One man’s inspirational journey from refugee to valedictorian to MIT.
Abishkar Chhetri was born and raised in a refugee camp in Eastern Nepal, where living conditions were less than ideal.
His family lived in a bamboo house, food and water were scarce, and he had to trek three miles just to get to school, which then presented its own set of challenges. The floors were dusty, there wasn’t any proper furniture, and all the kids had to sit on the floor squished together.
But despite all that, Abishkar’s desire to learn never wavered.
His parents decided to move to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, so that they could provide Abishkar and his sister, Amisha, with a better life and education.
At 7 years old, Abishkar was clearly thriving. He described the experience to MIT News as "a new world for me — a place where I can be curious, and finally study without worrying about what I’m going to eat."
It seemed like the start of an exciting new way of life. But sadly, it didn’t last. The family hit some financial trouble and were forced to return to the refugee camp where they started after only a few years. It was back to square one.
Yet somehow, it was a blessing in disguise.
In their return, they learned about the U.S. resettlement program. And with the help of the International Rescue Committee, they were soon relocated to Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
Abishkar was now 13 and began attending Druid Hills High School. The quality of living was much better, but a new set of challenges arose.
"I was in a state of disillusionment. I felt lonely. The language barrier was turning out to be a big hurdle, and I almost felt like all of the hopes and aspirations would be left unfulfilled," Abishkar told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But I knew I had to make the most of the opportunity here. My parents had made big sacrifices for me and my sister’s education, so I had to do everything I could to make them happy."
Undeterred, Abishkar put in the work and persevered.
In fact, he got really smart about his process. While he was still trying to grasp the English language, he put a lot of effort into making sure he excelled at math. It was an ingenious way to build momentum and confidence in his abilities.
Through some self-teaching, Abishkar's English eventually caught up. He watched countless history documentaries and YouTube videos on class subjects and even listened to audiobooks to improve his skills as much as possible. His classmates took notice, nicknaming him "workaholic" for all the extra hours he put in.
But his teacher and mentor, Alexandra Salivia, paints the picture a little differently. "The thing that sets him apart is his determination, self-discipline and resilience, and he doesn’t just do it for a while but he does it with consistency," she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Abishkar was named valedictorian and offered a full scholarship at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It’s a testament to the tireless work ethic he displayed, not just in high school, but all throughout his life. And while the uncertainty of what lies ahead is now more exciting than it is unnerving, Abishkar knows one thing to be true. He wants to help people, plain and simple.
"If you have a goal, follow your heart," he concluded to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "And be thankful for what you have. Recognize what you have and make the most of your opportunities."
Abishkar is a shining example of the great things anyone — including refugees — can do if we allow them the opportunity to succeed.
Unfortunately, stories like his — of which there are many — aren’t often the ones we hear. The topic of refugees is still a polarizing one in America, and sometimes it's easy to forget that there are real people at the heart of the issue.
A survey in Colorado found that after four years of life in the U.S., most refugees were "happy, productive, and integrating" members of society. Research like this and stories like Abishkar’s show that if we provide refugees with the support they need, they can go on to do amazing things that have the potential to give a lot back to the communities they live in.
Can you imagine seeing that kind of progress across the entire country? Sounds like the American dream, if you ask me.