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Albany County — The Altamont Enterprise, May 26, 2011

Profile of perseverance
Abdul Karim honored for academic success and willingness to help struggling peers

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

The courage and perseverance of six area youth were recognized yesterday.

Among them was a young man who was born into poverty in Bangladesh. Abdul Karim immigrated to America where, as a boy, he suffered from brutal prejudice, leading to an aimless life until he righted himself with the help of staff at the La Salle School.

Roughly 2,000 Albany children are in foster care, estimated Brian Barr who spent his career in the field, and a typical placement lasts six to nine months.

“The foster care population, through no fault of their own, are uprooted from their communities, are taken away from their families and neighborhoods, and expected to make all kinds of adjustments,” said Barr. “These kids have to do amazing things. I’m impressed with their resilience.”

Barr, who lives in Westmere and is active in the Rotary Club of Albany, came up with the idea of a Rotary Youth Recognition program a quarter of a century ago.

The club has partnered with St. Catherine’s Center for Children, Parson’s Family and Child Center, La Salle School, St. Anne Institute, Community Maternity Service, and Equinox in hosting an annual luncheon where a student from each of those six agencies is honored.

This year, the La Salle School chose Abdul Karim.

Richard Ward, the campus minister, made the selection from the score of nominees. “I read them all,” he said of the applications. “What stood out about Abdul were the diverse reasons.”

“Abdul Karim is a compassionate and motivated young man who has overcome numerous barriers in his life and shows perseverance,” wrote his social worker, Beth Harrison, in the Rotary Award nomination. She describes Karim as a “model student” who earned academic honors in high school, works part-time, participates in a community program called Youth for Progress, and is a student leader.

“He is always willing to help out whether it is volunteering as a student representative at employee functions or helping peers when they are struggling with new and complex concepts,” she wrote.

Ward knows Karim from community service projects he’s worked on, and also from taking him to mosque each week. He described Karim as “witty,” as “conscious of people around him,” and also as an “ambassador” for the school.

“He’s social and easy going, which is not the norm here,” said Ward. “A lot of our kids have a lot of defenses up. Abdul could fit in any high school setting…He gets along with adults and kids alike.”

“The award means a lot,” Karim told The Enterprise on Monday in anticipation of the May 25 luncheon. “I was very shocked at first. I felt I didn’t deserve it, that I didn’t show enough perseverance. I keep myself to a very high standard because of my background and culture.”

Each award winner could bring six guests to the luncheon at Wolfert’s Roost. Karim chose his math teacher, Richard Aucliar, who is one of the reasons math is his favorite subject; the La Salle’s vice principal, Deb Fisher; and social workers Marilyn Alamillo, Christine Seestadt, as well as Harrison.

“I’m not good at describing myself,” he said. “My social worker knows me better than I do….I don’t remember a lot of things except the horrible things.”

“I told my mom and she seemed excited,” said Karim about the award. He doesn’t talk much to his father, who works mostly as a cab driver, he said.

Asked if he’s happy now, Karim said, “Yes and no — right in the middle. I’m happy because I came this far and can actually make it in life. I’m going to go to college. That was never in my head….Education is really powerful. I can do so much with it.”

He concluded, “I would like to make my parents proud of me for being me, not for being who they wanted me to be.”

“Difficult to fit in”

Karim lived in Bangladesh until he was 7-and-a-half years old. “I lived a life in poverty,” he said. “I lived in a village, all my family members in the same house…It was very small.”

His father was “out on the road,” in constant search of work.

“You had to pay to go to school. If you didn’t have money, you didn’t have an education,” said Karim.

He immigrated to America with his mother and older brother and sister. They flew to New York City and settled in Hudson.

The transition to America was tough. “I have a lot of negative memories,” said Karim. “It was very difficult to fit in.”

His native language is Bengali. He had to learn English. Also, his being Muslim caused difficulties — “not just in school, everywhere I went,” said Karim.

It was even harder on his sister, he said. “Women have to cover up a lot, mostly their entire body.”

