This year's graduating class at North Side High School has four young women who have come a long way to reach their graduation destination.
Two are from Burma, one from Thailand and another from Chad. Two are Muslim, and two are Christian, but despite their differences they are all sisters through their friendship and mutual struggle to overcome both the language and cultural barriers in their new homeland.
Three of the girls have been friends since middle school and met the other one when they came to North Side. For the past four years they have been inseparable, helping each other study and taking many of the same classes. All four are driven to succeed. All four are in the top 10 of their class; one is this year's valedictorian and another the salutatorian. All four want to be doctors.
In 2003 Ei Ei Oo and her family left Burma to be reunited with her father, a freedom fighter for democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Thailand where he was a political refugee. In an essay that Ei Ei Oo wrote for her English class, she described her journey to Thailand as similar to the “underground railroad.” Once in Thailand she lived in fear that their family would be deported back to Burma. Eventually with the help of the U.N. they were able to live there legally and in October 2007 they left Thailand for Fort Wayne. Like three of her classmates she struggled to learn the language, spending fifth grade at Franke Park Elementary.
Ei Ei Oo's American friends helped her to learn the language and she went on to Northwood Middle School, where she took English As a Second Language classes both years to help build her vocabulary. She said she always felt like her peers looked down on her because she didn't speak English fluently, so she worked harder to become like them. When she started ninth grade at North Side she told her parents she wanted to be the highest achieving student in her class. Her parents got her a tutor whom she met every Thursday to go over the lessons she didn't understand. She said she wants to be a doctor one day and return to Burma, where she could open some clinics and provide good medical health care.
Esther Vel, salutatorian and also a Burmese refugee, said she came from a poor neighborhood in Burma. Her father worked in Malaysia to make money for the family. She and her family lived in a house divided into two sections with her three uncles sleeping on one side, and she and her family in the other room. Eventually they moved to Malaysia and from there were resettled to the United States.
Like Ei Ei Oo, Esther Vel struggled with the language and classmates who treated her with little kindness or understanding. In seventh grade, she had a child tell her choir teacher she had lice. She had no idea what lice was but the choir teacher sent her to the school nurse. She had no lice, and to this day the incident brings tears of anger to her eyes when she tells the story.
In eighth grade she met Ei Ei Oo and Fareda Ma. They became fast friends and things became much better for her. She too shares the dream of becoming a doctor and said if it were not for her parents sacrificing so much she would not have had the opportunities she does.
Fareda Ma is a Burmese Muslim. In the civil war between Karen Burmese and Burmese Muslims, she said, there was little left for the Muslims. Many escaped to the jungles, and many, like her family, sought asylum over the border in Thailand. Fareda Ma was born there in Thailand. Her family opened a small restaurant while her father taught at an Islamic school. Her family moved to the United Sates when she was in sixth grade.
Fatima Idriss didn't meet the other girls until she was at North Side. Unlike the other three, she comes from Chad. Her family left there after her father ran into trouble with the government for speaking out about his political beliefs. The first year they were in the United States, they lived in Kendallville.
Initially, Idriss said, her father didn't send her and her three sisters to school. It is the custom in her culture not to educate girls because their role is to stay home and take care of the house. Eventually her father realized it was against the law and sent his daughters, along with his three sons, to school.
Idriss said her first year was very difficult. It was right after 9/11 and they were Muslims who didn't speak the language, living in a small town in rural Indiana. Her first year in school was a failure. There wasn't an ESL program in the Kendallville school system and she didn't understand the language.
At the end of the year the school encouraged her parents to move to Fort Wayne for the ESL program in Fort Wayne Community Schools. Like her three friends, once her English developed, her academics took off. Her dream is to become a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology, return to Chad and open a series of clinics to help women.
“Where I come from women are not valued,” Idriss said.
Women do not go to doctors in Chad the way they do in the United States, Idriss said. Instead, they see midwives. It is not culturally acceptable to have a male doctor touch a woman. This means women often go without medical attention.
Once Idriss met the other three girls at North Side, they became inseparable. They attribute their academic success to wanting to prove to their American peers that they are as good as them, or even better. Most of them agree if it were not for the support of their families and the opportunity to come to America, they would not have been able to better themselves the way they have. They want to make their families proud of them and be able to support them.
But underneath their serious academic nature, these are just teenage girls, excited about going to senior prom and planning the color of their dresses. Every fifth word out of their mouths is “like.” The four were going to prom together, because most of their parents do not approve of them dating.
For Fareda Ma and Fatima Idriss, half the challenge was finding a Western-style prom dress that was modest enough for them to wear. Last Saturday evening, they along with their fellow classmates gathered at the Grand Wayne Center for an evening of dancing and celebration, a rite of passage toward adulthood for most American children – and so it was for the four friends.