Impacts beyond the classroom: Aaraf Ahmed, Class of 2021
By Alexandra Burza, MMJC'19
The timing could not have been more pertinent for Aaraf Ahmed when he began the Master of Public Health (MPH) Program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry last fall.
Having just co-founded a grassroots fundraising movement, BacharLorai, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in his home country of Bangladesh, Ahmed was eager to acquire new knowledge and perspectives to help achieve his mission.
Ahmed started BacharLorai with a friend in March 2020, as stories from Bangladesh about slow humanitarian aid and government response, as well as an alarming shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers began to emerge. He wrote an article in response to what he saw as a burgeoning public health crisis, garnering massive support online.
“At that point, I was concerned about the safety of my own family. There are so many Bangladeshi ex-pats, like me, living in Canada and in different places in the world, who had the resources but didn’t know how to help,” Ahmed said.
Growing up with parents who were public health officials themselves, Ahmed knew that there were many bottlenecks and bureaucratic processes that made instantaneous humanitarian aid difficult for local NGOs. His solution was to connect people who needed help directly with those who wanted to financially support emergency response in Bangladesh.
BacharLorai helps individuals, organizations and communities in need through helping establish GoFundMe campaigns for their distinct needs and promoting and managing the fundraisers themselves. The result was 15 distinct initiatives during the course of the past year, which have included the procurement and distribution of 170 oxygen cylinders, 5,000 care packages for health care workers, 70 hospital beds, as well as financial support for those laid off due to the pandemic.
During their initial campaign, which took place during Ramadan last year – a season of giving for Muslims worldwide – the fundraising goal of $5,000 was reached in just a few hours. To date, BacharLorai has raised more than $150,000 across their various projects.
Growing the movement beyond their initial social circles was a challenge, Ahmed admitted. The breakthrough came when he and his team engaged with Bangladeshi student associations at several Canadian universities, who supported the campaigns and spread their message online.
Through BacharLorai’s growing social media presence and the rising popularity of their dedicated hashtag among their donors, the movement was able to capture the attention of those who needed their help, as well as local non-profits who wanted to partner with their movement.
“We had public health organizations in Bangladesh who were supporting us and our hashtag, and they disseminated the message further through their social media, widening the reach,” he explained.
“But I also understood that I do not know the infrastructure of Bangladesh well enough, because I am here, so it wasn’t a good idea to run the ground work and logistics ourselves.”
By allocating funds to local NGOs that could execute the procurement and distribution of resources, while also maintaining a system of strict accountability with their partner organizations, Ahmed was able to ensure that all the funds raised went directly to relief efforts.
“We gathered pictures, proof, receipts and updated our GoFundMe as the campaigns went on, so that helped us gain credibility. People saw that the work was actually being done,” he said.
“We were able to arm more than 100 hospitals with oxygen cylinders for the price of one year of my tuition as an international student, because we could forgo the typical administrative costs.”
In addition to the typical relief efforts required in a pandemic, Ahmed also managed fundraisers to support infrastructure and resources for more than 45,0000 people at the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, as well as humanitarian aid for communities displaced by Cyclone Amphan in May 2020.
“As I was learning more in the MPH Program, I understood how I come from a sector of society in Bangladesh which is not as marginalized as others. What I was learning in school made me want to apply that same broad health equity lens to my work,” he explained.
Ahmed says he chose the MPH Program because of the case-based learning method, which simulates real-world scenarios and allows students to experience how they would handle real challenges and problems. And he feels very fortunate to work alongside his learning team, with whom he was able to have critical discussions about personal privilege and power dynamics in public health, as well as the importance of inter-cultural competency.
He is thankful for their support, as well as the encouragement of faculty members like Dr. Amardeep Thind, who helped him navigate his coursework while managing an international social movement. A few of his classmates will even be joining him in his work with BacharLorai Summer Experience Program this summer, beginning a new initiative to address gender violence and inequality in Bangladesh.
“Everything I have been taught here, I have tried to apply to BacharLorai and the result is that I have been a better, more ethical decision maker.”