The girls were from different worlds when they met in seventh grade, at Stauffer Middle School in Downey, but they had two things in common.
They were both immigrants, one from El Salvador and the other from Egypt, and neither of them spoke much English.
Katerin had, at 11 years old, made a terrifying trek through Guatemala and Mexico by car, bus, boat and on foot. Her feet blistered when she crossed the scorching desert, but she was determined to be reunited with her mother. Mehraeel had fled Cairo with her family at 13, racing to the airport in fear of religious persecution during a political uprising.
Before Katerin knew where Mehraeel was from, she heard her say a few words in heavily accented English and tried speaking to Mehraeel in Spanish, but she got no response.
“Then I figured out, oh, she’s from Egypt,” said Katerin. “They don’t speak Spanish over there.”
By eighth grade, the girls were on their way to becoming best friends, as they cracked the mysteries of English and adapted to a new culture. They moved on to Warren High School together, took all the toughest classes and plotted to go to great colleges.
But for all their closeness, there was one thing Mehraeel didn’t know about her buddy until about a year ago.
“I didn’t know she was undocumented.”
I met both girls Wednesday at Warren High in an after-school club called IDEAS. It was started in 2012 by teacher Mercelena Vasquez-Funk and patterned after a program at UCLA. “IDEAS” stands for improving dreams, equality, access and success. Vasquez-Funk’s goal has been to help students take advantage of state law and available resources and go to college, regardless of their immigration status.
Some of the club members have temporary “Dreamer” protection because they were brought here by their parents as young children, some were granted asylum, some are undocumented and others were born in the U.S. but joined the club because they identify with and want to support immigrant classmates.
More than 100 IDEAS alums have gone on to University of California campuses, the New York University law school and the Cal States, among other colleges. One is a rocket scientist, another an anthropologist, and Vasquez-Funk wanted to share that information at a time when a darker narrative is spun about a national border crisis and a criminal invasion that’s destroying the United States.
“These kids are cream of the crop,” said Vasquez-Funk, whose students volunteer at campus cleanups and help organize community legal fairs when they’re not studying or working.
And every one of them has a story.
Mehraeel recalled the day she and her mother and three sisters abandoned their lives in Cairo, terrified they’d be attacked because of their Coptic Orthodox Christian faith. Her father, already in the United States, had applied for religious asylum for them.
“There were bombs near our house, and people came out of their homes with kitchen knives and brooms to defend themselves,” she said, telling me a story that she also told in her college application essay.
They made it to the airport and arrived safely in California, where so many trails lead, and Mehraeel fully embraced her adopted home.
“Coming from a country without much freedom for women, the United States was heaven for me,” said Mehraeel, who took Advanced Placement U.S. history and government, studied politics, followed world events, volunteered as a poll worker in an election and interned at a law firm.
In an essay, she mentioned her involvement with IDEAS.
“I joined the club to help undocumented students find their American dream just like me,” she wrote.
Mehraeel, now 17, encouraged Katerin, now 18, to join the club without knowing she was undocumented. She thought she’d enjoy the experience as an immigrant.
“It wasn’t until I started seeing the alumni come back from prestigious colleges or medical school and tell our club that they were undocumented that I felt comfortable enough to start telling my story,” said Katerin.
Last summer, Katerin began to assemble her college application essay with the help of Warren High teacher David Cha.
“I can’t deny these kids these opportunities,” said Cha, who told me he has friends with differing views on undocumented immigrants. He said he can’t “draw a line on what’s equitable, but I know that every kid has a story and they deserve to be heard.”
Katerin told me that her mother had left El Salvador when her daughter was young to find work and wire money home. So Katerin was raised by her grandparents until her mother saved enough to send for her and an older brother. On their journey north, the siblings traveled with strangers, stuffed cheek to cheek in vans. They slept on floors, craved their next meal and walked for days, weakened by thirst. After crossing the U.S. border, they crawled to avoid detection.
“By this point,” Katerin wrote in her college essay, “my toenails were black and my heels were peeling. But I reminded myself that it was for my American dream.”
Desperate and afraid, she and her brother knocked on the door of a stranger’s home in Texas.
“A Caucasian lady opened the door with her young daughters beside her,” Katerin wrote in her college essay. “The lady gave us food and allowed my brother to use her phone. I, to this day, think she let us in because she saw one of her daughters in me.”
In IDEAS, Katerin and Mehraeel continued to bond. There was never a day when Katerin turned to Mehraeel and said, hey, guess what, I’m undocumented. But that fact was becoming more obvious in IDEAS, and when Katerin decided to run for club vice president and then president, she made campaign speeches that revealed even more of her story.
Mehraeel had never imagined, given how similar their journeys had been, that she enjoyed rights that were out of her best friend’s reach. She knew people who’d been granted asylum and frowned on immigrants without legal status, and she certainly was glad that her own family had followed the rules. But in getting to know Katerin and other undocumented students, the lines between what’s right or wrong, legal or illegal, had blurred.
“Knowing her story and what she went through to get here — what both of us went through to get to this point — made me realize we’re not different,” said Mehraeel.
For Katerin, though, there’s a lingering fear that her dream could be cut short, given immigration policy uncertainty. If it is, she’ll have lost a great deal.
Katerin took 12 honors and AP classes at Warren, with an emphasis on biology and chemistry. She took a summer internship and learned how to draw blood and administer vaccinations and perform other medical procedures. In a few months, she’ll head to Scripps College on a scholarship, and she wants to be a medical doctor.
Mehraeel took plenty of AP courses, too, and became interested in politics and law. To overcome her shyness, she spoke about her IDEAS experience to students at other schools, and she found her calling last summer when she interned at a law firm. She’ll soon be on a scholarship at UC Irvine, where she’ll major in politics, but her long-range goal is law school.
She wants to be an immigration lawyer.