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Norristown student wins prestigious Truman scholarship

When Akbar Hossain tells his story, others sometimes cry, but he doesn’t. The 21-year-old Bengali student from Norristown is so polished and cool that he seems always in command.

When Akbar Hossain tells his story, others sometimes cry, but he doesn't.

The 21-year-old Bengali student from Norristown is so polished and cool that he seems always in command.

His family came to the United States when he was 10 and was immediately swindled out of $5,000. The family went on to live crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. Eventually, Hossain watched his father die on their front lawn.

"When he told me, it was tough for me to keep it together," said Susan Dicklitch, Hossain's teacher and an associate dean at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

Yet Hossain looks back on much of his experience as an example of what is good about U.S. immigration, and it has helped lead him to one of the most prestigious awards for college students, the Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

The award for college juniors who plan careers in government, education, or other public-service fields provides up to $30,000 in scholarships for graduate education. Hossain is one of 54 winners in the United States and two from Pennsylvania.

Hossain is the first student from Franklin and Marshall to win the award and the first from Norristown.

"It was a great feeling," Hossain said of his win. "I'm still a little shocked. A kid from Norristown who was probably going back to Bangladesh" actually won.

At least twice since Hossain came to Norristown 11 years ago, his stay in the United States was in doubt.

Born in Bangladesh, Hossain immigrated from Saudi Arabia with his parents and two siblings two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His father, Mir Hossain, worked in an office at an iron-melting factory. The family won a lottery administered by the U.S. Department of State, allowing it to emigrate.

Upon arrival in New York, the Hossains were cheated out of $5,000 by an immigration counselor who had promised to help them settle in the United States.

They were stranded in a New Jersey motel when they met the manager of an Indian restaurant who had a brother-in-law in Norristown.

With that meeting began a community, school district, and collegewide effort to aid Hossain and his family that the college junior says continues to this day.

The restaurant owner's brother-in-law drove to New Jersey with his wife, transported the Hossains to Norristown, found them an apartment, enrolled the children in school, and found a job for Hossain's father.

"They didn't ask for a penny," Hossain said.

Mir Hossain eventually landed two additional minimum-wage jobs and moved his family into a house.

At Whitehall Elementary School in West Norriton, Akbar Hossain struggled with the language barrier, but teacher Malinda McKillip saw his potential almost immediately.

"From the moment he walked into the classroom, you could tell he was a special student — hardworking, ambitious," said McKillip, now a principal at French Creek Elementary School in South Coventry Township. "It was wonderful to see him flourish."

In 2004, Mir Hossain collapsed from heatstroke after walking home from work.

Akbar Hossain performed CPR on his father.

"It took 10 minutes for the ambulance to come," Hossain said. "It felt like the longest time."

After Mir Hossain, 40, died, the family's future in the U.S. was in jeopardy.

But within hours, the family was contacted by representatives of the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge in Devon and the North Penn Mosque in Lansdale. The news had traveled through the Muslim community.

The mosques paid for Mir Hossain's burial and helped Akbar Hossain's mother, Shahida, pay the mortgage. Neighbors also pitched in, helping with transportation and homework.

After entering Norristown Area High School, Hossain became president of the student council and National Honor Society chapter. He also served as the student representative to the district's school board.

Hossain earned a full-scholarship at Franklin and Marshall, where he cofounded the Muslim Student Association and served as site coordinator for the school's volunteer income-tax-assistance program, which aids low-income families.

But it was his work helping immigrants seeking asylum that was perhaps the most rewarding.

Hossain worked with the Pennsylvania Immigrant Resource Center as part of a class taught by Dicklitch. Hossain and a fellow student compiled hundreds of pages of evidence to help two immigrants detained at the York County Prison win their freedom.

But Hossain did more than research for then-detainee Khidir Abubakir, who emigrated from Sudan's Darfur region. Hossain and his classmate visited Abubakir every Friday while he waited for his hearing.

Abubakir, 24, had been alone in jail for four months. He had no friends or family to call or visit him.

"It made me feel good and I don't feel so depressed," Abubakir said of the visits. "Even when I go back to detention again after the visit, I felt good all week — and then they came back."

The plight of people such as Abubakir, who now lives and works in Philadelphia, is the reason that Hossain wants a career in immigration law.

"I've experienced everything that's best about the U.S. immigration system," Hossain said. But persecuted asylum-seekers often face unfair obstacles, he added.

"You can't let everybody in," Hossain said, "but people who are deserving and suffering, they just want a chance to survive."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or