Sebia Sulaiman, a pioneer in the field of early childhood education and a lifelong social worker passed away at 5:30 AM on September 19, 2020 at a city hospital in Dhaka. She was laid to rest after Zuhr prayers the same day by her two sons, Habib Sadat Choudhury, MD and professor Dr Habib Numan Choudhury, at the Shaheed Buddhijibi Graveyard in Mirpur. Sebia Sulaiman was 85 and is survived by the two sons and two daughters, professor Dr Parsa Choudhury and Arifa Choudhury, MD who due to the suddenness of their mother's demise and the Covid-19 restrictions in the USA, were unable to be at her bedside in the last few days of her brief illness.
Sebia and her four children followed the footsteps of her father and father-in-law. Her father was Abdul Mumith Choudhury of Sylhet, a civil surgeon, and she married Sulaiman Choudhury, son of Habibur Rahman Choudhury, principal of Government Aliya Madrasa, Sylhet. During her rich career life and thereafter, she dedicated herself to the cause of education and social emancipation of the underprivileged. In an article entitled "Glimpses of Education in America" published in Bangladesh Observer she wrote, "In the farthest corner of my mind lies a fountain of aspirations for the movement to the higher world of studies. I reveal here the story of my teaching as a volunteer teacher there in America as a humble gesture to all devotees of knowledge in the field of teaching". (July 2, 1983)
Sebia began her teaching career in 1960 after receiving her Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) degree from Mymensingh Teacher's Training College. She taught at Cantonment Modern School (renamed Shaheed Anwar School) and then transferred to Viqarunnesa Noon School (VNS) in 1964 where she taught both in the Junior and Senior Sections. After eighteen years at VNS she joined Purana Paltan Women's College where she taught for five years. In the interim, in 1974, she earned her MA (English) from Dhaka University.
As the eldest of five sisters and three brothers, Sebia served as a role model from her early life. Her father, a physician, was posted at different locations before and after the partition of India in 1947 and she took upon herself the task of looking after her younger siblings which she continued after marriage in 1954 to the illustrious banker, Sulaiman Choudhury. Sulaiman lost his father at the age of 16 and was at the helm of his family, led by his mother Hifzunnesa Khanam who moved to Maulvi Bazar to be with her father Syed Sikander Ali and her three brothers (Syed Mustafa Ali, Syed Murtaza Ali, and Syed Mujtaba Ali). After their marriage, Sebia and Sulaiman nurtured his four younger sisters throughout their entire life.
I learned a lot about Sebia Sulaiman and her values in life after her family took me in during my SSC years in their residence in Bank House, Minto Road. While in her personal life, she was a quiet and silent worker with a house full of children from her own and those of her four clamorous sisters-in-law, she managed to juggle many balls at the same time as a school teacher, mother, and an essential clog in a well-oiled machine known as the extended family.
Good educators like Sebia Sulaiman create new opportunities to grow and work with their colleagues to do the same. At VNS, she came in contact with other great teachers including Alia Amin and Siddiqua Kabir, wife of Syed Ali Kabir, who like Sulaiman started his career at the State Bank of Pakistan.
A well-loved personality in the USA, Mr Rogers, creator of "Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood" once said , "I think silence is one of the greatest gifts we have." If that's true, Sebia had a lot to give. In her classroom, she encouraged her students to reflect during quiet time. Her favourite quotation was from Henri Nouwen who said, "As an educator, I hope that students gain the confidence to express themselves and the strength to ask for help. At their age, students can sometimes struggle to find their voices and hear those of others."
It was my privilege to know this great educator closely when she married my only maternal uncle, Sulaiman Choudhury, a banker and philanthropist. When I was in Class X in Government Laboratory High School, my father was transferred from Dhaka to Dinajpur as the District and Sessions Judge of Dinajpur and Bogra. I would have been a homeless student if my mami did not invite me to share their two-bedroom flat in Bank House, Minto Road, with her family of six, including her mother-in-law. During the next year when I stayed with the family, I saw multiple examples of her dedication to her students and family, particularly her extended family. When the results of my SSC exam came out a year later in June 1967, my mami was the first to congratulate me for topping the Combined Merit List as a student of Humanities in the Dhaka Board. "Shibli, you are only keeping up with your family tradition!" she said in her soft, measured tone.
In her autobiographical book "Jeeboner Kotha" (Stories from My Life) she talks about the time in the early 1950s when she was enrolled in Victoria College of Comilla as a BA student. Akhter Hamid Khan, the founder of Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development (BARD), was then officiating as the principal of Victoria College and gave a memorable speech to the students. AH Khan encouraged them to engage with the underprivileged and was a source of inspiration for Sebia during her lifelong work as an educator and for social welfare. She worked with Rotary Inner Wheel and was a life member of Assistance for Blind Children (ABC) and Underprivileged Children's Educational Program (UCEP), two non-profit NGOs.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and currently works in information technology. He is also Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.