LEWISTON, Maine — Seven years ago they were immigrants from Kenya, starting a new school in a new country.
Today, Somali sisters Fatuma Haji, 18, and Rahma Haji, 16, both members of the National Honor Society, will graduate Friday from Lewiston High School.
The first generation of their family to go to college, both want to someday work in medical careers.
Despite their age difference, both girls are in the same grade because Rahma skipped the fifth grade when she moved to Atlanta, Ga., in 2006.
“They gave us a placement exam. I got moved to the sixth grade,” Rahma said.
Unlike some immigrants from Kenya or Somalia, the sisters attended a private Christian school in Kenya, where they started speaking English at age 6.
They had that opportunity, they said, because of their father, Abdiyare Mohamed. He was born in Somalia and came to the United States in 1999 to make good wages. He sent money home to his wife and three daughters, the Haji sisters said.
At first Mohamed worked on fishing boats in Alaska. Today he works at a local warehouse.
“Five dollars here is a lot of money over there,” Fatuma said. “If he sends $200, it is a lot of money there. He just wanted to take care of us.” That was the only way, the girls said, they could have lived in an apartment and gone to a private school in Kenya.
Their mother is still in Kenya, waiting for immigration clearance, Fatuma said. They haven’t seen her since 2006, but talk on the phone. Meanwhile their father acts as both mother and father to them.
He works, does the shopping, cooks. “He encourages us,” Rahma said.
They moved to Lewiston on Dec. 25, 2007. They had little trouble adapting to a new culture because of the year they spent in Georgia.
But snow was new. At first they were excited about snow. “We thought it would be like ‘Home Alone’ movies,” Rahma said. Snow would be exciting. They’d get lots of hot chocolate. That feeling soon wore off. “I hate it when snow gets dirty from cars,” Rahma said.
They said they’ve had little difficulty balancing their culture with a new one. However, they said terrorist acts such as the one on Sept. 11, 2001, and the Boston bombings in April are frustrating because they stir up incorrect beliefs about their religion.
“In Islam, it’s not permitted to kill someone at all,” Fatuma said. The terrorists used religion to carry out what they wanted to do, she said. “I feel frustrated that people think that Islam is about that. It’s not.”
Their years in Lewiston have gone fast, they said.
“When I came as a freshman the seniors told us, ‘It’s going to fly by.’ I remember thinking, ‘Yeah right,’” Fatuma said. They were right, she said, looking at the cap and gown in her lap.
She also heard that senior year would be an easy “chill year,” Fatuma said. “I realized it’s easy if you take easy courses.”
They did not do that.
This year Fatuma took advanced placement calculus, advanced placement chemistry, advanced placement literature, honors physics, government and medical science.
Rahma took advanced placement biology, advanced placement calculus, advanced placement literature, government, debate and medical science.
Fatuma plans to go to Stonehill College, Rahma to Smith College, both in Massachusetts. Fatuma is thinking about going into pediatrics or becoming an obstetrician. Rahma is considering double majoring in international relations and molecular biology.
They offered advice for students beginning high school.
“Give it your all,” Fatuma said. “When you enter high school, you should not waste anything. That’s my big regret.” She said she could have done more.
Rahma said students should enjoy school but “put your studies above everything else.” Never mind what friends say, focus on your future. “At the end of the day, it’s only you going to college,” Rahma said. “Care more about yourself.”