Two Sisters, Two Scholarships
The IRC helps sisters restart their lives in spectacular fashion—from camps in West Africa to colleges in California.
Overcoming tremendous odds, two Liberian sisters, Diamond and Torbertha Torbon, are on their way to brighter futures in California. Through their own determination and with help from the IRC, Diamond, 19, was admitted to the University of California at Davis this fall, and Torbertha, 18, was “pre-accepted” to Stanford University for 2008.
“We’re really proud of them especially because they have had so many disadvantages to overcome, and it’s amazing that they have turned into such successes,” says Owen Williams, IRC case manager in San Francisco.
For over 15 years, Liberia was the center of interrelated civil wars in West Africa that resulted in 250,000 deaths and the displacement of millions. Diamond and Torbertha fled with their family to Ivory Coast in 1998, where they spent the next six years surviving in a refugee camp, receiving little education. Then, in 2004, they were offered the chance to resettle in the United States.
Embracing the Opportunity
Diamond and Torbertha landed in San Francisco in July with their mother, Esther Smith, their five-year-old sister, Linda, and their cousin, Patience, whose family perished in the war. Diamond was pregnant when she entered the country and gave birth to a boy, Emmanuel, in November.
Williams was one of the first to greet the new arrivals, describing them as sweet and smart. From the start, the IRC has maintained an ongoing relationship with the family, helping them find apartments, jobs, schools, health care and a little bit of everything else.
The family’s situation was particularly tough because Esther was a single mother trying to support four children and one grandchild. Esther made many sacrifices, working two jobs, for example, to support the entire family. She wanted to make sure that Diamond could go to school and look after Emmanuel. Her faith in her children was rewarded—the two girls plunged into their studies with a passion.
“From the beginning they were determined to be successful in school, and their mother’s primary concern was for the well-being of her family,” Williams says, recalling that Diamond and Torbertha had limited education. He was shocked that in a few months both were earning As and Bs. “They were able to adjust quickly and pull everything together. Diamond and Torbertha were always doing their homework from the time they finished school to the time they went to bed.”
The IRC helped with anything that came up, Williams adds, whether it was an unexplained letter in the mail or a conversation with teachers. “Esther did everything based on what she felt was best for her family,” he says.
Giving Back to the Community
Eventually IRC volunteers helped the sisters coordinate their applications to colleges. Diamond secured a place to live at UC-Davis, where she plans to pursue pre-med studies; she will be allowed to take Emmanuel with her this fall. She plans to study pre-med. Torbertha is still contemplating a major.
Esther currently works as a cook at an assisted-living facility. Supporting the family is tough, but she is happy knowing her children have great educational opportunities. “I feel good knowing that my daughters have the chance to go onto something better,” she says.
The sisters serve as a great example of how resettlement offers refugees a second chance, while at the same time enriching the community.
“IRC is in the short term securing the protection and safety of refugees,” says Don Climent, IRC resettlement director in San Francisco, “and in the long term seeding the community with newcomers who will make their contributions to our society.”