OAKLAND -- Indra Bahadur Karki didn't know how to turn on a computer when he arrived in the United States in 2008, but the 17-year-old refugee isn't easily discouraged -- especially by what he doesn't yet know.
Karki dreams of working in Silicon Valley, "to be with all the high-tech people." He plans to study computer science next year at one of the 20 universities to which he has applied. In the meantime, he has tried to learn engineering, physics and C++ computer programming on his own, through books he's checked out of the library and online lectures by MIT professors.
All while learning English.
"He's a voracious learner and reader," said his adviser Cormac Kilgallen, who teaches government, economics and world history at Oakland International High School in the Temescal neighborhood. "Whatever opportunity's there, he goes after it."
Karki's Nepali-speaking parents fled Bhutan in 1992 during a political and ethnic conflict. They met in exile and married a few months later.
Karki was born in a refugee camp in Eastern Nepal, and for the next 15 years, that's where he lived, played and went to school.
About three years ago, a fire destroyed most of the camp, including the family's house and all of Karki's books and stories. In an essay, he wrote, "The next day after the fire, I saw my mom crying with her brother and friends. I felt so bad at that time, I couldn't bear it. I just tried to remove myself a little far from her, focusing on my District Level Board Exam, which was three days after the fire."
The family moved a nearby forest and lived in makeshift tents. Karki wrote that heavy storms sometimes soaked them at night. "If I look back on my life, I can see lots of depressing moments that inspired me to focus on improving my present and future," he wrote.
When Karki came to East Oakland with his parents, his grandmother and his younger brother, his memories of playing soccer in the forest (with socks stuffed with plastic bags) seemed distant, almost unreal, he said. He was mugged two days in a row, on his way to and from school. His father, now a dishwasher at the Berkeley Bowl Cafe, had a hard time finding work.
The family lives on a busy street corner in East Oakland's Laurel neighborhood. From their living room, they hear the constant rumble of cars and buses, which pass by just a few yards from their house.
When Karki wants a break from the noise, he often goes to the library.
"I feel more independent and free when I go there," he said.
At night, he and his younger brother Lokendra, a freshman at Skyline High School, often watch movies -- "an escape," he said, and a great way to learn American slang and mannerisms.
"You learn how to act with people through the movies," Karki said.
Karki tutors other students at his high school, which draws refugee and immigrant teenagers from more than two dozen countries. He was chosen to take part in Summer Search, a year-round program that offers mentoring and summer education experiences for kids, like Karki, who are brimming with potential.
"I'm proud of his hard work," said his father, Shyam Karki.
Karki said he wants to stay in the United States, though he does miss Nepal sometimes. And one day, he said, if he becomes rich and successful, he will build a school there.
How to help
To find out more about the Students Rising Above scholarship program, go to www.studentsrisingabove.org or call 415-333-4222.
Tax-deductible contributions can be made online or mailed to Students Rising Above, P.O. Box 29174, San Francisco, CA 94129.