Destigmatizing Social Taboos with SameersScane

For our August 2021 cover issue we are talking about "Destigmatizing Taboos and Creating Social Awareness" with Content Creator Sameer Ahmed, the founder and face of Sameerscane, a youth initiated social awareness platform that is working towards amplifying the voices of the unheard and silenced. Sameerscane has been able garner a sizable audience in the past one year by making videos which are seemingly controversial yet thought provoking like "Is Dhaka The New Rape Capital" or "The Education System of Bangladesh."

Through this conversation we are dividing deep into understanding Sameer's personal journey in establishing his platform, the challenges of being a new age content creator who is lending his voice for topics that are still considered taboo in Bangladesh and dealing with the various hurdles that come in the way of trying to truly make an impact.

We asked him to share a little bit about his years of growing up in Dhaka to which he replied saying "When I was in Dhaka I was in this privileged bubble, this kind of a cocoon of wealth and privilege. I guess my bio would be almost like any of those typical Gulshan/Banani kids. I was in Sunbeams from nursery to grade 6 and Sunbeams is essentially the school of very rich elitist kids whose parents were the shit because they were ministers, businessman and filthy rich people.

Unfortunately for many kids that attitude kind of translated into them. So you had little 10 year old kids who went into school thinking that they are something that they are not or they were bloated with this kind of a philosophy and idea that they are something very major whereas they're just kids and they're not supposed to think of such things at all.

People used to also show off and I think personally I was one of them too, can't deny it. I used to see that my parents were not happy with that and they applied for PR in Australia and sure enough when I was in grade 6 I was told we can move into Australia."

When we asked Sameer about some of his struggles of moving into a different country and adapting to the culture shock at such an early age he said "That was a big thing for me because I would say I was fairly popular in Dhaka amongst the cool kids and suddenly it was a fresh start. My idea of living abroad was limited to the TV shows which showed the American high school life. It was unfortunate but I was quick to find out that it wasn't as amazing because when I came into Australia in the beginning of 2016, I was a very big target to bullying. I was a 14-year-old kid, who weighed 88kgs, brown skinned, didn't have a very good accent, on top of that I had a massive speech disorder and all of these things combined I wasn't really at the best spot when I came to Australia."

We asked him to share some of his personal experiences of being affected by a significant suffering and he said "The one cool friend I had in Australia along with another tall guy played the table top prank on me in grade 9 and I felt really betrayed. I flipped, I fell and I had an asthma attack and the entire compound was cleared out, the ambulance was called and the two very popular kids in our batch were suspended. My mom being a brown parent sent me back to school within 2 days of the incident. Once those kids came back after 4 days they were like this guy must have faked it to get us into trouble. So for the next 4 months these people made my life hell.

I was bullied a lot, cyber bullied, they used to follow me around and make me feel as shitty as possible. I remember I used to come back home, literally go back to my room and talk to no one. All my friends were a bunch of nerds who were spineless, they never really had my back, I used to complain to school but they would never take action against a verbal complaint and only care if something physical happened. One day I had enough of the bullying and I punched one of the guys. As soon as I punched them back it all stopped. I was suspended for 3 days but when I came back the bullying had stopped because their thinking was we got suspended so we want you to be suspended as well and as soon as that happened I was in this massive limbo zone.

I then started doing something really weird which was called water fasting where I lost 14kgs in 3 months. I was just having water, very little food and the highest I went without food was 3 days. As soon as I lost some weight I saw that people were looking at me differently. It's unfortunate but true. I then fortunately met some amazing people who pushed me out of that dark spot and are still friends with me till this date."

We asked him about how the relationship between him and Bangladesh blossomed and why he felt the need do something for the country "We were always very lucky to go back to Dhaka every 6 months from Perth, because my dad's company bore the expenses. My dad essentially grew up in Puran Dhaka and he likes to go there a lot but now whenever he goes back it's very different from what it was before. Now we go there at 12 o'clock in his car that has tainted glass, music playing in full volume, food is brought to the car and that's his life which is fine because he lived the normal life and he has earned this good life but we as kids are not really picking up the reality from this.

I used to realize these things and tell him that it's fine for you but we as kids really have to get out of this bubble or we will be stuck being a "farm er murgi" (rich spoiled brats) which shouldn't happen and to which my Abbu would say that once you grow a little older I'll let you go out on your own.

