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COMING TO AMERICA Grover students share their dreams for the future

As they do on every Fourth of July, today Western New Yorkers will gather together and celebrate. Thousands will travel to the nearest fireworks display, honoring their nation's birth, principles and history. Red, white and blue will be seen everywhere.

For five students at Grover Cleveland High School, those colors mean the world.

All are originally from Africa or Asia, and are among the more than 300 international students at Grover Cleveland that represent more than 30 different countries, according to Michelle Lawrence, the English as a Second Language teacher there. The five have excelled in ESL and are making plans for their future. Though none had been here more than five years, all spoke English proficiently.

"They are the definition of resiliency," said Lawrence. "To think of what they have been through ... They do not take their education for granted."

One of those students is 2007 graduate Khadija Osman. Originally from Kenya, she spent nearly 13 years in a refugee camp before she came with her family to the United States in 2003. In Kenya, she shared a small room with eight people inside, and a bathroom outside with her neighbors. Though a few food markets existed in Kenya, no one in her life had money. No food stamps or welfare programs existed to help the poor -- she often survived on little more than bread.

There were no jobs to come by, or any schools to attend -- you had to pay to go to school, she said. Her family and neighbors would often raid the nearby farm for food. If rebel groups found you picking food on the farm, she said, they would kill you. When her family found a way to America, her grandma stayed behind. Khadija can't contact her; there are no phones or e-mail or post office for her grandma to use.

She struggled to explain just how much different life is for women in America. "They have so much more freedom," said Khadija, who is proud that she will attend Medaille College in the fall.

It was almost unheard-of for a woman to attend college in Kenya. She was excited when she first came to America since she was finally allowed to wear pants. "(The Americans) have an easy life," she said. "We can better appreciate the life you have here."

Said Harsi, a 12th grader, immigrated from Somalia in 2005. "They're always fighting," he said, reluctantly referring to the many factions and groups constantly in conflict with one another.

There is no president, he says; no central authority or government that can maintain order. "Life was difficult. I've finally found a place where there is education, work, medicine and peace," he said.

Twelfth-grader Marc Togba is grateful to live with his grandma on the West Side, where he has a refrigerator, stove and hot, clean water. In the Ivory Coast, he had none of that. Rebel groups who were unhappy with the current government terrorized the residents there. When they invaded his camp several years ago, he was separated from his parents and older brother. Marc, his sisters and his grandma walked from city to city until finding refuge with the United Nations; he has not seen the rest of his family since. "When rebels attacked the camp, everybody split," he said. "I'm still looking for them."

You'll often find him playing soccer in the Delaware Park fields -- he was captain of Grover's team, and is considering joining the University at Buffalo's next year. Marc first started playing soccer in Liberia and then in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast. Since he came to America in 2004, he can play for free. If you ever wanted to make a team back home, he said, you had to bribe the coaches.

Marc plans to study medicine and work as a doctor for the United Nations.

"It's important to take the opportunity in America to get and education and help other people," he said. "There are problems everywhere. I want to go to the places that don't have medicine to help them and give them support."

Graduate Oluwakemi Idowu is grateful to live with her father after moving from Lagos, Nigeria, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Though she lived in a house, a luxury compared to the thousands who live in slums there, obtaining food and getting a job were difficult. It was rare for electricity to stay on because of continuous rolling blackouts.

"I want others to go to Africa and see how it is," she said.
Her parents separated many years ago when her father moved to Buffalo to work for the NFTA. After waiting three years, she joined her father here with her two older sisters, and left her mother behind. She still misses her.

"It means a lot to be here," said Oluwakemi. "It has changed my life."

Sounai Mohammad Akbar, an 11th-grader, was born in Afghanistan, but fled the country as a little girl to Tajikistan with her family to escape conflict. Though they sought a better life there, the Tajik government did not help them. "They were so corrupt. They did little for us," she said.

It shut down all of the businesses that were owned by refugees (including her father's), and made it especially difficult for refugees to get a job. She said that every few months, they had to pay for a permit that allowed them to stay. Her family's application to America was rejected a number of times. Last August, they were sponsored by Catholic Charities to come to Buffalo, which helped her family find a house and her dad a job.

Sounai loves to read, as books were hard to come by in Tajikistan. Now, she has unlimited use of books at the library and at school. She says she has limitless opportunities to advance herself and is endlessly encouraged to do well by those around her.

"Living in America is priceless," she said. "It is like heaven!"

Brian Hayden will be a sophomore at Syracuse.

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