Caring for a dying parent, surviving alone and homeless, living on four hours of sleep per night, holding down a full-time job and paying the household bills — teenagers here and everywhere deal with hardships, but few do so while remaining on the academic honor roll and emerging as leaders among their peers.

Rebuma Kedir, Class of 2016. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Rebuma Kedir, Class of 2016. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Rebuma Kedir’s faith left him living on the streets

After that first night sleeping in the park, Rebuma Kedir flicked grass off his jeans and bits of leaves from his short dreadlocks and went to school like any other day. He attended Advanced Placement physics and the rest of his classes, then walked to the Audelia Road Library where he finished his homework. When it closed, he returned to his spot among the trees, under the stars, where he prayed, on his own terms.

It went on like this for a few days. His sister, a fellow senior, Rohda, brought him clean clothes and cried when she saw him.

His mom visited the school office once after he left home for good, to make sure he was OK and in class.

“I haven’t heard anything [from her] since then,” he says in a soft voice that seems to quiet further when discussing painful topics.

Rebuma, who says he never knew his biological father, was a young child when he went to live with his grandmother in Ethiopia.

Three years ago his mother invited him to live in Dallas with her and her fiancé. He came, for a better education and more opportunities.

His English needed polishing, but he worked hard — now he makes A’s and is a member of the National Art Honor Society.

He joined AVID, a college preparation program that he says changed his life for the better.

“Not only with getting into college, but it helped my self-esteem and communicating with people,” he says.

While many his age keep parents awake at night with worry, Rebuma did everything right, it seemed.

But religious differences with his mom’s fiancé, a strict Muslim, led to insurmountable problems at home.

“I was born Muslim, yes, but I was raised by my grandmother who was an orthodox Christian,” Rebuma says.

His grandmother never pushed him into any religion. She just loved him, cared for him and lived in a manner that appealed to him. So at 13, he decided he was what she was, a Christian.

But his mother’s husband-to-be made clear that everyone in the household was expected to follow Islamic tradition. He made it a point to tell Rebuma and his sister stories about his one relative who had rejected Islam — her loved ones, even her parents, had shunned her. The message was clear: If the Kedir children did not comply, the same would happen to them.

“I went along with it at first,” Rebuma says. For two years he studied the Quran and recited requisite ritual prayers.

But then his grandmother died, devastating him. In his pain, he longed more than ever for the comfort he found in her Christian faith.

It is clear from the catch in his throat when he speaks of her that he desperately misses her.

He sees now that she bestowed on him a gift — of both spirituality and choice — that he wants to reclaim.

“I am happy with my decision,” says Rebuma, though it cost him his home.

Today he lives at Promise House, a shelter for young adults located in North Oak Cliff.

Even during the most turbulent times, he seemed not to miss a beat academically, says guidance counselor Culus Williams.

“Most of us would be crazy if this happened to us,” Williams says. “But he just takes it in stride, like, ‘OK, this is where I live now. It’s OK. It’s OK’ — that’s what he always says to us [counselors], no matter what. He is amazing.”

Rebuma says his grades did suffer. “I didn’t make straight A’s that semester,” he notes. (Williams responds with a speechless head shake as if to say, “see what I mean.”)

When students at LHHS are facing risk or turmoil, they are encouraged to contact Communities in Schools (CIS), a nonprofit organization with offices in 77 area schools. That’s what Rebuma did. When he explained his situation, he says LHHS leaders sprung into action.

CIS staffers Marcus Taylor and Yvonda Akers; his counselor, Williams; and his AVID instructors Rebecca Wood, Pamela Gayden and Matthew Morris, rallied together to find him a safe place to sleep that night.

“He went for days sleeping in the park and getting dressed and brushing his teeth in the school restrooms. He didn’t tell anyone and, looking at him, you never would have known,” says Akers. “I asked him why he waited so long to tell us. He only came to us after it started raining and he said he thought about the weather getting cold and knew he would need some kind of shelter. He is not the kind of kid who asks for anything. But he is grateful for everything.”