Sure enough I grew up but he just wouldn't let me, so one day in the middle of a family gathering I said it out loud that I want to and can surely go out with my uncle. Knowing that my parents can't say no in front of my uncle because that would be kind of disrespecting him, they said yes. From then onwards, I started exploring the real side of Dhaka which was not the fake, superficial, artificial side that 0.0001% people experience.

So we started going around alot of places. One of the main ones was when I used to take a train to go to my uncle's office in Motijheel at a stock brokerage almost every single day. It was kind of an internship but I never really went for the internship, I went for the train ride. What started happening was I started growing a bond with this country a lot more. What usually happens is when people live in other countries they tend to call those places home but for me I never felt that way and the biggest reason was when I was in Komolapur for the first time, I remember this euphoric feeling of standing, looking around and feeling like damn this was home and these are my people. I can't describe this feeling.

I have this analogy that we care for our family because we love them and once you love someone their problem becomes your problem. I was indirectly spending a lot of time with the locals, I started feeling for the people and their problems became my problems. I used to be on this train every day and I got to explore the kind hearted nature of Bengalis. During the hot summer days when everybody would love to sit in the window seats on the train, a lot of the times some of the very loving people let me sit near the window instead. I saw them sweating and sleeping beside me yet they let me sit on the side so that I could enjoy myself. And that's when I realized how nice the real people were and even if anyone else said otherwise I would not hear it."

We asked him to describe to us about how the seed of Sameerscane was planted and the process of it coming to life, to which he said "During the beginning of 2020, I started traveling a lot more by myself, I used to go to places like the slums. The biggest life defining day was when I went to Puran Dhaka with my uncle on a Friday afternoon when it was the most crowded and we were walking around for a few hours and for the first time in my life while traveling in Dhaka, I was about to complain to my uncle saying that I've had enough.

I couldn't breathe because of the bad air quality, I needed more hands to block my nose because it was smelly, I needed more hands to hold my ears because of the noisy horns, walking for two hours had kinda got to me, my feet were hurting a lot and as soon as I was about to complain I look to my right and there was this guy who was the same age as me, sleeping on top of a van and I just froze. The contrast really hits you because I looked at myself dressed in great shoes, expensive shirt, a watch on my hand and then I see this guy who must be really tired, sleeping in the middle of all this noise and smell. I saw many similar things in the next 15 minutes and when I went back home I was extremely upset.

My father kind of noticed it and to cheer me up he took me to a dinner which was supposed to be with an intimate affair with a vip guest and his family. Throughout the dinner I saw this crazy rich guy who was there with us along with 3 of his wives and 14 children showing off his wealth the entire time and admitting to bribery. It got me thinking that these are the kind of people who enter positions of power, with money and corruption, who are tasked to save the people I saw earlier in the morning which felt so wrong.

I was wishing if I could do something on my own. I spoke to some of my friends in Dhaka who run youth organizations but I didn't necessarily want to be a part of it because I remember once visiting a slum. We assume that the people living there don't have access to food, water and clothing but I discovered after talking to the people that they had all these and they took me to their bedrooms and showed me that the biggest problem they were facing was the disturbance caused by rats.

These rats were making holes in the ground which would make them and their babies sick. Who do they go to and complain because if they go to a counselor they would probably take the whole slum off and that's their house. They have no one to complain to, they have no one to help them and a charity is not gonna come and fix that with food and water. Giving people food for just one day it's not gonna make a long-term impact.

I remember writing notes every single day about how I would feel when I'd experience these and in April when I looked back at the notes it all started adding up. I wanted to do something that involved the masses and involved very big change and because I didn't have any money or external support I thought there was only one way to do it which was through videos. A video could reach out to one person, 10 people, 10,000 people or 1 million people, so that was worth a shot.

I called some a friend of mine in Dhaka who is a video editor and he agreed to come on board. I told him when I come back to Dhaka we could go to some specific spots and talk about these issues and maybe that would work very well. He got a few other people on board and we were a team of four. Our plan was to make a video in December but then Covid19 came in and so we thought of testing the water in June."

We asked him to share the experience of making his first video to which he said "I was very nervous, I had never made any videos before and the day before the video went up our teams was on a call from 3pm to 5am. We actually collaborated with this charity organization then and the day we submitted the video to them I got seen-zoned by the founder. I knew something was wrong and I called up my friend who was the co-founder and he straight up told me that it was a shit video. I was like I'm not doing this anymore, I can't handle this.

