Nong Lek Samonthorn* is a student in Narathiwat, one of the southernmost provinces in Thailand, who joined the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Chumchon Harapan project in 2019. The aim of Chumchon Harapan is to improve social cohesion among community members, and Lek serves as a youth leader, connecting people with different religious backgrounds, including Buddhists and Muslims. The project activities and events allow members of Lek’s community to have meaningful engagement around topics of mutual interest, helping to create a climate of trust. For example, Lek and her youth group initiated a community development project studying sago trees in Sirindhorn Peat Swamp Forest with support from teachers and community and religious leaders. As part of the Chumchon Harapan project, Lek was learning how to play the role of “connector,” running activities and events to bring people from her community together.
When COVID-19 brought Thailand into lockdown, it seemed impossible for Chumchon Harapan activities to continue. The project applies a people-to-people approach, connecting individuals from multicultural backgrounds in activities designed to be conducted in person. Young leaders like Lek play an important role in connecting people. When curfew restrictions resulted in temporary closure of schools, shops, and workplaces, teachers, community leaders, religious leaders, and informal leaders who play a critical role in supporting youth work, were required to stay home. Keeping them together seemed hopeless in the midst of COVID-19.
However, Chumchon Harapan was able to overcome these obstacles by transforming the program’s activities through virtual learning. Lek and the youth leaders participated regularly in online capacity building activities, while stakeholders, teachers, community and religious leaders and informal leaders were kept up-to-date about the youth activities. During the COVID lockdown, young leaders were taught new skills related to effective communication through online channels where the usage of certain words or messages can lead to conflict. Lek and her peers also learned a simple storytelling technique called “Photo Novella” where they told their community stories through pictures. The youth then used Photo Novella as a tool to connect people from different religious backgrounds and religious leaders. Every week, the stakeholders received Chumchon Harapan updates and messages from the youth that demonstrated compassion and love for their community. This helped the stakeholders follow Chumchon Harapan’s continued progress.
According to one youth involved in the project: “Chumchon Harapan came at the right time when my friends and I were stuck at home with nothing to do. The activities were useful and important, they bought me closer to the adults in our community” Lek said, “I didn’t have a chance to meet people during the COVID lockdown but Chumchon Harapan provided me with a virtual space where I could continue building community work skills and connecting with people. Once the COVID lockdown is lifted, I will share the skills I learned with my friends, and we will continue implementing our community development project together.”
Through her Photo Novella storytelling sessions, Lek showed how when COVID-19 interrupted in person activities, it was still possible to find ways to connect people and strengthen relationships. As the world continues to adapt to the new normal, technology and virtual tools can serve as powerful assets to achieve understanding, trust and peaceful interaction among different groups.
It will be challenging, but with the support of Kenan and others, communities can do it. COVID-19 is a tragedy on many levels, but the amazing results from Chumchon Harapan show how there are opportunities to reimagine projects that will lead communities to a better future.
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