He leaves Promise House around 6 a.m. each weekday and always arrives at campus early. He works 20-hour weeks at a Taco Cabana near the shelter. On Sundays he rises early and rides the buses to his church in Garland.

He has been accepted to several universities. He chose University of Texas at San Antonio, whose recruiter was exceptionally responsive and helped him apply for financial aid, he says.

“I can’t wait to graduate,” he says. He plans to study engineering. But first, he will spend the summer working and saving.

Fittingly, he says it is prayer that keeps him feeling strong even when the loneliness from the loss of his family bonds feels overwhelming. When he sees his sister, with whom he is still close, he suggests she do the same.

“I say I don’t care what god she is praying to. Pray to whatever god you want. Don’t ever let anyone push you into something you don’t want to be.”

Mercy Cer, Class of 2016. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Mercy Cer, Class of 2016. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Born to lead

When she was just 6 years old, Sui Cer (now known as Mercy) fled Burma (now known as Myanmar) with her mom and dad. The large population of Burmese refugees in Lake Highlands was sparser then. Hers was one of the first Burmese families at Wallace Elementary. Early on, language barriers and culture shock stifled Mercy’s naturally bright and outgoing personality. One memory from first grade stands out more than any; the experience shaped her academic future, she says. “It was a spelling test. My teacher called out the words, and everyone started writing things down. I just sat there and turned in a blank page. I got a zero.”

She was mortified, she says. And motivated. She recruited an older family friend to tutor her, and she never again made less than a 100 on a spelling test. In fact, she’s made straight A’s ever since. She will graduate in the top 10 percent of her class, a member of the Mu Alpha
Theta mathematics honor society and the National Honor Society. Among her many accolades has been the Lake Highlands Exchange Club’s Character Counts award, given to students who display strong character traits at school and in the community. Winners are nominated by the LHHS faculty and, according to club officers, are “students who serve as peer role models … and are reliable and trustworthy.”

She is “academically gifted,” according to teacher Rebecca Wood, who also describes her as “kind, intelligent, and driven to succeed.”

Though she was young when she lived in Burma, Mercy recalls enough to know to never take for granted the luxuries of urban America. Things like electricity and clean water were scarce in Myanmar. “When I came here, I did not even know what a toilet was. And laundry. That was one of the most exciting things.” She speaks without a detectible accent. She says that her experiences have been benign compared to those of some other Burmese refugees at school. Her friend Biak (whose story is on p. 22), for example, came in 2010; her journey and acclimation proved much more difficult. “She is the biggest inspiration to me,” Mercy says of Biak. Biak calls Mercy her first and best friend — they share a culture and can talk about any problem. Mercy’s teachers and counselors say she is always supportive, especially to newer Burmese girls who are following in her footsteps.

Today Mercy is on track to become an influential woman abroad as she is at school and home, where she is the oldest of six siblings. “I have to be the one to set an example,” she says.

She emulates the attitude and behavior of her role models including Aung San Suu Kyi, a politician and opposition leader who has fought and suffered for women’s rights in Myanmar. Mercy’s understanding of the struggles of the people in Myanmar, where her grandfather still lives, has inspired her to return, she says, maybe even before she finishes college.

“I don’t want to completely change the way they do things, necessarily,” she says, “but I do want to bring awareness about movements like feminism.”

She served on the student council last year but this year she says she chose to save her money. (Yes, like in real life, it apparently is expensive to run for a high school office). Her interest in politics, while keen, probably won’t translate to a career, she says. She would rather earn a psychology degree and use it to help people. At time of publication she was still contemplating where to attend college after being accepted to multiple universities and garnering hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Class of 2016 Biak Rem Chin, photo by Danny Fulgencio

Class of 2016 Biak Rem Chin, photo by Danny Fulgencio

Never giving up is more than a cliché for Biak Rem Chin

Biak Rem Chin is a seasoned adult living in the tiny-framed body of a teenager. Her porcelain-smooth face and shy smile reveal youth, but as she tells her story, it becomes easier to accept her claim that sometimes visitors mistake her for the mother of her younger sibling.

