From Monsoons to Hurricane Sandy: A Student’s Personal Journey From Activist to Scientist

When 22-year-old Aryaana Khan thinks about what has most shaped her education, passion, and future plans, one term comes to mind: climate change.

At age 10, she moved with her mother and little brother from Bangladesh to New York City, to escape the increasingly severe monsoons that put her and her brother out of school for weeks on end. Khan’s parents wanted more stable lives and education for their children. Her father remained behind to support his family from their homeland.

A few years after Khan settled in New York, Hurricane Sandy struck. Khan, then 13-years-old, said that without formal instruction on climate change in school, she struggled to make sense of what was happening around her.

Her story has been edited for clarity and length.

From what I remember, each year, the floods would get just a little bit worse. It’s not that people in Bangladesh or South Asia aren’t used to a little bit of flooding. We just weren’t used to the extent of flooding, which has been getting worse annually. The flood waters would wipe away entire villages or flood the entire city and mix with sewage water.

As soon as the flood waters receded, you would have protests that would erupt like clockwork annually because folks were just trying to get resources such as food, or resources to fix their housing. They were scary for my parents who were trying to raise two very young children.

My dad is a teacher in Bangladesh to this day. So, not only did I lose a parental figure … but I also lost my favorite educator.

Aryaana Khan

We didn’t come from one of the villages that literally got wiped off the map because it was so close to the coast. My family’s village is more inland. That doesn’t mean we aren’t vulnerable to extreme climate events and climate catastrophes. It just meant that we had access to a bit more resources, and we’re not at the frontline of the front lines.

So, a few years after I moved to New York, Hurricane Sandy happened [in 2012]. This time I was living in Queens—again, not at the frontline of the front lines. My family wasn’t in Far Rockaway, [the neighborhood] where some of my friends were, who are still rebuilding their homes from that climate catastrophe.

Aryaana Khan pictured in Baisley Pond Park in Jamaica, Queens, NY., on Jan. 27, 2023

Connecting the dots

I was stuck at home missing school yet again, which was a huge parallel to my experiences growing up in Bangladesh. Not going to school, glued to the TV, figuring out when my world would open up again, when schools would open up again, when I’d be able to go see my family and loved ones outside again. That prompted me to do my own research and figure out, why did something so similar happen in such a resource-heavy place like New York City? Why was there even a parallel between my experience in Bangladesh and here, despite the 8,000 mile geographical distance?

I wanted to explore that connecting thread between the two places. Not having the language to explain what I was living through frustrated me further. I didn’t get that education or that scientific knowledge or even that language in my public school education at the time. I got that from grassroots organizing groups. I got that by Googling. I got that informal education from organizations that were doing climate assemblies, like Action for the Climate Emergency and Global Kids.

In high school I had a wonderful living environment teacher, and she did touch on human impacts on the living world and the natural world. However, we didn’t dig super deep into it.

When I joined Global Kids, they were working on a campaign to mandate climate education as a part of the New York City curriculum. When I learned about that campaign, I jumped on board.

Not having the language to explain what I was living through frustrated me further.

Aryaana Khan

Working with Global Kids was my first work in the organizing world, and it snowballed into everything that I do now, whether that’s organizing and policy work outside of school, whether that’s me studying environmental science in school.

I will let you know that I was pre-med in college. There was pressure from my family to go into the medical field as a lot of immigrant students do from my community. And a lot of that was also because of formative experiences growing up. Back when I was in Bangladesh and my little brother was born, he could not be released from the hospital because the doctor said the air outside was too dangerous for a premature newborn to breathe. I thought I could go into the medical field to work with young people.

Then I realized that a lot of things that I wanted to resolve through the medical field were related to climate, also. Now, I’m doing my master’s in environmental sustainability and environmental science because, like I said, it’s all connected.

Dreams about the future, and reflections on the past

In my wildest dreams, I am working with young people in Bangladesh and equipping them with the tools to adapt to the extreme climate events that are already happening there. Perhaps I will have my own organization someday, or I will be developing my own curriculum for my own school there. But that feels like my life’s work at this point in time.

My dad is a teacher in Bangladesh to this day. So, not only did I lose a parental figure in that transition [to the United States], but I also lost my favorite educator. I really wonder what we could have accomplished together in my formative years. As a 10 year old, I didn’t fully understand it. My parents, like broken records, were saying that we were making this sacrifice for a better life. But I was like, the best life is right here in Bangladesh with both my parents and my community and my village. But, as I grew older, I learned how to express gratitude for that sacrifice from my parents.

I have a different perspective on immigration and migration because I think that nobody really wants to leave behind everything that they hold dear to start a new life. I think people do it out of pure circumstance, whether that is because of political instability at home, whether that’s because of natural disaster—and in my family’s case, it was a combination of both.

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