By Chris Karlesky
Feb. 9, 2012
The following story is the first in the 2011-12 series on the student leaders of Franklin & Marshall’s College Houses.
Sitting in the atrium of Franklin & Marshall’s Steinman College Center, President of Brooks College House Akbar Hossain ’13 receives a call on his cell phone. The caller is his friend and classmate, Mona Lotfipour ’12, with whom Hossain has worked for the past several months in F&M’s "Human Rights/Human Wrongs" course to help persecuted immigrants gain political asylum in the United States.
Hossain and Lotfipour experienced the thrill of helping one refugee win asylum in December. Now, it is happening again.
“We just won another one, and I can’t describe it,” Hossain says, trying to contain his excitement as a smile spreads across his face. “Some of these refugees have been raped and tortured. You really don’t know what’s going on until you meet them.”
The asylum news would be good for any student, but it hits home in a special way for Hossain. A decade ago, Hossain and his family moved to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia through the diversity immigrant visa program—a lottery administered by the U.S. Department of State.
“The application process was very informal,” Hossain says. “We were walking around a mall in Saudi Arabia, and we saw a something that said ‘Sign up to come to the U.S.’ Everyone filled it out for the heck of it, and so did we.”
Six months later, Hossain’s family was selected in the lottery. They packed everything they owned into boxes and flew to New York on Sept. 9, 2001. When their U.S. sponsor failed to show at the airport, Hossain, his parents, and brother and sister checked into a hotel in New Jersey and considered heading back to Saudi Arabia.
“The money was draining quickly, and the food wasn’t very good,” Hossain says. “One day, we decided to take a walk and came upon an Indian restaurant. We started talking to the manager of the restaurant, who said he had a brother-in-law in Norristown [Pa.] who could find my father a job and housing for us. The man came and picked up all five of us, along with our many boxes.”
Norristown has been home base for Hossain ever since. He enrolled at F&M after participating in the Collegiate Leadership Summit, a two-day program for high school students from diverse backgrounds and strong histories of leadership. Through the program, Hossain received a full-tuition scholarship to the College.
Hossain immediately became an active member of the F&M community, highlighted by his election as president of Brooks College House this academic year. He has also served as an Orientation Planning Director (OPD) and volunteers with F&M’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
Hossain thrives in the College House system at F&M because of his belief in student government; he was president of his student body in high school. “Here’s an institution trusting its students with a budget,” says Hossain, a government major and sociology minor. “We have our own House court for student discipline. Where else do you see that? I can’t imagine a better system.”
Several Brooks House initiatives excite Hossain, including Brooks Buddies, an annual event the students created to teach local students about healthy living, and Top of the Yard Dining, a lunch for juniors and seniors of Brooks House. “We also have Table Talks, where we invite professors and students who have done research to present in front of underclassmen, so they can understand how and when to approach professors if they are interested in doing research,” Hossain says.
Hossain values his close relationship with other members of the Brooks House government, including social programming chair Ross Silverberg ’13, secretary and treasurer Stephanie Tzarnas ’13, public relations chair Carli Campoli ’14 and judicial chairs Alli Penfield ’13 and Phil Ehrig ’13. Hossain also credits Christian Hartranft ’12 and Colin Pointdexter ’13 for their work in launching the new Brooks website.
But Hossain says his most rewarding moments at F&M have centered on the successful asylum cases of which he has been a part. He hopes to attend law school, with the aim of eliminating flaws in the immigration system.
“The day before our first asylum case went to court, [the asylum seeker] shook our hands and said, ‘No matter what happens tomorrow, I'll never forget you. Thank you.’ The greatest moment was sitting in that courtroom and seeing him get asylum. I couldn’t sleep that night. There is no better feeling. It’s the highlight of my college life.”