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What American dream really means

From left: Espoire HabimanVictor Enem stoutside Chicago Math   Science Academy Monday June 4 2012 Chicago. | Chandler West~Sun-Times

From left: Espoire Habimana and Victor Enem stand outside the Chicago Math & Science Academy on Monday, June 4, 2012, in Chicago. | Chandler West~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 8, 2012 6:57PM

Espoire Habimana and Victor Enem graduated from high school Wednesday, just two among the many thousands of Chicago area students who will achieve that milestone this month.

Yet, the path these two traveled to get there goes far beyond the K-thru-12 experience common to most of us, while the course they have charted for the future speaks loudly to the American dream.

Espoire, 17, came here five years ago as a refugee from the eastern Congo, fleeing the persecution and violence that had hounded members of his ethnic Tutsi minority and claimed the life of his mother.

Despite speaking no English when he got here, Espoire expects to be enrolled next year at either DePaul University or Illinois College in Jacksonville, with both soccer and academic scholarships beckoning him. He plans to study international relations and political science with a goal of some day working for the United Nations or Amnesty International.

Victor, 16, immigrated here just three years ago with his mother and siblings from Nigeria. She moved the family out of concern over a wave of child kidnappings that had swept that nation. Victor’s father, an engineer, remained behind in Africa to work and support the family.

Quickly mastering his new surroundings, Victor has accepted a scholarship to Cornell University, where he plans to study mechanical engineering.

Espoire and Victor sat down with me this week at the Chicago Math and Science Academy, the Rogers Park charter school that each boy credits with easing his adjustment to the U.S. and preparing him for college.

The boys told me they are friends, although I didn’t get the impression they spend much time together outside school. They seemed quite different.

What they share is having parents who stressed the importance of education.

Victor, the first graduate in the school’s eight-year history to go to an Ivy League school, is reserved and serious.

Espoire, who first learned soccer in his homeland with homemade balls fashioned from plastic bags, has an easygoing attitude and a quick smile.

That in itself is pretty amazing when you realize Espoire was only about 9 years old when his family fled across the Congo border to Burundi to escape armed groups trying to wipe out the Tutsi minority.

Espoire’s family had been in Burundi two months when raiders attacked their refugee camp, killing 152 people and injuring 107 others by official counts, most of them women and children.

Espoire, his father and a younger brother survived the brutal massacre. His mother and six other extended family members did not.

It took another two years for the United Nations to find a country that would take Espoire’s family. In March 2007 they were put on a plane to Chicago, only learning their destination the previous day.

“I didn’t know nothing about Chicago,” said Espoire.

Well, almost nothing. He was familiar with the Chicago Bulls logo, which he had seen on pennants. He assumed it was the city’s flag.

The first useful thing he learned about Chicago upon exiting O’Hare Airport was that March is a winter month. He and his family members didn’t own so much as a jacket between them. They adjusted.

RefugeeOne, a local support group, found them an apartment and arranged for Espoire’s father to take a housekeeping job at a downtown hotel, where he still works.

Espoire, who knew French and
Swahili, slowly made the school transition through English as a Second Language classes and with the help of a French-speaking classmate who translated.

Now Espoire volunteers in RefugeeOne’s youth program, serving as a role model for other young refugees while also telling his story to donors.

Victor’s upbringing was not nearly so extreme, although the result of his family’s safety concerns in Nigeria was not dissimilar to what happens with children in some Chicago neighborhoods.

“In Nigeria, all I did was stay at home,” Victor said.

Victor said his father, who visits the family two or three times a year, always stresses to his children: “To be successful in life, you need an education.”

Espoire knows this, too.

“Education is the key,” he told me.

Espoire and his father became U.S. citizens last week.

“I’m living my dream now,” he said.

It’s good to be reminded that even in these times of economic and political malaise, even in this city that has lost some of its rough immigrant edges, the dream still lives for those striving to achieve.

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