“When they come to the house, people sometimes say, ‘Are you the mom?’” Biak says, sighing. “And I say (sigh) ‘no.’ ” But for several of her formative years — after her family fled Myanmar, formerly Burma, and her mother became seriously ill — she did play the mom role.

Growing up in a village of 400 or so, she never turned on a light, sipped bottled water or took a shower — those are among the indulgences she appreciates now.

Her parents, for whom she translates English, smile politely as they describe the journey from Myanmar to Malaysia and eventually the United States as refugees.

For more than a week they trekked much of the thousand miles across southern Asia with Biak and her little brother in tow — traveling in crowded backseats and truck beds when rides were available, hiding from authorities and sleeping on farmland.

While camping overnight, a venomous snake bit Biak’s hand, causing unforgettable agony as poison racked her body. Luckily a traveling companion knew how to treat the wound and keep her alive, her parents explain.

Even a difficult existence in the United States is “heaven compared to my country,” she says.

They arrived in America in 2010, and life here was thrilling but all new kinds of rough.

The seventh grade at Lake Highlands Junior High was an overwhelming, alien world. “I like school but I did not know any English at all except, ‘no’ and ‘yes.’ People were making fun of me.”

When her father saw her crying after school, he insisted that she hold her head high and pay no mind to what people say. Just be yourself, study hard and do the best you can, he advised.

Her dad is her hero, she says, and she held his words close to her heart. She would need the strength they gave her as life at home grew increasingly hard. Her mother developed excruciating kidney stones, which required multiple surgeries followed by long periods of incapacitation. Her mom eventually was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“Every day I got home from school, cooked, cleaned, take care of my mom — help her shower and eat — make lunches for my dad and my brother … then I pick up the Chin-English translation dictionary to study.”

In high school, she followed a similar routine; sometimes she didn’t begin her homework until 11 p.m., she says, and wouldn’t sleep sometimes until 3 or even 6 a.m.

Ask how she manages the grueling schedule and bears heavy responsibilities placed upon her narrow shoulders, and receive a pragmatic reply. “I keep doing it. Do it everyday for three years, you get used to it.”

From the moment she arrived in Lake Highlands, she was an exemplary student. That’s how she eventually made friends — teachers praised her, and fellow students, especially others from her home country, often came to her for homework help.

Responsibilities weighed on her. There was a time, when her mom was at her worst, hospitalized and on a machine to help her breathe, doctors suggested the family consider pulling the plug, which would have almost surely meant death. “My mom wanted to die,” Biak recalls. “She told us she doesn’t want to live anymore. She is tired of being sick. The doctors told us to give up on her. They were going to cut the oxygen machine.”

But Biak wouldn’t hear of it. She couldn’t give up on the mother she adores.

Mom lived, and the hospital released her. But with her father’s long work hours, Biak continued to be the primary caretaker. She was “the second mom,” she says, attending to her 15-year-old brother and everything else. Though she was a straight-A student, a burnt-out Biak considered dropping out junior year. “Last year was completely down,” she says, “the worst. I was so confused and crying all the time, so I felt like giving up school,” she says. “I thought I would get a job.”

Her dad and school counselors, especially her teachers from the AVID college preparation program, talked her out of it. They see in Biak a young woman determined to spend much of her future helping others, and an education is essential to maximizing her reach. “She is a sweet young lady who is definitely going places,” says teacher Rebecca Wood. “She learned English, and has excelled academically … she helps her family, community and friends whenever she can.”

Remarkably, Biak finds time to coach the volleyball team at Agape Baptist Church, where she also leads a youth prayer and worship group. Everywhere she goes — school, church or volunteer gigs — she is a leader among her peers, always guiding by example.

Her mom’s health has improved. She was up and walking around, chatting and grinning when we photographed the family in April.

“The medicine for the cancer is working,” Biak says. “We hope for not another operation.”

Acceptance into college was no problem, academically. She has applied for a dozen scholarships and is waiting for news. She badly wants to attend the University of Texas at Austin, but she chose Texas Woman’s University instead so she can remain closer to home. She’ll study social work. “Because I have a lot of experience about that,” she says.

