They met on a school bus when they were in elementary school and, as African refugees, soon became best friends, bonded in common trauma. Now, years later, they are closing in on an improbable dream: helping their home countries get clean, safe drinking water.

As children, Anaa Jibicho and Lamah Bility lived in the same St. Paul, Minn., neighborhood and quickly found out they had a similar past.

“When I met Lamah, I realized we had the same story,” said Jibicho, now 21.

For both of their families, safe drinking water was scarce, and they suffered because of the global water crisis.

In Ethiopia, Jibicho lost two of his older siblings to a water-related disease when they were toddlers.

When he was 2 years old, he, too, became critically ill from contaminated drinking water, though his parents were able to take him to Kenya, where he had access to treatment.

While Jibicho was struggling in Ethiopia, Bility, now 24, was in Liberia. He walked barefoot every day for three hours to gather water from a small river, he said.

He would haul multiple cans filled with water, which he and his family boiled before it could be used for drinking, eating or cleansing.

When Jibicho was 7 and Bility was 11, their families moved to the United States.

As they started settling into their new lives, the water crisis in their home countries loomed large in their minds. Millions of Africans, as well as countless others around the world, lack access to safe drinking water, mainly because of inadequate infrastructure.

That’s why “it’s critical for us to tell our stories,” Jibicho said. “People typically see numbers and they don’t really know what that means. Those numbers are real people.”

In summer 2020, they launched a water bottle company called Didomi, which means “to give” in Greek. The social enterprise uses 50 percent of its proceeds to fund projects aimed at improving access to clean water in African nations. They estimate they have given nearly 50,000 people access to safe drinking water for 10 years.

“We both have a very personal story toward this, and quite frankly it’s a preventable thing,” Jibicho said. “We have the tools and technology to provide people with water access.”

The sale of one of the reusable bottle — which come in three colors and cost $27.99 each — amounts to 10 years of water access for someone who needs it, they said.

The company’s commitment to combating the water crisis recently caught the attention of George Washington University, which plans to distribute Didomi bottles to all students, staffers and faculty members this year.

Didomi works with WaterIsLife, an international nonprofit organization that provides clean drinking water to people around the world. Didomi donates half of its proceeds directly to WaterIsLife, which makes clean water readily available through programs such as building wells and implementing filtration systems in schools and communities.

“It’s been amazing to work with these two guys because they know firsthand what’s going on around the world, and they’re bringing it full circle,” said Ken Surritte, founder of WaterIsLife. “It’s pretty inspiring.”

Although Surritte didn’t grow up in Africa, he has spent time there and witnessed the crisis. He remembers seeing thirsty children lined up along the side of the road in northern Kenya, begging for water.

“There’s 6,000 people that are going to die today because they don’t have access to safe drinking water,” Surritte said. “That’s the case every day, 365 days a year.”

According to WaterIsLife, of the estimated 1.8 billion people who lack access to safe drinking water, 1 in 5 will die every day from a water-related illness — and 90 percent of those deaths are children under the age of 5.

While the situation is grim, “it’s something we can fix,” Surritte said.

This summer, Surritte is hoping to bring Jibicho and Bility to Africa so they can see their efforts in action.

“We think it’s important for us to be on the ground,” Jibicho said, adding that although they are focused on Africa, they hope to expand their efforts elsewhere.

“We’re going wherever the needs are at the end of the day,” he said.

Didomi is on track to broaden its reach, particularly through its partnership with GWU.

In February, the school announced its goal to eliminate single-use plastics from campus, becoming the first university in the D.C. area to take that step and one of the largest universities on the East Coast to make such a commitment.

To phase out single-use plastics, GWU partnered with Didomi to distribute reusable bottles — branded with the logo for GWU’s Past Plastic campaign — around campus.

The partnership “represents both GW and Didomi’s commitment to reduce plastic waste and promote access to fresh water,” said Crystal L. Nosal, a university spokeswoman.

The school is also installing water bottle filling stations in every building on campus, plus at a number of outdoor locations. GWU has already started providing the Didomi bottles to employees, and the goal is to distribute them to the entire campus community in the coming months.

Jibicho and Bility said the partnership will provide nearly 30,000 people with clean water for 10 years. When the university agreed to distribute Didomi water bottles, “we were just in disbelief,” said Jibicho, a student at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

“Being refugees, we didn’t have a lot of people in our lives that had started businesses,” added Bility, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. “We wanted to build a community.”

They said their painful early years as children motivated them to spare others from the same struggle.

“As two young refugees from Africa coming to America, the only thing we had was hope,” Bility said. “And that’s what we want to give to the world.”

Read more:

Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.