NEW YORK: Syed Akbaruddin, the Ambassador of India to the United Nations, spoke and interacted with a classroom full of seventh graders on Monday, June 5, at Castle Hill Middle School 127 in Bronx, New York.
His visit started with an exciting welcome, the like of which he said he has never gotten before,
“I’ve been to many schools, public and private, and I’ve never had a welcome like this,” he said.
Akbaruddin told the students about his role at the UN and said that he alone represents a “country of one billion people with both sides”, good and bad.
He said he does not get much time at home because he can be working any day of the week, including weekends, and even though there may not be much room for personal life, he still enjoys his work as he is contributing to the world.
He told the class that he was happy to be there as he never gets to interact with young people and mentioned the fact that 65 percent of India’s population is under 30 years old, stating that it is a young country.
He then went around the room asking students: “In one word, tell me what comes to your mind when I say India?”
Answers poured in, with words like: dance, tradition, prestigious, Bollywood, colors, music, Yoga, food, movies, jewelry, culture and clothes.
Akbaruddin also addressed the fact that June 5th is World Environment Day and asked students what they, as individuals, wanted to do for the environment.
One student said he wanted to help out in the medical field to make it easier for people to get the care they needed at a more affordable cost.
Another said that she wanted to spread the message and teach other people what the environment should be like while another wanted to plant more trees to provide more air. A few other students said that the world “should come together as one” and “tackle global warming otherwise there will be no future.”
When the ambassador asked the students what they didn’t like about India, they listed: high poverty rates, air pollution, child marriage and arranged marriage, to which one student showed concern that not enough attention is given to women’s rights as well as men’s rights regarding this topic. It prompted the Ambassador to say that today, both men and women are equal unlike what it was years ago.
To the problem of air pollution, Akbaruddin told the students that India plans to make all its vehicles electric by 2030 as it is highly populated.
“Every time you think of India, multiply the U.S. by three,” he said, also mentioning that India is like an elephant, “we are slow but we will get there eventually.”
When one girl asked him, “how do you feel about naan pizza?”, Akbaruddin responded, “with a billion people, soon you will be having many other things like naan pizza.”
He added: “English is spoken by about say 400 million people in India so there are 800 million or so still who don’t speak English so there are very interesting combinations happening of our Indian languages and English. So naan pizza is one of those combinations where you try to mix a local culture with an international approach,” he said. “Soon you will have words in English which were originated in India and you had never heard of,” he added.
Ambassador Akbaruddin gave the students a life-long lesson recalling when he was in fifth grade, his teacher took a Rs. 100 note and “crumpled it up, stepped on it, threw it in the dustbin” and asked the class if they still wanted it and they all raised their hands, saying yes.
The teacher then asked that after crumpling it up, stepping on it and throwing it in the dustbin, you still want the RS. 100 note, “What does it show? It shows that the intrinsic value of that note doesn’t change so he told all of us that all of you guys remember that your intrinsic value doesn’t change however much you get beat up”, or however much someone hurts you with their words.
He also acknowledged the fact that everything starts with empathy and that the students should always understand others’ circumstances before they say anything to them.
He explained how he got to where he is today and said that “joining the Foreign Service was unheard of” noting that he came from a small city in India and that he wanted to explain to the world what India is all about.
In order to become an Ambassador, about 500,000 people between the ages of 21 and 28, write up a multiple choice exam and out of them, 10,000 are given the chance to write questions for which longer answers are required. Then 1500 are interviewed and only 25 are selected. Luck also plays a huge role, Akbaruddin said.
Despite working all the time, Akbaruddin spends time outside the house whenever he can and when inside he catches up on films on Netflix. With Mahathma Gandhi being his biggest inspiration, he hopes to help improve the environment and fill the world with peace and security.
The middle school students are part of the NYC Junior Ambassadors Program which allows students to explore the world through the UN.
“It basically shows the students that there is a world outside of the five boroughs,” said Aissata Camara, the program director. “It gets everyone out of their comfort zones,” she added.
The students have put together a presentation on poverty in India and are going to present it to their classmates this week. On that note, Akbaruddin told the students that India has a goal of eliminating poverty by addressing the poorest in the country and they must remain as global citizens and fight “poverty wherever you see it.”