It’s disappointing that she won’t be in Austin with her friends, but when she is tempted to feel sorry for herself, she tries to lend an ear to someone else going through a rough time — like her best friend, Sui (Mercy). They are always there for each other, she says.

Coming from anyone else, the words might seem idealistic if not neurotic, but, coming from Biak, you believe without question in their sincerity: “I want everyone to be happy. I just want to make everyone happy.”

Class of 20156 Carla Ruiz, Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Class of 20156 Carla Ruiz, Photo by Danny Fulgencio

A full life

Five years ago, while living with her family in El Salvador, Karla Ruiz awakened to a nightmare. Her father could not be dead, she thought, despite what her weeping mother was telling her. They were supposed to watch the baseball game on TV, a favorite father-daughter pastime, and he had been late. She waited, and when the game ended she went to bed. Later that night, she swears, her dad cracked her bedroom door and whispered, “Lo siento. Buenas noches, te amo.” She accepted his apology and said she loved him too before drifting back to sleep. “It was weird,” she says. “I still think I remember him coming in and saying goodnight and that he was sorry for being late.”

In reality, her father was killed on impact in a car accident on his way home from work.

Losing a parent is one of the greatest sorrows a young person can face, and for Karla it went beyond grief.

She lived in an area controlled by gangs, she says.

After he was gone, she realized that her dad had been protecting the family from danger.

Paying off gangs to leave you alone or to shield you from harm was a way of life where she came from, Karla explains. It was something that her mother could not handle alone.

“After he was gone, all of the sudden, there were days when we couldn’t go to school, when my mom would say it wasn’t safe to leave the house.”

Adding to the stress, insurance did not pay enough on the accident to keep the family financially afloat. Karla’s mom worked tirelessly but couldn’t sustain. So she sent Karla to live in California with cousins she had never met.

In San Francisco Karla enjoyed relative safety, a good education and comforts such as her own bedroom. It took the bright teenager less than a year to learn English. She had one especially good teacher, Mrs. Ramirez, she says, but still her heart was breaking. She remembers the anniversary of her dad’s death, sitting in a room alone, grieving.

“That was a turning point where I told my mom I could not live without her. If she did not come to the United States, I was going back to El Salvador.”

Meanwhile, her mom had sought asylum and, not long after Karla’s ultimatum, she resettled in Texas where she rented a two-bedroom apartment in Lake Highlands. It was crowded — Karla’s older brother and his wife and baby lived in one room while Karla’s mother and sister occupied the other.

“My mom always tells me I had it better in San Francisco, but all I wanted was her.”

Karla happily shares a room now with her sister and mother. “It’s fun, actually,” she says.

The space looks a little like a college dorm room — three twin beds line the wall, two overrun with stuffed animals. A tattered Eeyore doll is the last gift Karla’s father gave her, she says, and hugs it tight. “I don’t want to wash it. I think I can still smell his cologne. My mom says I can’t, but I think it is still in there.”

Photos and notes from the special education students Karla tutors are pinned above her pillow.

In mostly Advanced Placement classes she is making all A’s, says her counselor, who made Karla exchange one AP class for its standard version because she was working more than 40 hours a week.

Karla gives half of her earnings from serving at the Olive Garden to her mom for rent. She gives an allowance to her younger sister, and she recently emptied out her savings account to help her brother when he encountered serious financial trouble. “It’s OK,” she insists, “because I have my brother.”

Ostensibly their apartment isn’t much — outside, brown paint is peeling and stray dogs have the run of the parking lot. The crime rate is high — when Karla parks at the far reaches of the complex late nights after her shift, she sprints from the car to front door.

“I have never had any crime happen against me,” she says. “But I know it happens. We had a neighbor who just got robbed.”