I was thinking, sitting in Australia, talking about an issue partly in Bangla, I didn't have a Bangladeshi audience, I am a nobody, my hands were shaking, I'm not gonna drop the video and while this was going on, one of the four people in the team told me something very striking. He said look for someone who has never made a video before it's a 10 on 10 but if they're expecting some kind of a Hassan Minaj who has 50 video editors then it's a 6 but which one are you?

That made me think and the next day when I met my friends in Perth they all told me to drop the video and they will all share it and so I did. I expected around 1K views combined but the video kind of viral on Facebook and it got to 10K in 2 days, 2.5K on Instagram and the next week we dropped another video that got us our Instagram audience. And that's how we got started."

We asked him about how he deals with the negativity that comes with social media and if there has been a topic that he personally resonated with from his archive of videos. He responded "I personally relate to the video we made called "The Bangladeshi Social Dilemma" which is based on hate comments and just the simple concept of how celebrities, public figures we are all humans too and people forget that. I never understood that because if you were in our position you would never ever drop a hate comment for anyone, even if you don't like the content. It's like people forget that we are human and it's so sad. If I make one bad piece of content I received more hate comments in one day than I would've in years if I wouldn't have done social media.

These people don't know me. When we did the first video on rape, I made a mistake by making the video partly in English so people essentially thought that I was doing some anti-state propaganda sitting abroad, talking shit and I got some horrible horrible comments. That was the first time I got a barrage of hate comments and I remember I couldn't sleep.

You consider yourself responsible to go and tell the person that they are wrong and something else is the truth and that's how I used to feel in the beginning. I am used to it now and the sad part is we're expected to be used to it. I signed up to do good and that's still my purpose but in the name of doing good you have to deal with so much uncalled for bullshit. That's the issue that has impacted me the most."

We asked him about how he looks at the state of Bangladesh as a country and how we could actively try and improve the our society for the better and he said "I think Bangladesh has massive problems socially. Misogyny is one of the big ones, whether that branches out to rapes and more. The one that I personally care about the most is inequality and that has innumerable facets. It can be in terms of income, gender, race, etc. It all stems from inequality. I'm not gonna lie to myself and say that Bangladesh is perfect, no country is perfect but we just have to work towards overcoming these things.

I think that one needs to stop scaring people by complaining. Comments like - this country is going no where, this country is done with, I can't wait to leave this country, etc. I am living in Australia but I haven't forgotten about my country and that's very important. The most important thing is that there needs to be hope. You have to believe that there will be a lot of good happening to our country and we will see this through. I believe that our generation will see through some of these changes and it's our responsibility to, we can and we will. And this is something that we have to tattoo in our brains."

We asked him to take us through the team behind Sameerscane and he said "First of all I love my team. It's not some kind of an official work environment, we are more than just the members we are friends first and foremost. The craziest thing is I've never met 20 out of 22 of them yet we are so close. Maybe I can make these videos myself and we did that when we had two people in the beginning but you realize that you are a lot better at doing this when you have more people, more perspectives, more debate internally, more work, more skillset and more creativity when we're bouncing off ideas and it changes the game completely.

We have 22 people in different teams which are the editing team, the script writing team, the research team and art team. So we are extremely well resourced, we have people who are from 7 different countries, different age groups.

Honestly I've probably been through many creative blocks throughout this phase, I did the fat shaming video with a script but for a while I didn't do scripts but there are so many people in the team who are specialized in that. There are so many people for example who can write scripts but they would never go on camera so does that mean that their opinion should not be expressed. Then there's me who probably can't always write but who can go on camera.

So it has gotten us all together and we perfectly balance one another."

We ended the conversation by asking him about his future plans to which he mentioned "I'm not a very dynamic person in the sense that I don't like long term goals. If you would tell me a year ago that I'd be here now or I'd be planning to be here right now I'd say you're joking. I think some people get too distracted and I don't wanna be distracted. It's like how football manages things. You don't think about winning the league at the end of the season, you think about the next game because the next game deserves 100% focus. All of my focus is on my next video, it's not what I wanna do in a year, I get distracted and once I get distracted your next video is going to suffer and that's how I personally work.

Some people might call that immature, delusional or shortsighted but I don't think about what I wanna do in 5 or 10 years. I only look at my next video and so far it has done me well. Are usually have a blur of what I wanna do later on but I don't necessarily share it but I guess I see myself doing this for as long as I can. I would never ditch the project, if I were to ever leave i'd leave it in the hands of someone very responsible so that it's a nice transition. Life is there and we should plan things or it's not life so we'll see how things go."