last leg, which made landing on the icy continent impossible.
But while her feat was delayed by four days, Conceicao still became the fastest person in history to run seven marathons on seven continents, doing it in 11 days, 13 hours, 30 minutes and 41 seconds.
She began in Melbourne, Australia, and almost as fast as her feet crossed the finishing line she was on a plane for the 14-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, where she did another marathon just two hours after landing.
After a four-hour break she flew to Paris for the third marathon and then immediately on to Tunis, where logistics meant she started the next leg at 1am.
After another 14-hour flight, to New York City, she had her first opportunity to lie in a bed – albeit for only a few hours.
Conceicao and a small team that were travelling with her, including some who participated in all or part of the marathons and others who assisted with logistics and social media, always travelled in economy and had so far been stealing shut-eye while waiting at airports and in cafes.
Aboard the plane, she would raise her legs up against the chair in front, desperately trying to give them any kind of break from the mounting pressure.
“Everyone was looking at me and I felt no shame, I had to stretch my legs!” she says.
After enduring the coldest marathon of the seven in New York, it was a testing 16-hour, non-direct trip to Chile. By now Conceicao’s feet were swollen and painful.
“I’m not superhuman, at certain points I have pains and aches,” she adds.
But the toughest hurdle in the entire ordeal was facing the prospect of not finishing when the pilot of their chartered plane to Antarctica aborted the landing because a blizzard had made the runway invisible.
“We thought it was a joke,” Conceicao says. “We were gutted. We were so close to finishing in even less than seven days.
“The next day, they said 'let’s try again' so we went to the airport. We stayed there 12 hours sleeping on the floor, and trust me, Punta Arenas airport is nothing like Dubai airport.
“There was a lot of low morale as the days went by; seven people went home.”
As the days lingered with no reliable prediction of when she could start the Antarctica marathon, Conceicao turned her thoughts to the Bangladeshi children still waiting to have their 2015 schooling confirmed. That all came down to whether she could complete the marathons and round up the promised donations.
“I have to think ‘these kids look up to me and what they’re going through is harder’,” Conceicao says.
“I think for most people if they [finished the seventh marathon] or not it wouldn’t matter because they’re doing it [because] it’s a dream or an adventure or something they’ve wanted to do. But for me, if I didn’t cross the finishing line a child couldn’t go to school, a family couldn’t have food for a month, medical bills couldn’t be paid.”
Conceicao still fights back tears when she recalls the emotions that rose in her at the sight of raw poverty in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.
“It made me realise how lucky I was in life. It makes you question, ‘why them and not me?’” she says. “It was a big slap in my face because I also come from a poverty background and when I came to Dubai I forgot where I’d come from. If my adoptive mother hadn’t been there, would I be just like that?”
Conceicao was only two years old when her sick and unemployed mother accepted an offer from an Angolan woman to take her in. The woman, named Cristina, was a refugee and widow with six children, but she considered herself better off because she had a job as a cleaner.
“Her motto was ‘whatever feeds six, feeds seven’,” Conceicao recalls.
The deal was that her mother would take her back when she got work. But no-one at the time realised how sick her mother was with what they now believe was Alzheimer’s or dementia. Her mother forgot about her and died when Conceicao was nine or ten, she says.
Poverty meant Conceicao was unable to continue her education past the age of 12.
As an adult, she spent three years working illegally in Switzerland before she was hit by a car and consequently had her illegal status revealed to authorities while she was in hospital. But rather than stamp her passport as ‘never to return’, she was allowed to leave freely and even return if she enrolled to study hospitality.
That meant learning English, so Conceicao went to the UK, where she did not need a visa. She planned to study English there for three months before returning to Switzerland but fell in love with the country, and an Englishman, and stayed.
Another three years later, Conceicao was urged to apply to become a member of Emirates’ cabin crew because she could speak Portuguese, French and English. She was accepted and in 2003 moved to Dubai, where life took on a shine she had never before experienced.
But they say ‘you can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl’, and so it was for Conceicao when she was exposed to the poverty of Dhaka and thrust back to her old life huddled in a tiny apartment with seven other members of her adopted family.
Hence she called her charity the Maria Cristina Foundation in honour of her adopted mother.
