Grad student lends aid in Bangladesh
Joseph McMahon | Friday, February 22, 2008
The mission of the University of Notre Dame calls its students to rise to extraordinary levels in service to others. Still, it is rare to see a student liquidate his accounts, postpone his studies, and travel halfway around the world to hand out mosquito nets and clean water in a disaster area.
Shawn Ahmed, a 26-year-old graduate student in sociology, did exactly that, all the while chronicling his exploits on YouTube and Flickr under the pseudonym, “The Uncultured Project.” Ahmed has been in Bangladesh since late June.
“I call it ‘The Uncultured Project’ because there really is nothing sophisticated about it,” Amed said. “I have no formal training or concrete plan. I just bought a camera, grabbed my computer, and flew to Bangladesh to see if I could make a difference.”
His mission was inspired by Notre Dame’s 2006 forum on world health, which featured Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a renowned poverty expert.
“I would not have started [the Uncultured project] if I was just an undergraduate from my old University,” said Ahmed, who previously attended Toronto University. “In September of 2006 we had the Notre Dame World Health Forum where [Sachs] basically said this is your homework – to end poverty in your lifetime. I was working towards my masters and Ph.D. in sociology [at Notre Dame], and eventually wanted to get a career field of development with a charity or the U.N. or something.”
Ahmed said that his mission is simply to spread awareness about global poverty issues through his online videos and photos, and he stressed that he is not looking for any money.
“Anyone who does aid work knows that it’s much easier when you don’t have to carry a camera around and that it saves time when you don’t have to edit video,” he said. “The reason I’m doing all that is because I want to get the word out and get other people thinking about poverty. I’m not just trying to get a pat on the back for the aid work I’m doing. I’m trying to get people to realize that we can end poverty in our lifetime if our generation makes it their personal responsibility to do so.”
One of the major reasons Ahmed chose Bangladesh is that he still has a lot of family there. His father attended Notre Dame College in Dhaka before deciding to immigrate to Canada during a bloody civil war when Bangladesh split from Pakistan. However, he still has roots in the rural villages, and his grandmother still has a house in the small town of Mobipheur.
“Well, Bangladesh was actually the easiest for me because I have family here, this way I don’t have to worry that much about room and board and my transportation. I have aunts, uncles, and my grandmother here,” he said.
Ahmed said people in the rural villages are often surprised that he has decided to return to his native country.
“In the rural villages, where I have a family connection, most people are used to people emigrating out,” he said. “Once people go to North America, they rarely come back. In my case the reaction was ‘This person has come back and now he’s trying to give us stuff?’ It surprised a lot of people.”
Ahmed has spent much of his time working in the local villages, giving out water purification systems, water bottles, mosquito nets, and wind-up flashlights so that kids can do their homework in the dark. He has done all of this with only his own and some of his parents’ money.
“I’ve been trying to do small things off-camera and on-camera to show people what they can do with very little money,” he said. “I’m not trying to be a charity or NGO, I’m trying to show what you can do with a little bit of money here and there to inspire others.”
He has also been working with other organizations, including a clinic that administers to native people sponsored by Notre Dame’s Bengal Bouts in the village of Jalchatra.
“I found a clinic not far from my grandmother’s village that gets Bengal Bouts funds and hopefully I can go there and see what they need as well as film what is going on,” Ahmed said.
Since coming to Bangladesh, Ahmed has endured many trials, including Cyclone Sidr – a storm more destructive than Hurricane Katrina that killed over 4,000 people. Ahmed decided to travel to the disaster area to hand out blankets to needy families, and chronicled his experience in a video entitled “Cyclone Sidr Disaster – The Hard Lessons of Aid Work.”
“Some of it is rural villages, some of it is in the outskirts of the city, and some of it was in the disaster area. It felt like a bomb had just gone off – all the homes were destroyed,” he said.
After Ahmed had run out of blankets, the local villagers chased him back into his boat. As he was leaving, he saw a small boy standing on the shore, naked and shivering. Next to him was a family under a blanket.
“So he slept in the cold and those people get to stay warm at night. It didn’t seem fair,” Ahmed said. “I thought that there would be this warm and fuzzy feeling, but if I could be honest, it’s not there because when you’re on the ground, you can always see that no matter how much I’m doing, there’s always someone else left out in the cold.”
In addition, when he first arrived in Bangladesh with his mother, she contracted dengue fever, which “basically turns you into a hemophiliac.” The illness added several thousand dollars to the already expensive venture.
“It’s also been really tough on the family as well,” he said. “I was really worried about my mom when she got dengue fever.”
Nonetheless, Ahmed continues his aid work in Bangladesh, undeterred by these unfortunate events. However, he knows the venture is financially unsustainable over the long term, and he hopes to eventually enroll again at Notre Dame.
“Right now I’m reapplying to resume the [sociology graduate] program,” he said. “I haven’t heard back from them yet. Other than that I definitely know aid work and development is something I want to do the rest of my life. I would keep doing what I’m doing now if it was something that was financially sustainable, but my family can only donate so much money to this.”
Moreover, Ahmed is still just as inspired as the day when he heard Dr. Sachs speak at the University, and he insists that we can end poverty in our lifetime, even though it will take a lot of hard work.
“I think we can [end poverty in our time]. It’s not going to happen automatically,” he said. “We’re going to need a commitment to make poverty a top priority back in America while poverty around the world may not be one of the top priorities right.”
uAlumni Hall has decided to spend the remainder of the academic year raising money for Ahmed, said Alumni Hall president Matt Kernan. Kernan met Ahmed through YouTube several months ago, and said he hopes to raise money not only in Alumni but also in other dorms to send to Bangladesh.
“The first thing I thought when I heard is story of just how amazing a person it takes to drop out of school and liquidate your checking account and just fly over there,” Kernan said. “It really takes an amazing person and I think Shawn is the perfect guy for the job over there.”
Kernan actually had to convince Ahmed to take the money.
“He said he’s not looking for fundraising, he just wants to get the word out about his message of how we can end poverty,” Kernan said. “I said that you want it to be inspiring, but what do you want to inspire them to do. Most [Notre Dame students] aren’t going to get up and fly to Bangladesh. The best thing you’re going to have a chance at inspiring them to do it to give money.”