Shomy Hasan Chowdhury: An Odyssey of Converting Grief into Courage

Written by Nuzaba Tasannum

September 9, 2020

A loved one’s death can leave a person in endless agony. Conversely, Shomy transformed her pain into her strength to ‘fight against the exact cause’ that killed her most beloved person.

Find your passion in what bothers you. Make sure when something bothers you, you do not just rant about it. You should rather take action and go above and beyond to find a solution to your problems

From a very early age, Shomy Hasan Chowdhury’s parents ensured that she learned to give back to the community. As a result, she took part in several community service activities. This led her to be selected for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES). It is a full scholarship student exchange program administered by the US Department of State. Consequently, she left for Michigan to pursue her senior year of high school. Shomy realized the broader significance of volunteer activities after going to the United States of America. Shomy was required to do at least 40 hours of community service within one year of her stay in the US as a YES student. This was a gesture of thanking the community for hosting her. However, she became so passionate about helping others that she managed to do 460 hours of community service by the end of the year. As a result of her record-breaking service to the community, she was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award (Gold) from the then-President Barack Obama and a letter of appreciation from the White House. This incident elevated her confidence remarkably and further motivated her to endure her social service passion in Bangladesh. Subsequently, she returned to Bangladesh and became a YES Alumna. Nonetheless, she continued her social service activities by organizing awareness seminars and donation programs with her friends. 

However, on 14th April, when the entire nation was celebrating Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali New Year, Shomy’s mother suddenly passed away. This incident struck her like ‘a bolt from the blue’ since it only happened a day after her mother came home from work with diarrhea probably from eating street food. Shomy could not accept that a simple diarrhea could take away her mother from her life in only 24 hours. Consequently, she researched more about the cause of her mother’s death. She discovered that her mother was just a part of a staggering statistic. Shomy learned, “Every year, more than 45,000 people die in Bangladesh only because of not washing their hands due to lack of awareness.” On that day, Shomy promised herself that she will not let anyone else lose a dear one for such ignorance. Accordingly, Shomy organized her first WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) talk within only four days of her mother’s death. It was with a group of sewage and sanitary workers in Mymensingh, where her mother was buried. She stated that sewage and sanitary workers are considered an untouchable community and often lack knowledge about maintaining proper hygiene.

Nevertheless, a few of her relatives in the village criticized and discouraged her from arranging the seminar quickly after her mother’s demise. Then again, Shomy knew that delaying a single day would make a huge difference and cause someone’s death. Therefore, Shomy commenced her journey of transforming her sorrows into her power by dedicating her work to saving others’ lives from the grasp of ignorance. 

For the last seven years, Shomy has been working with WASH and has impacted the lives of more than 70,000 individuals. Her beneficiaries include people from vulnerable communities, like sex-workers, sewage workers, slum dwellers, underprivileged school children, and people with disabilities. While pursuing her undergraduate degree in Economics in the Universiti Putra Malaysia, she met her best friend, Rijve Arefin. Later, they co-founded Awareness 360, intending to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), particularly, clean water and sanitation. Currently, Awareness 360 is operating in 23 different countries. In addition, through her influence and impact as a WASH advocate, Shomy earned multiple recognitions, including the Diana Award and Diana Legacy Award in 2019. She has also been appointed as the first Bangladeshi Asia Representative of the Commonwealth Students’ Association (CSA). Afterward, she was invited to meet HRH the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry, and Meghan Markle to introduce her team to HRH and discuss her activities. In 2017, she was appointed a WASH Youth Advocate of the Global Citizen (GC). In the GC Festival in New York, the same year, Priyanka Chopra presented her on stage to speak in front of thousands of people about her journey.

Amid so many accomplishments, Shomy found it quite challenging to choose the one thing she is most proud of. However, she did narrate an incident from which we came to learn about her ‘unusual hobby’. Shomy takes a picture of every toilet she ‘encounters’. She was invited as the youngest International Election Observer from the Commonwealth in the 2018 Pakistani General Election chaired by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, former President of Nigeria. She observed the unhygienic toilets without clean water and soap during her visit to the election polls. Although this did not have a direct relationship with the election process, it was depicted as a massive hindrance towards the voters and polling officers. Therefore, in her observation report, she recommended the arrangement of clean water, soap, and hygienic toilets after showing them pictures of the unsanitary washrooms. Consequently, the recommendations were sent to the Commonwealth Secretary-General. This step led to a notable change in the maintenance of hygiene in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, she tackled multiple obstacles during her journey. She was often mocked by many of her friends and relatives whenever she would organize a WASH talk ‘to teach people to wash their hands in the 21st century’. Besides, conducting WASH talks in the brothels was a big challenge. She narrated a story about handling such difficulty. The sex-workers were not paying attention to their words during their first WASH talk in a brothel in Mymensingh. Subsequently, everyone else from her team was almost giving up and considering to leave. Then, Shomy came up with a brilliant idea for ‘breaking the awkwardness’. The team invited the sex-workers to sing and dance on-stage and arranged interesting games with unique gifts for them. As a result, they became comfortable with the team. Accordingly, the sex-workers listened to them with the utmost attention when the crew of Awareness 360 delivered their WASH talk in a local dialect. 

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury, an epitome of inspiration for everyone, considers her team from Awareness 360 her inspiration. She also looks up to Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization and the World Toilet Day initiative. Furthermore, she thinks of Bill Gates and Dr. Muhammad Yunus as her role model because they support the WASH advocacy. Shomy claimed that her father and her best friend and Co-founder of Awareness 360, Rijve Arefin were her most significant support behind her success so far. Shomy dreams big with her ‘brainchild’ Awareness 360. During the lockdown due to COVID-19, Awareness 360 organized a WASH talk with a group of sex-workers. The team also provided the sex-workers with free food and hygiene materials for an entire month.

Subsequently, they target the Transgender community who are considered ‘an outcast’ in the Bangladeshi society for their next project. Moreover, Awareness 360 organized more than 70 Facebook Live sessions with notable speakers from all over the world about mental health, rape culture, gender-based violence, and several vital issues. Shomy believes that the government should implement some policies regarding maintaining hygiene and investing more in this sector. Only then, her WASH advocacy will be successful. Besides, she thinks that experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic can facilitate in taking action concerning WASH. Her advice to aspiring young people is, “Find your passion in what bothers you. Make sure when something bothers you, you do not just rant about it. You should rather take action and go above and beyond to find a solution to your problems.” Shomy is currently planning on a startup for funding future projects of Awareness 360. The readers can know more about the global youth-led voluntary non-profit organization by visiting https://www.awarenessthreesixty.org/. We believe that Shomy will keep saving millions of people through her journey and eradicate the unawareness regarding WASH from the world.

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