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.
Tindi, left, and Bibiana Mashamba, albino sisters from Tanzania, sit in on professor Jody Armour’s USC tort law class on Aug. 24. They just received asylum in the U.S.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Bibiana Mashamba, an albino teen from Tanzania, leaves the classroom after attending a USC law class with sister Tindi on Aug. 24.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Tindi Mashamba, with a law book, right, and sister Bibiana Mashamba, center, ride an elevator with guardian Malena Ruth, left, to sit in on a USC law class on Aug. 24.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Jean Reisz, USC Audrey Irmas clinical teaching fellow, center, greets Tindi Mashamba, left, and sister Bibiana, along with second-year law student Elena Babakhanyan, second from right, and the girls’ guardian, Malena Ruth, far left, at the USC Gould School of Law on Aug. 24.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Bibiana Mashamba attaches her prosthetic leg after a doctor visit.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Anthony Scaduto talks with Bibiana Mashamba during an appointment at Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Bibiana Mashamba, right, and her younger sister Tindi wait for their guardian Malena Ruth following an appointment at Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Guardian Malena Ruth, left, grabs a pigtail on Tindi Mashamba’s head during a lunch break from homeschool studies in Los Angeles.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Bibiana Mashamba, left, and her younger sister Tindi take a ballet lesson in Rancho Palos Verdes.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Bibiana Mashamba picks out a pumpkin to decorate at an Orthopaedic Institute for Children Halloween party in Los Angeles on Oct. 28, 2015.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Tindi Mashamba holds a book close to read. Her vision was weakened when she went years without needed glasses.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Tindi Mashamba, left, sits on the floor with guardian Malena Ruth, center, and her older sister Bibiana during a lunch break from home school.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Bibiana Mashamba tries to recall a phrase while studying English.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Bibiana Mashamba prepares to ride a horse for the first time at Palos Verdes Stables in Palos Verdes Estates.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Bibiana Mashamba, left, and her younger sister Tindi take a ballet lesson with Liz Cantine, foreground, in Rancho Palos Verdes.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Guardian Malena Ruth, left, looks over a text message with Tindi Mashamba.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Anthony Scaduto hugs Tindi Mashamba after an appointment with Bibiana Mashamba, right, at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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.”
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