The terrorists attacks of Sept. 1, 2011 happened just a few years after his family came to America, and the prejudice that engendered didn’t make his life any easier.

Karim was frequently taunted, called “towel head” or “terrorist” or worse.

“I mostly kept it inside; I held it in,” said Karim of his rising anger and frustration. “After a while, the anger builds up….One day, I let it all out and got in trouble.”

He was 13 when he was called names in his public school and “pushed around,” he recalled. “I got really angry. I replied back,” said Karim. “He got angrier and hit me,” Karim said of the boy who was calling him names.

A fight ensued. The boy who instigated the fight was suspended for two weeks; Karim was suspended for a month and a half, he said.

After that, his father paid for him to go to an Islamic seminary in Buffalo, Darul Uloom Al-Madania.

The school was founded in 1993 in a former Polish cathedral after several earlier attempts were thwarted by opposition from neighbors, according to the school’s website; in October 2001, a fire gutted the school, which was rebuilt on a campus nearby that had formerly been a youth detention center.

“I didn’t like it at first,” said Karim. “I wanted to leave but my mother said to stay.” He did.

“I learned more and more about my religion,” he said. “I was doing positive things.”

But he missed his family, whom he only got to see twice a year while he was at the school.

“One day I left and came back to Hudson,” he said. “My father was mad because he had paid money,” he said of the school’s tuition.

From aimless to awakened

Back in Hudson, Karim started classes in the eighth grade instead of the ninth. In high school the next year, it seemed like he would succeed.

“The first three-quarters of the year, I was on the honor roll or the high honor roll,” said Karim. “I always went to class and did my schoolwork.”

But then his grades fell. “I never thought that smoking marijuana would kill my brain cells,” he said. “I got into smoking with my friends. It led to hanging out with bad kids…I started skipping school and just smoking and going to the mall.”

He lived in this aimless state for several years, running away from home intermittently. “The first couple of times, my parents filed missing person reports,” said Karim. “The police brought me back and said I shouldn’t run away. I didn’t want to hear it,” he said.

“In my culture,” he went on, a disobedient son is whipped. “My father couldn’t handle it…My dad beat me up,” he said.

Karim ended up in Family Court.

“I told my law guardian, ‘I don’t want to stay home.’ She said, ‘Are you sure? You could get counseling.’”

Karim went to a detention center. “I got really close to one kid there,” he said. His friend was going to the La Salle School in Albany so Karim asked to go there, too.

“It was worse than public school when I first got here,” he said. “There are a mixture of troublemakers.”

Karim’s attitude was, “I’m man enough to take care of my own problems.”

He was beaten up. “They pushed me to the ground and cracked my head open and I beat them up,” he said. “You should respect someone” for who they are, he said, and that includes their race and religion.

Living in poverty, he said, you learn, “You either succeed in life or fail. You have to think outside the box to succeed.”

He went on, “I didn’t come here, to America, to a new world, for nothing. I came here to accomplish something…It hit me when my brother went to jail.” His brother had dropped out of high school, used drugs, and kept “getting in trouble,” said Karim.

“Right now, he’s in jail. I’ll be the first male in my family to graduate from high school. He didn’t succeed. I have to do it.”

What turned Karim around, he said, was the staff at the La Salle School. “They were respectful and kind to me,” he said. “Ready to help in any way possible.”

Karim was elected as an officer in La Salle’s new student senate and now serves as its president. “We meet every two weeks and work on ways to change behaviors,” he said and to increase the percentage of students going to class.

“Fast Cash” is an example of one thing the senate initiated. Students are given cards for showing responsibility, being respectful, and encouraging safety. When they’ve earned enough points, the cards can be traded in for goods ranging from candy to dinner with staff.

Karim will graduate in June. Over the summer, he’ll continue working as he does now at a supermarket that is in walking distance of his school. In the fall, he’ll attend Hudson Valley Community College where he plans to major in mechanical engineering.

“I love challenges,” he said.

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