Houston Chronicle & La Voz -THE MILLION Series: One table: 10 girls, nine countries, countless stories

Source: Houston Chronicle

By: Monica Rhor

Immigrants find education, companions in school in Harris County

March 27, 2015 Updated: March 30, 2015 10:08a

It is “B” lunch at Lee High School. The cafeteria, hushed and empty just a minute earlier, now shudders and shakes with the rumble of nearly 700 teenagers.

They jostle in the food lines and sprint to octagonal tables, Styrofoam trays balanced precariously in hand. They gossip and giggle and gab, voices sweeping and swirling like an ocean’s roar.

Amid the tumult, one table stands out.

Here, a group of girls cluster, their laughter chiming like church bells on a Sunday morning. They drink cartons of Tru Moo chocolate milk and munch on hamburgers, pizza and baby carrots. They agonize over algebra worksheets and moan about English essays. They whisper secrets, text friends and post pictures.

Just like high school girls everywhere across America.

But look a little closer, listen more carefully.

These 10 girls, who sit together every day, hail from nine different countries. They are originally from Angola, Congo, Cuba, Ethiopia, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Nepal and Thailand.

All plucked from the familiar and plopped into a strange place. All forced to navigate a new language, new customs and a new city during the turmoil of adolescence.

Video of Lee HS girls: http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f8/716758716

 

All feeling alone and vulnerable until they found each other.

***

They banter as if they have been best friends forever. They give each other nicknames, speak in shorthand, split sandwiches and fruit cups.

But the girls only began eating together last fall. Before that, most only knew each other from crossing in the hallways or sitting in the same classroom.

Then someone started the lunch bunch. The question is who.

“I was the first one at the table,” says Marinela Campos, 16, who immigrated from Angola 15 months ago.

“No. The first one at the table was us,” protests 16-year-old Rosangela Sosa, whose family left Cuba six years ago. “It was our table.”

“Yes, that was our table,” agrees Lluvia Torres, 17, who met Rosangela in middle school, just after coming to this country from Mexico. “Rosangela told you to sit with us.”

“Nooooo,” Marinela insists with a playful smile. “It wasn’t her. You didn’t call me.”

“This year I did,” Rosangela counters, a grin flickering across her face.

Within seconds, the entire group is talking at once, reciting connections and recounting first meetings.

“I have class with her.”

“She was in my after-school program last year.”

“I used to sit with her at lunch.”

Linda Ngalula Mbaya, 17, whose family fled Congo, then lived in Ivory Coast until 2013, points to Oluwatomi “Tomi” Ekibolaji, 16, a Nigerian immigrant in the U.S. for seven years. Tomi points to Ethiopian-born Duretti Ahmed, 17, who arrived 2½ years ago.

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 Duretti points to Mary Mang Hau Cing, 16, a refugee from Myanmar who just celebrated her first year in this country. And Mary points to the Dai sisters from Nepal – Amrita, 16, and Sristi, 18, here just over two years.

The first time Mary joined the group of near-strangers, she recalls, it was a “little awkward.”

But the table quickly turned into a haven, where there is always a seat saved for each of the girls, where they can practice English without fear of mockery, and where they can talk about “everything and anything,” says Rosangela.

In a cafeteria where most students gravitate to classmates who share a native language, theirs is unique.

“We are special,” Marinela boasts in jest, “but I am the most special.”

“Excuse me?” the other girls tease back, then hoot with amusement.

 

***

Each girl has a story of her first days – in Houston, in school, in the cafeteria. Before they met. Before the camaraderie and conversation. Before a chair was waiting at “B” lunch.

ABOUT THE MILLION

In Harris County and the surrounding 10-county region, more than a million residents – nearly one in four – are foreign-born. Immigrants continue to be drawn to Houston. This is the first installment of a yearlong series, as the Chronicle and La Voz explore how that diversity shapes this city. Go toHoustonChronicle.com/TheMillion to see an interactive map of the diversity along Hillcroft Avenue, and be sure to check back for future parts of this series.

The Houston Chronicle and La Voz are joined by Houston Public Media News 88.7 in this series. Listen  here to education reporter Laura Isensee bring the voices from Lee High School’s cafeteria alive, or visit houstonpublicmedia.org.

“I felt like my nerves were popping like popcorn,” recalls Mary, an aspiring fashion designer who wears streaks of color – lavender, green, pink, blue – through her long hair.

The school seemed so big. The halls so congested and confusing. And she had already been through so much.

She had lost a home, two times over – once when her family escaped Myanmar and sought refuge in Malaysia, again when they left Malaysia for political asylum in the U.S. She had lost one of her closest friends, a girl whose memory lives in a small carved figurine Mary wears on her school ID.

And she had lost her mother, who died three years ago.

Now, she was in a foreign country.

“I felt so alone and scared,” Mary says.

It was the same for Linda. In her early days in Houston, everything seemed upside-down and inside-out. She missed her friends, and although she spoke English, she could not understand the local accent.

On the first day of classes, the girl who always flew through the school doors back home, eager to start a new year, whimpered as she watched her father walk away.

She cried again when a teacher made a joke, and all the other students chuckled. Linda could not decipher the words.

Then there was the cafeteria. An obstacle course of swarming lines, crowded tables and boisterous students.

Linda sat alone. Tomi and Marinela steered clear of it altogether, hiding in the girls’ restroom or the stairwells to eat. Duretti had her lunch in the ESL classroom.

Not anymore.

No matter who started the table, they all belong there now. Welcomed without questions or judgment.

There are no borders, no political divisions, “no colors,” says Mary.

“When you look in their eyes, you can see what they are really like. That is why I love them and love to sit with them.”

 

***

It is “B” lunch at Lee High School.

One by one, the 10 girls trickle in from fifth-period classes and drop backpacks and school-issued laptops on the table.

Some pair up and head to the food lines – no longer cowed by the maelstrom, no longer alone. Others embrace their friends with bear hugs and giggles.

Tomi shrieks at the sight of Kma Paw, who has been absent for two days. She swoops the smaller girl, originally from Thailand, up and off the floor in a tight embrace.

Linda, usually the last to arrive, tosses down a packet of information for graduating seniors and texts a friend in Ivory Coast. Next to her, Rosangela and Lluvia share a set of earbuds and listen to a voicemail from Lluvia’s boyfriend.

Tomi dangles a French fry into her mouth while watching “Flower Boy Ramyun Shop,” a television drama, on her laptop.

“She watches Korean movies every day,” explains Linda.

“I know,” Tomi shrugs. “Whatever.”

“You’re the crazy one at this table,” Marinela kids.

“I am not the crazy one,” Tomi says in feigned indignation.

They all dissolve into laughter.

From the other side of the table, Sristi snaps a photo with her Samsung. In the frame, Marinela and Duretti, heads pressed together, flash beaming smiles.

Just before posting the image to Snapchat, Sristi types in a caption:

“My friends eating lunch have great fun!”

 

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