Building resilient communities - the story of Shomy Chowdhury
Updated: Jul 17
By Peter Bateman, Youth Co:Lab
Resilience is what the world needs right now. Shomy Chowdhury has spent the better part of the last decade building resilience in communities that lack access to resources, information or social safety nets that can protect them.
During the COVID-19 crisis, her work with the marginalized - who are at the most risk – is more critical than ever.
Shomy, along with friend Rijve Arefin co-founded Awareness 360, a non-profit organization that facilitates and empowers young people to take up community service projects in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The duo are also community partners of Youth Co:lab Movers programme.
“We [Awareness 360] recruit some of the most passionate young people, who don’t have to have a lot of background experience in the community service or development sector, but who want to do something for their communities,” said Shomy.
Her passion for serving others less fortunate began during an exchange program to the United States, where she was required to do 40 hours of community service. She did 460 hours.
Her efforts and enthusiasm won her The US President’s Volunteer Service Award (Gold) from Barack Obama.
“That really boosted my confidence, I felt like, Ok, I came to America, I got an award but what about my own country [Bangladesh] where I really belong,” said Shomy.
When Shomy returned to Bangladesh, she spent time getting involved in different projects, but it was a family tragedy that would motivate her to dedicate her efforts full time to advocacy.
In 2014, Shomy’s mother passed away just 24 hours after contracting diarrhea, and the family struggled to understand how it was possible, that their mother could be gone so quickly.
“I couldn’t just accept that in the 21st century someone can die from diarrhea,” she said.
“I did some research, and I found out that it’s not just my mother, but over 45,000 people die from diarrhea alone, only in my country [Bangladesh], and then I realized it is not just a problem of my country, it is a global problem.”
Four days after her mother’s passing, Shomy conducted her first Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project in a sewerage workers community – a group of people that have traditionally been thought of as ‘untouchables’, isolated from the rest of society.
“At that point, I was so driven by emotions, and I thought if I wait one more day, someone else will lose their mother,” said Shomy.
When she saw the impact that education and a small act of kindness could have on so many people, she knew that she couldn’t stop.
Through the efforts of Shomy, Rijive and countless volunteers, Awareness 360 has made it to 23 different countries, impacting over 150,000 lives.
When Youth Co:Lab caught up with Shomy during the current COVID-19 pandemic, she was looking to empower the most vulnerable communities to get through the crisis.
In Bangladesh, the national lockdown had eliminated any income sources for the sex worker community, and so many were destitute not even being able to afford food.
“There are millions of people starving and that need help, but the sex worker community in Bangladesh is so stigmatized they don’t even have the luxury to go out and ask for help,” said Shomy.
With no other organization willing to help, Shomy, Rijve and their team in Bangladesh decided to raise money to distribute food and essentials for the lockdown.
During the campaign, Rijve tested positive for COVID-19. Due to pre-existing health issues, his case worsened rapidly. The team was shaken. Through uncertainty and pain, Rijve insisted on contributing to the workload, motivating his team to continue with their mission. Though he could not attend the distribution himself, his efforts helped the team succeed in delivering essential supplies to some of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable citizens.
Rijve has since recovered and is now working on launching the next drive to help the transgender community. He and Shomy are currently running the Awareness 360 Facebook Live Series, hosting different skills and discussion-based live sessions, showcasing outstanding young people from around the world.
Shomy resilience in the face of tragedy and the enormous societal issues she has chosen to fight against has helped thousands of others - like the sex workers of Bangladesh - find their strength. At the heart of what Awareness 360 does is empower communities to be resilient in their own unique and difficult situations.
When asked about what advice she would give youth in the aftermath of the COVID-19 Crisis, Shomy stressed that resilience is a skill, but we can all help each other to be more resilient.
“Take time to think about what we are going to do about entering the new normal. The effect is going to remain for quite a while. I think it is important for now to really plan ahead, and prepare ourselves to be adaptable, that’s resilience.”
Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.