Ten years ago, a family arrived in the Bronx from Yaoundé, Cameroon, not speaking a word of English. This Christmas, they are celebrating a feat that would be impressive for any family: Three of the family’s five daughters have been accepted to Ivy League universities.
In a year in which our nativist president would have you believe that immigrants are, at best, a job-stealing drain and at worst, criminals, rapists and people with AIDS, these three remarkable sisters are worth paying attention to. Not just because they are inspiring — they are — but because they are far better ambassadors for this country and exponents of its ideals than the 45th president.
“We brought the girls to this country because there are better opportunities here,” says Flore Kengmeni, their mother, who works as a nurse. “I don’t know of another country where you can try hard, work hard and get somewhere. Where you are given the opportunity to fulfill your potential.”
“This country is built on immigrants,” Francois de Paul Silatchom, their father, a professor of economics at SUNY, starts to say, before his middle daughter, Ella, a sophomore at Yale, interjects: “Our experience as a family is what America is.”
That experience is marked by hard work, optimism, resilience and a persistent sense of gratitude even to have the opportunity.
All three girls admit it wasn’t easy. They recall sitting in class during their first year in America and not understanding what their teachers and classmates were saying. They remember being made fun of, but not really knowing why.
“Everyone spoke so fast and I guess we speak that fast now, too,” says Xaviera, the youngest of the three, who was accepted to Harvard earlier this month.
They turned to books for guidance. Their parents got the girls library cards and made reading mandatory — “Education is the most valuable asset,” the parents say repeatedly when we meet. The sisters were encouraged to read broadly, from “The Magic School Bus” to “Harry Potter,” and they practiced English as a family in their two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx’s Pelham Parkway neighborhood.
By the end of their first year at their local public schools, the girls had learned enough English to take the state exams, and were excelling in their classes. But their parents were alarmed that they were finishing their homework during the school day and coming home bored. They asked teachers to assign their daughters more homework. But even that wasn’t enough.
“Something was wrong,” Mr. de Paul Silatchom says. “I started looking for schools that would challenge them and keep them busy. At a school fair, we learned about Democracy Prep.”
At Democracy Prep, a public charter school in Harlem where I met them one recent afternoon, the day begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Longer school days, many argue, allow teachers to spend more time on subjects other than math and English, and keep students out of trouble.
Through the school’s Korean language program, the sisters were exposed to a culture completely different from their own, which sparked an interest in global affairs for all of them. Civics is a core part of the school’s curriculum, which Xaviera says showed her that, “Regardless of how disadvantaged you are in society, you have an advantage if you understand how our system of government works.”
“I learned so much here,” Ella says of the school. “And between that and our parents, my work ethic — our work ethic — really developed. Our parents required us to do an extracurricular, so sports or choir or whatever and that was for after 5 o’clock. That was normal for us.”
When the oldest, Chris, now a junior at Dartmouth, got into the college in 2014, friends and family were elated, but her parents made it clear that the work wasn’t over.
“The night I got into Dartmouth, Mom asked me, ‘Have you done the dishes?’ Getting in was exciting and I knew she was proud, but it was just a regular day,” Chris says.
“They haven’t ‘arrived,’ as people like to say, just because they are into Ivy League schools,” Mr. de Paul Silatchom says. “It’s a good start and a platform of opportunity.”
When speaking, the sisters transition seamlessly between New York-accented English and French, their first language. The irony that they landed at a school called Democracy Prep after immigrating from one of the world’s least democratic countries is not lost on them.
It’s something they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about as President Trump has rolled out various cruel immigration policies, from his proposed travel ban to, in September, rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — an Obama-era program that protected the country’s approximately 800,000 undocumented youth raised in the country from being deported.
“It’s scary to see because this is not the country we know,” says Chris, who along with her sisters, became an American citizen in 2016. “America at its core is principled on immigrants. We came to this country to improve our futures and I feel as American as anyone born here.”
“These girls are more American than Cameroonian,” their mother says. “Can you imagine being undocumented? We were very lucky,” Xaviera adds.
Watching videos of immigration agents separating families in recent months has been particularly difficult for Ms. Kengmeni and Mr. de Paul Silatchom. “I can’t imagine what it’s been like for these children who go to school in the morning knowing they might come home at the end of the day to no parents,” Ms. Kengmeni says.
This year, Christmas break involves running around to pack for Chris’s semester abroad and attending three Christmas Masses, but the family is grateful to be all together, even if it’s for just a few days. They know they are the lucky ones.
Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded or co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Watching Ella, Chris and Xaviera, I’d bet good money that they will join those ranks of these world-class leaders. But the question I find myself asking as I leave their school: Who are the young women the Trump administration is currently keeping out?
Tariro Mzezewa (@tariro) is a staff editor for the Opinion section.