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Facing threats, albino sisters granted asylum to attend school in Southern California

The sisters tried to stay strong all those years of being taunted as “ghosts” for the color of their skin, of being beaten by their teachers — of an attack that almost killed one of them.

There was a dream, after all, at the end of the torturous road that began in their tiny African village: getting an education.

Born albinos, Bibiana and Tindi Mashamba missed so much school in their native Tanzania after an attack left “Bibi” without a leg and two fingers. Some people believed their rare genetic condition was related to witchcraft, or that their limbs and other body parts carried magical powers, and therefore could be sold.

Afraid, the girls stayed in the hospital after the attack.

“We always worried about wasting time. We always wanted more school,” Bibi, 17, recalled, sharing her wish as soon as they arrived in California on medical visas last year, thanks to aid from the African Millennium Foundation and the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles. The institute’s chief executive, Tony Scaduto. had offered to replace the artificial limb Bibi had outgrown.

“Imagine — if we could study, someday, we could help educate those in our country about accepting everyone. It doesn't matter what you look like,” said Tindi, 16.

The sisters, the subject of a Times report in March, have taken a step toward making that dream a reality. With help from students at USC’s Gould School of Law, they were granted asylum to stay in the U.S.

Malena Ruth, who oversees the foundation and who is the siblings’ sponsor, reached out to different legal groups, emailing the immigration center at the law school before the girls’ visas expired.

“We had to find a way to keep them here. They are in grave danger, going home where the government cannot or would not protect them,” Ruth said. “How do you leave two girls to face threats to their physical and emotional lives every day?”

Amy Stern, the first law student assigned to their case, remembers sifting through the details of their lives in order to compile a narrative of everything they had gone through.

“I hadn’t heard any of these albino myths and it was horrifying to learn of their abuses,” she said.

Children threw rocks or spit at the sisters. Because they were vulnerable to attack — including from people who might want to kill them to sell their limbs — their parents usually kept the girls out of school.

Six years ago, with their mother already dead, the girls’ father succumbed to AIDS. On the day after his funeral, intruders attacked Bibi.

Stern connected with Al-shaymaa John Kwegyir, Tanzania's first albino member of parliament who had adopted the orphans before they left their homeland. Kwegyir jumped at the chance to send the children overseas, saying that Tanzania was not a “safe society” and that even she avoids going out alone.

Stern spent about 80 pro bono hours on the case before she graduated in May, transferring the work to a classmate who prepped the sisters for their asylum interview on July 7.

“They are adults in kids’ bodies,” she said of Bibi and Tindi. “I admire their strength, and even more, their desire to take back what they learn to fight the violence against children in their country.”

Bibi is weighing a career in media to expose brutality “against the innocent,” she said. Tindi hopes to become a lawyer for the same reason.

The sisters enrolled in the Montessori School of Ojai, eager to immerse in books that will get them ready for high school-level courses. They will start in a combined class of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, challenging themselves to finish the workload quickly, said Ruth, who is still raising funds for their academic fees.

“I’m going to do all these grades in one year, they tell me. I tell them: It’s good to have goals, but don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself,” she said. “Experience each day as a new day.”

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

 

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