Conceicao admits it was relatively easy to raise money in the early days; people - the wealthy and the average - were literally “queuing up” to give her cash.
“I never had to do anything, people would come to me,” she says. “I actually had more money than I needed; that’s how I survived the crisis, because I had money in the bank.”
As salaries and jobs were hit by the global financial crisis, so too was the Maria Cristina Foundation and the 200 children it supported. The overflow cash that had been saved covered the children’s costs for the 2010 academic year (which in Bangladesh runs January-December), but in 2011 there was no money left.
“That’s when I started going to corporates [but] that’s when we saw the [impact of] the recession,” Conceicao says.
But as has so often happened in her life, the twist in Conceicao’s story simply became the start of yet another interesting chapter.
Struggling to make traction with corporate sponsors who wanted something in return for their goodwill, Conceicao took notice of the attention Elham Al Qasimi gained when she became the first Emirati woman to reach the North Pole in April, 2010.
She copied the adventure a year later and was subsequently invited to give a speech at an event run by GEMS Education. That had a snowball effect that led to a AED2.7 million ($735,000) sponsorship that would cover 13 years of school fees, food, transport, stationary and toiletries for five Bangladeshi children brought to Dubai to attend a GEMS school.
The only piece of the funding puzzle not covered was flights for the children to visit their families. But also at the GEMS event, Conceicao met a housewife named Rosa.
Inspired by Conceicao, Rosa dreamt of walking the seven emirates of the UAE to raise money for the Maria Cristina Foundation but was not sure she could achieve it. The pair completed the walks together in 2012 with the backing of Etihad Airways, which agreed to provide bi-annual flights for the children if they completed the cross-emirate trek.
But the foundation’s bank account that had been supporting the 200 children still in Bangladesh soon ran out of funds and Conceicao was forced to make the heart-breaking decision to close her school in March, 2013.
The children went without education for the entire year, while Conceicao came up with bigger and bolder fundraising challenges.
In 2014, she became the first Portuguese woman to climb Mt Everest, despite such dangerous conditions that her Sherpa, or guide, insisted she abandon the climb before she had reached the summit.
It was that same sheer determination that saw her get through the disappointment of waiting in Chile to complete the seventh marathon.
While most would balk at the idea of running a marathon and consider it stir crazy to do seven consecutively, Conceicao says running was the easiest part. It gave her four or five hours to herself to “put my thoughts in place”.
“The hardest part is keeping the momentum [surrounding the foundation] going, keeping the sponsors engaged,” she says.
“I promised the kids I’d put them through their education and you don’t educate a child in a year, it takes 13 years at least.
“Because I come from a poor background and I broke it, I know if these children were given the same opportunity that I was when I was two years old, [they can] change their life 180-degrees.”
It costs at least $1,000 annually for each student’s tuition fees, food while at school, transport to classes, stationary and toiletries.
But the support also must extend to families because in many of these cases the children were desperately needed income earners the opportunity to go to school came along.
Some of Conceicao’s original students and at least one father have gone on to gain jobs with Emirates Airline.
Another, a former rickshaw driver who spent five years slowly learning English with the financial support of the Maria Cristina Foundation, was employed by an Omani sheikh. He had few skills but his personality soon saw him promoted to the sheikh’s personal assistant and chef, Conceicao says. He has returned the generosity, establishing a school in his Bangladeshi village that now caters to more than 50 students.
However, Conceicao gave up her own job at Emirates in 2013, when juggling flying and running the charity became too much and she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue. She has been supported for the past two years by an anonymous sponsor, although that funding is not guaranteed to continue.
“I could have stayed with Emirates well into my 60s … with many benefits. [But] I thought about how much two years would change the people’s lives in Bangladesh; it seemed more important than my own dreams,” she says.
“I thought, when I’m in a hospital bed about to die, what will I regret the most? Leaving the comfort of Emirates? Am I going to be thinking about that when I die?”
Conceicao has barely touched back down in Dubai and already she has bought a bike and is training for her next challenge – a full Ironman. But something even greater is in the pipeline.
How she can top Mt Everest and seven consecutive marathons is anyone’s guess but Conceicao says $250,000 is needed every year to sustain the foundation. In today’s vulnerable economic environment she may need to do her most outlandish challenge yet.
Awesome job, Maria!