But warmth permeates the inside of the tidy, colorful, welcoming flat. On a weekday afternoon in spring, mom is cooking in the kitchen and spicy aromas waft across the living room where the TV is set to a Spanish game show. Framed family photos occupy shelves and walls, and pink playthings stand in neat piles (that is until Karla’s 2-year-old niece barrels in and attacks them). Karla’s textbooks, folders and papers form towering kitchen-table skyscrapers. With precision, she has inked important dates onto a handmade wall calendar — Nov. 5 is the anniversary of her dad’s death. June 5 is graduation day.

She was accepted to all eight colleges for which she applied. She credits the AVID program and exceptional instructors including her chemistry teacher, Steve Kim and AVID teachers like Pam Gayden. “I never expected I would ever get into college, go to college, get scholarships, and all of this happened thanks to them.”

Despite her demonstrated drive and talent, Karla is humble, her guidance counselor Donna Lambeth says. “She had to retake an easy algebra class because of some transfer technicality, and she finished in record time with no complaints. Then she makes great greades in super-hard classes.”

Karla plans to double major in psychology and special education at University of North Texas in Denton. There is an Olive Garden near campus, she says. She will transfer, continue waiting tables and paying a share of her family’s household expenses.

Gratitude seems to be the magic that propels this young woman.

She misses her father terribly, she says, but is grateful for the path on which the tragedy put her. And she has what she wants most — “My family, all together. As long as we are together, I can deal with anything else.”

Camila Melero Class of 2016 at Lake Highlands High School, photo by Danny Fulgencio

Camila Melero Class of 2016 at Lake Highlands High School, photo by Danny Fulgencio

Girl Power

Though she has been in the United States since she was an infant, Camila Melero is proud of her Mexican roots. That can be tough, she admits, in a world where hundreds of thousands of Americans support presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Camila is on the student council and a member of the Young Republicans. In club meetings her peers openly discuss support for Trump and his promise to build a massive wall he says will help keep undocumented Mexican immigrants from entering our country.

It sometimes hurts, she says. It is hard to not take it personally.

“Trump doesn’t like Mexicans, and my family is all Mexicans,” she says. “My mom has her own business and pays taxes. She never had welfare. I don’t think a wall should be built up and I don’t think Trump should talk about people like he does.”

Camila — who is intelligent and glamorously nerdy in dark-rimmed glasses over deep, observant, long-lashed eyes — shrugs most of it off. She has her sights set on more controllable things. In quick, clipped sentences she describes her plan to become a coder and work for Apple, though “Google would be OK too,” she says.

“I had a lot of problems growing up so I grew a pretty thick skin,” she says. “I try not to stress about those things I can’t do anything about.”

The hardest time of her life, she says, was during her sophomore year, when her mother had to travel to Mexico to “deal with immigration-status issues.”

“I was basically alone my whole sophomore year, making sure my sister is OK.”

Her sister was in eighth grade at the time and Camila had to act as mom despite her young age. She worried about her sister, she says, because the women in her family had a history of alcohol abuse. She knew her sister was nearing an age of temptation and needed a role model.

“I’ve seen in my family how alcohol can ruin lives. It starts as a game and then it takes your life.”

She says her family’s problems were rooted in alcoholism. Her mom, who had drinking problem, is recovering.

But while she tried to be there for her sister, who was there for her?

“I felt really lonely without my mom, because my mom is my best friend.”

Her stepfather was in charge, but he was always gone at work or elsewhere, she says. She only saw her biological father once a month, she says.

“When you don’t have a parent around, choosing to come to school, especially in elementary school and junior high, can be hard. I am proud of myself for being motivated to succeed and make it through all of my education, through senior year.”

Camila not only made it through that and subsequent years, she thrived, remaining on the academic honor roll and playing forward on the girls soccer team. Her teacher Rebecca Wood says she feels lucky to know Camila. “I think she is inspirational because she refuses to be defined by where she comes from, but instead focuses on where she is going,” Wood says. “She also is a great friend to all of her peers who count on her for advice, laughs, and support.”

The day of our interview, she is decidedly giddy. “Tonight is senior night. It’s our last home game and the night where the seniors are recognized. I’ve been waiting for it for four years.”