Junaid does not know his actual age. His earliest memory is of himself as a child waiting under a pine tree at the Cox’s Bazar beach. He cannot remember calling anyone his mother or father.
Sahara Khatun, an elderly woman of Naziratek, Cox’s Bazar, had apparently found Junaid on the way to work at a dried fish warehouse and took him in. But she died when Junaid was around 5 or 6 years old. The boy, who had nothing to lose, lost someone dear. Along with this loss, he lost his home too.
Junaid would call Sahara Khatun grandma. He would gather firewood for her and she taught him all about drying fish.
Junaid returned to the streets and began scavenging in the garbage. He would sleep on the ground under open sky. Sometimes, if luck favoured, he managed to sleep on the floor of any building with a roof. He lived on scraps, mostly leftovers of the tourists in Cox’s Bazar.
A couple of years passed. He worked at a tea stall and felt lucky to get the job. After all, most people would not trust a homeless street boy. But Junaid worked with integrity at several shops for around three and a half years. People still mistreated him but he just accepted this as the fate of a poor orphan.
Ocean and Film
Junaid decided to move on and around 2010-11 he went to Hnila union. There he had a deal with a fisherman. He would go to fishing in the Bay of Bengal for them. If there was no fishing, he would gather firewood for the family. In return they would feed him.
He began fishing in the Bay. Sometimes he went to the hills to collect firewood, sold this in the local market and gave the money to the fisherman’s family.
In his free time, Junaid started watching films on television, peeping through the bamboo fences of the tea stalls. He grew a passion for movies -- Bangla, Hindi and English.
But stall owners chased him away as only customers were allowed to watch films there. They even threw water on him. But he managed to watch movies nevertheless and enjoyed Aamir Khan’s ‘Three Idiots’.
“The film inspired me to study. Seeing students of BIAM Laboratory School and College in Cox’s Bazar also made me want to study. I was ready to even clean toilets if someone gave me a chance to study.”
A young friend, Zubair, also encouraged him. Zubair had studied up till the fifth grade and started catching fish in the Bay. One day he told Junaid that he would stop fishing to resume his studies.
Junaid told him, “I also want to study. Can you arrange something for me?” Zubair gave him the address of a certain teacher, Jahangir, saying, “Jahangir sir a good person. He will find a way out if you tell him your situation.”
Jahangir sir arranged everything. He had faith in the boy who did not even know the basic alphabet. He sent him to one of his students Nurul Amin. Junaid said he bought his first ever books to learn the Bangla and English alphabet for Tk 10 on 7 October 2011. At that time, he would catch fish at night and read the two books under a lamp in the boat when he had the chance. He did not even sleep in the day, he studied instead.
“I completed the two books in just 10 days. Hardly anyone could believe that! I learned around 100 English words too. I would go to Jahangir sir where the other students went for tuition and learned how to draw a 45 degree angle just by watching others. One day I told him that I also want to take an exam with the private tuition students. He agreed. I stood second,” Junaid recalled.
Maybe Jahangir sir was astonished seeing the results. He advised Junaid to get admitted to school, but the fisherman’s family did not agree. Junaid made a sort of table on the boat, but the fisherman found that audacious and destroyed it.
“People started laughing at me and asked what I aimed at. I told them I wanted to be an engineer,” Junaid said.
Junaid stopped fishing in January 2012. He saved up Tk. 1600 working as a carpenter. With Jahangir sir’s recommendations and encouragement, he approached the authorities of Lyada Junior High School at Mousuni island, Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar. After he requested them earnestly, the school authorities allowed him to take the admission test. He passed and was admitted to the eighth grade. He bought books and school uniform with his own earnings.
Junaid resumed fishing for his living. After fishing the whole night, he would take a few minutes to dress for school. Other students would quickly move to give him space. Junaid said, “They made way for me quickly as I would go to school without taking shower after fishing the whole night!” Junaid achieved GPA-5 in Junior School Certificate exam.
Junaid started working at a brick kiln and as a carpenter to get admission into Class IX. After saving Tk 3000 he was admitted to Hnila High School in Teknaf. The head teacher of the school arranged for him to stay at his brother’s home where he would have to teach two children there. Junaid stayed there for around six months. Then just before his SSC exams, Junaid got a place at the school hostel.
However, he regularly missed school assembly as he would go fishing at night. One day the teachers asked him, “What’s your problem? Why are you always late for assembly even though you stay at the hostel?” Junaid hadn’t told his teachers about the details of his life. But he was forced to tell them the truth. Some of his teachers always reminded him of this. “But most of the teachers were generous. I could not have come so far without their help. They paid my monthly fees, registration and other fees. This is how I secured 4.83 from science group in the SSC exams.”
Junaid was admitted to Ukhiya Degree College and started working as a carpenter to pay for his studies. Work prevented him from attending college for the first month. Again he stayed at a house as a house tutor. The college exempted him from tuition fees. Junaid started earning though private tuition.
He started living with his friends at a mess. He did not have to pay for food or rent. He just had to help his friends with their studies.
On 30 March 2017, just two days before his HSC exams, Junaid decided to go to meet his school teachers for their blessings. He was going by auto-rickshaw, but met with an accident on the way. Four people died on the spot. Junaid was critically injured. Most of his bones were broken and he was seriously hurt in the head and eyes. On the way to Chattogram, the physicians even declared him dead. The ambulance was returning to Ukhiya but miraculously, after a while, Junaid recovered.
After staying at Chattogram Medical College Hospital and Kutupalong health care centre for around one year, he managed to start walking without help. The physicians even doubted whether his vision would return to normal. “I don’t know what would have happened if my friends and college teachers didn’t stand by me! I’ve returned from the jaws of death unbelievably. Maybe God has given me life so that I could fulfil my dreams.”
Junaid took the HSC exams in 2018. He secured GPA- 4.50 despite all odds. With the help of friends and teachers he took university admission tests and passed in the exams of four universities -- Jahangirnagar University, Chattogram University, Noakhali Science and Technology University and Shahjalal Science and Technology University. He chose to study mechanical engineering at SUST.
When asked about his most cherished memory, Junaid could not hold back his tears and took time to answer. “I felt wonderful when I could open my eyes after the accident. Then getting a chance to study at the university is also one of my most valuable memories. While fishing in the sea in my childhood, I once told a person that I want to be an engineer. It just popped into my mind then.”
Junaid has stood first in the first semester at the university. He highly values his friends and teachers’ help. An organisation, Pay It Forward Bangladesh, has arranged a scholarship for him. Now his dream is to be an engineer. He also wants to work for children who cannot study due to the lack of care or money.
“People are often disturbed when they get phone calls but I can’t make you understand how elated I feel when I get phone calls. Sometimes, one of my college teachers phones me to ask whether I’ve had my dinner. It makes me cry. My life is full of difficulty but I can’t bear other people’s sufferings. I want to work to help people overcome their sufferings,” Junaid said.
*The report, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza