A random act of kindness brought Akbar Hossain's family to the United States. To be more precise, they won a U.S. State Department "diversity" lottery that allowed them to emigrate from Saudi Arabia. Akbar's father, Mir, the family's breadwinner, had moved to Saudi Arabia from Bangladesh for a welding job. One day, in a Saudi shopping mall, on a whim, his mother stepped up to a kiosk and entered their family in the lottery. As it turned out, they won.
Thrilled, the family of five arrived in 2001, two days before the World Trade Center attack. "A few days later I don't know . . ." Akbar said. "The Hossein family coming in through JFK? I'm not sure it would have happened."
Since they knew no one in the U.S., they had paid a large sum of money to a relative of his father's Saudi boss to help them resettle, but he abandoned them. His driver left them at a hotel in Hoboken, New Jersey with little money to spend and nowhere to turn.
On a walk through the neighborhood they stumbled onto an Indian restaurant and went in, feeling at home for the first time in a long while. His father struck up a conversation with the manager, charming him, and he notified his brother-in-law in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and the man drove to New Jersey, picked up the Hossains and brought them back to a Norristown Budget Inn. Next, he helped them find an apartment, and work, and he got the kids situated in schools.
They put down roots, and Akbar and his siblings began to excel in their studies. His father worked ceaselessly for his family. "I was up at 7 a.m., and my father would have left already, and I'd be home from school at 4:30 when he had left for his second job and on the weekends he did construction." When his father died unexpectedly of heat stroke while mowing their lawn, his family was immediately assisted by the Norristown community. Various organizations and friends offered both help with finances and access to other resources--and this assistance didn't let up until his mother had found work sufficient to support the family.
"When my family was in most desperate need, the Norristown community stood up and said, 'We will take care of them'."
His father's work ethic set an example for his children. At 25, still in school, already Akbar has a list of accomplishments and associations too long to list here. He was selected for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship for college juniors and a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, to provide support for his study in law school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship singles out exceptional immigrant students (including children of immigrants) in graduate school, who show the most promise of becoming leaders who will give back to their communities and their nation.
His fellowship will help pay for law school, and also enables him to work with other fellows already in their careers in academia, government and other fields. "With Soros, I have access to people who are incredibly motivated to have an impact on the world."
Akbar has already worked with the White House, US Department of Homeland Security, and US Department of Health and Human Services. He has been deeply involved working with the immigrant community in Norristown, and he thinks he may be able to use his law degree in broader ways to help those who are marginalized in the Philadelphia area. He spent his spring break in Greece recently, helping with the refugee crisis, and even spent a night on the shore waiting for Syrians in arriving boats.
"When you see those sick children in a crowded camp and parents looking for a way to survive, it's difficult to have the type of opinions (on immigration) you often hear in the U.S. today," he said. His view is that individual Americans offer compassion, regardless of their political stance on immigration policy, when faced with the human reality of asylum-seekers. "We're very distant from what's happening here. Yet in my opinion, most of America is Norristown. When there's a family that needs help, the human response--the American response--is to help."
I'm an immigrant as well. I too found love, compassion and real practical help from other Americans when I came here. This is the America to cherish and respect. This is the America that has served as a beacon of hope to the world. Thanks to the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation, Akbar will accomplish amazing things. After all, it's America: a nation built by immigrants.