More than 40 percent of people living in Bangladesh are below the international poverty line, according to UNICEF.
One First Coast resident, Radwan Chowdhury, originally from Bangladesh, has made it his life’s mission to stop poverty there.
He’s working on his mission through his nonprofit, the UDiON Foundation.
It was the image of a girl foraging for food in a sewer that was Chowdhury’s aha moment.
“I was sitting in the cafeteria with a bunch of friends who I grew up with. In the corner of my eye I kept watching this young girl picking food from the sewer line,” Chowdhury said. “That struck me, so I called her in and asked her some questions. She was born in the prostitution center. She doesn’t know who her father was, and the mother could not be found.”
Chowdhury was back in his hometown of Chietagong, Bangladesh. After he’d experienced life as a college student in the U.S. He found his indifference to poverty had evaporated.
“[My] thinking process changed there. While the world has so much resources, then why [is] this person picking food from the sewer line? It’s not acceptable. So what can I do as an individual to help this person?”
He brought the girl home to his parents.
“Mom says, ‘Who’s she? Why’s she here? And what’s she doing?’
I said, ‘I don’t know who she is, and I don’t know where she’s going to go, but for tonight let’s keep her here.’
My mom said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
He explained, “We had a little bit of conversation as a mother and a son. At the end of the day my mother is a mother, and she says, ‘OK, she’s staying,’ and I told my mother, ‘OK, you have [your] first grandchild.’”
That was the UDiON Foundation’s first success story. 20 years later that girl is now a married mother of two, living a productive life.
Chowdhury’s foundation later built an orphanage that’s home to 320 kids.
The foundation also sponsors medical care for unimaginable scenarios, including surgery for Rabiul Santha, a boy whose stepfather reportedly cut off both of his arms to make him a street beggar.
“So if this kid grows up without both hands, he won’t be able to function and do a whole lot of things that you and me do. So he has no other options but to beg, and his parent’s are the ones capitalizing on it,” he said.
Two years ago the organization found Santha free medical care in the U.S., and paid his travel expenses to Philadelphia where Shriner’s Hospital operated and gave him prosthetic arms.
The UDiON Foundation sponsors almost 300 children to go to school. It pays the kids’ families stipends so the kids can stay in school and escape exploitation as child laborers.
“The garment factories and the fisheries are taking them off the streets and bringing them to work. They are abusing them, making them work 10, 12 hours a day with below average pay,” he said.
That’s why UDiON created educational centers where it trains students with job skills in technology and tailoring so they can support themselves and their families.
“It’s not just giving someone a fish, but teaching them how to fish, but my approach and our approach through the organization is go one step above and beyond: Teach them how to dig a pond and do the fishery in that pond that would have sustainability," he said.
Chowdhury says he does this because he’s seen the world from both sides. He said, “I was privileged to grow up above the poverty line in Bangladesh. I was fortunate.”
Chowdhury mostly funds the foundation himself through his work as a software consultant.
“Every human being has the ability to at least help one person. So whatever that child is, and whatever is the color of their skin or their fate that they share, it has nothing to do [with it],” he said. “Children aren’t born into a religion; they’re born into a world.”