Bridging the Gap, Building Connections by Akash Salam

The Rotary Club of Pismo Beach / Five Cites
Akash Salam, Second Place
Grade 11,   Arroyo Grande High School
Teacher: Mrs. Dixon

Eight years ago, I dreamt of living a life without having to worry about food or working tirelessly through the day. Today, I’m living that dream. But today, I have a bigger dream, a dream in which poverty cease to exist, a dream in which every child has an opportunity for proper education.

Raised in a one-room tin home in Karamja, Bangladesh, I learned the effects of poverty firsthand. Instead of playing games, I worked tirelessly with my parents. I spent my days herding cows, picking vegetables, or collecting hay. Instead of having plenty of nutritious foods, we lived off rice and spices. Instead of watching television, I used a small kerosene lamp to study at night.

Instead of groaning about school, I eagerly walked over an hour to the next village to attend class. Instead of dreaming about college, I only wished I could make it through elementary school.

The morning I left my village, my beloved grandfather pulled me aside. “Babba, study as hard as you can.” he said. “But never forget us. We will always be with you.” That day, my parents and I left our small village in Bangladesh for the United States. We left the most brutal poverty. We left our family. We left our homeland.

Eight years later, I feel a sense of burden upon my shoulders. I go to school. I do my homework. I help my parents. But the truth haunts me, like a shadow. The truth tarnishes my achievements and brings terror at night. “Why me?” I ask myself. Why was I so lucky to leave when all of my classmates, all of those poor villagers still live those wretched lives? Why do I get to live a life of luxury here in the United States, while my friends and family suffer through the worst of poverty?

The more I think of the truth, the more I realize how unfair it is to those in my village of Karamja. Here, my friends ask, “When are you getting that new iPhone?” back in Karamja, kids ask each other: Do you have enough to eat tonight? Here, I complain when bombarded with too much homework; back in Karamja, the youngsters get beat up if they complain about their growling stomachs. Here, I constantly worry about going to the most prestigious college; back in Karamja, my family and friends worry about survival: food and shelter. How this is fair?

The truth inspired me to take action. For the last few years, I have done odd jobs wherever I could. I paint fences, I cut lawns, I take out weeds, I tutor countless students, and I held a job stocking shelves at a grocery store. I am raising money to help the friends left behind in my village.

Last January, I returned to Karamja after eight-years. Through the $5,000 I raised from work, I was thrilled to donate school materials, kerosene lamps, mosquito nets, water pumps, and sanitary toilets. Students who showed talent received scholarships. I held daily lessons and taught about the importance of continuing education, and more. I visited students’ homes and urged their parents to let them stay in school. Today, I’m working toward a goal of raising funds for a permanent school, designed specifically to make it practical for the children of Karamja to remain in school by having a location in their own village.

I believe my mission has build good will and better friendships and will continue to do so over time. Already, my students in Karamja showed much enthusiasm and interest in their educational pursuits. Furthermore, their parents, who usually put pressures on them to drop out, were delighted and impressed by my efforts. With the new school, this enthusiasm will only grow.

Finally, it is imperative that I present my project to benefit not only those in Karamja, but also my peers and community members here in the United States. For the last few months, I have shared my story via interviews in San Luis Obispo Tribune, KCOY, KSBY, among others.

Additionally, I gave presentations in local schools, organizations, and various clubs, including Rotary International and Key Club International. I am humbled by the responses to my story and to have received a myriad of donations. I believe the more I spread my story, the more people will learn about the needs of those in destitution that they cannot imagine and just as importantly, the faster the new school will be built.

We must connect the two worlds: one that strives on success, the other that lacks survival needs. Only by building a connection can we truly benefit both worlds. The kids in my village will get more opportunities, while my peers will be more aware of those living in poverty. All will benefit.

I might easily have been laboring in the fields with my father under the scorching sun of Karamja had I still lived in Bangladesh. Instead, I go to a wonderful high school. I am lucky to be here. I will never forget my roots or those still struggling in my village of Karamja. And I will always utilize the 4-Way Test to achieve my goals and dreams.

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