The morning that Akash Salam left his ancestral village, his beloved grandfather pulled him aside.
“Akash, babba, study as hard as you can,” Akash recalled his grandfather saying. “But never forget us. We will always be with you.”
That day, 8-year-old Akash and his parents left their small, poor village in western Bangladesh for Los Angeles. They followed an uncle who had made the move years before.
In August 2003, they settled in Arroyo Grande, where Akash is now a junior at Arroyo Grande High.
Two years later, his grandfather died. In the years that followed, Akash took his grandfather’s advice.
“We abandoned everything we had so that only I could get a crack at the good life,” he recalled. “My grandpa understood our intentions. Only I had not.”
Now, he not only is studying hard, but raising money to help the villagers he left behind.
To understand Akash, you have to know where he came from.
Raised in Karamja, a small village between two rivers, near the country’s border with India, Akash grew up in a one-room tin home built on a raised concrete platform, to keep the house dry.
There was no electricity; his family used kerosene lamps. Many of the men labored in nearby fields, where rice, wheat and vegetables are grown.
Though he was young, Akash helped his father: herding cows, picking vegetables and collecting hay.
The walk to the primary schoolhouse, which served about 400 children in the area, took about an hour. To get there, Akash followed a dirt path next to a river and took a shortcut through a field of mustard flowers.
Schoolchildren still follow the same route today.
But the walk is long, and the children aren’t penalized if they don’t show up for class.
In fact, by fourth and fifth grade, many have dropped out to help support their families.
“I never saw the importance of education while I was there,” said Akash, now 16.
It was a pattern Akash’s parents, Abdus Salam and Rezina Afroze, wanted their son to avoid.
After he moved to California, Akash felt guilty for leaving his village.
“I felt like I abandoned them,” he said.
As he continued learning, Akash came to a conclusion about the Karamja villagers.
“I really believe the reason they live in such poverty is because they don’t have a chance at education,” he said.
Akash aims to change that.
Over the past few years, he has mowed lawns, painted fences, tutored students and worked at Albertsons, where his parents also work.
He saved $5,000, and asked an uncle in Karamja to recommend 30 poor children Akash could help.
In January, when he returned to Karamja, Akash gave out dictionaries, paper, pencils and other school materials, and selected five students to receive scholarships.
For a week, Akash held daily lessons and lectured about the importance of education. He visited students’ homes and tried to impress upon their parents the need for them to stay in school.
He donated a few things to make their lives easier, including kerosene lamps, so the children could continue their studies at night.
Akash’s next goal is a bit bigger: to build a school in Karamja. Doing so will cost about $20,000.
In the meantime, Akash will continue to live up to his grandfather’s wish: study hard, and never forget.
At Arroyo Grande High, Akash is a straight-A student. His family became U.S. citizens in late 2008.
Akash plans to study humanities, or perhaps medicine, in college. But in the end, he said, it does not matter which college he attends or how much money he makes.
In a paper for school, Akash wrote: “In the end of the day, my life will be judged by what I give back to society, to the people who still struggle to make a living.”
To support Akash Salam’s goal of raising money to build a school in Karamja, Bangladesh, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.