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‘This country has been amazing for us’: From refugee camp, to Cornell, to a Rhodes Scholarship

Ahmed Ahmed, Rhodes Scholar-designee and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences senior at Cornell University, in his apartment. (Jason Koski/Cornell University Photography)

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One morning early in his freshman year at Cornell University, Ahmed Ahmed got a writing assignment back, flipped it over and stared at the letter in shock: C+.

He went to his biology class, where the professor displayed a large graph showing the distribution of the grades for the exam, for which, like the writing assignment, Ahmed had studied really hard. The average was 85, with a very small deviation.

He got his exam, turned it over: 69.

He walked quickly to a lake near campus, wiping away tears. Even with his always-laughing, perennially optimistic personality, Ahmed couldn’t help but realize that despite everything he had done to earn a spot at Cornell, and how much a degree from the Ivy League school could transform his own life and his family’s, hard work might not be enough.

It happens every year to freshmen, not just at Cornell but also all top universities, said the school’s former president, Hunter R. Rawlings III; the students were all-stars in high school, and both the competition from classmates and the expectations from professors are so much more intense that there’s often a midterm punch in the gut.

But few have as much at stake as Ahmed.

He didn’t talk about his past until sweeping rhetoric from the campaign, and President Trump’s executive orders on immigration, pulled him up short. Many Americans support Trump’s efforts to tighten border controls, targeting certain countries including Somalia, as a means to keep radical Islamist terrorists out of the country.

For Ahmed though, it hit home. “To place this broad, encompassing stereotype or narrative on a whole group” didn’t make sense to him, he said. “I know how unique every individual story is.”

Ahmed said he suddenly felt it would be a injustice — as a black man, as a refugee, as a Muslim, as an immigrant — not to tell his own story.

Ahmed’s family fled Somalia during the country’s bloody civil war. Their home had been targeted repeatedly by robbers, the last time by a group of men who stormed in wearing black ski masks and carrying AK-47s.

Ahmed was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, his parents’ eighth child and their “lucky baby,” as they called him: After his birth, they were granted asylum in the United States.

It was the greatest gift, his mother later told him. They could live in a country that prided itself on liberty and freedom.

“It was this beacon of hope,” he said. “Here you could come and if you worked really hard, you could pursue any idea you had.”

They rented a tiny apartment in Riverdale Park, Md., putting mattress pads down on the living-room floor each night to sleep, then putting them away in the morning. His parents each worked two jobs at factories in Baltimore and told the children to come directly home from school and stay inside; they wanted to shelter them from the drugs and crime that were common in the neighborhood at that time. They told them education and hard work would change their lives.

Cornell University buildings viewed from McGraw Tower. (iStock)

When his parents got divorced, he moved with his mother to Rochester, Minn. He felt like an outsider there, for the first time; many of his classmates’ parents were engineers at IBM or doctors at the Mayo Clinic.

He was living with a single mom who was working as a hotel maid. In his first seven years, they moved six times.

And he felt that expectations from teachers for minority students were low. But his mother kept telling him, “You can do anything you set your mind to.”

When he was in seventh grade, his father fell ill on a trip to Africa and died — a death Ahmed felt could have been prevented with better medical treatment.

When his mother injured her back at work, his sister, a senior in high school, got a job on a factory assembly line.

She would work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., take her siblings to school, then go to class.

Seeing that kind of determination and sacrifice every day made Ahmed all the more committed to working hard, to learning more.

When he was 16, he began working at a nursing home to help his family get by. He enjoyed the feeling of turning someone’s day around with a smile. Soon the work sparked an interest in biology and medicine, and he began to dream of becoming a doctor. His grades were top-notch, and he shadowed doctors at the Mayo Clinic, awed by their dedication to their patients and the discoveries they were making.

With all of that behind him, and so much possibility ahead, facing the prospect of failure at Cornell was terrifying.

After the tears that day in October 2013, he emailed the two professors and asked for help.

In the writing seminar, he learned he hadn’t honed his thesis well enough to leave an indelible idea. After talking with the professor in his evolution class, he realized that the way he had studied — reading the textbook carefully, focusing on all the details that hadn’t been covered in lectures, memorizing everything — left him missing the big picture. In the exam, the professor manipulated variables, posing different scenarios and asking students what would happen with those changes.

Suddenly, he understood: As a researcher, he would need that kind of mind-set, trying to discover new things, not just storing away information that was already known. He had to think hard, and creatively, with a true understanding of the ideas in the class.

“That was my ‘Welcome to Cornell’ moment,” Ahmed said, laughing.

He didn’t forget it. He took those unexpected grades to heart, using them not only as a spur to improve his own studies, but also as a lasting reminder to help others do the same.

In his organic chemistry class sophomore year, he and hundreds of other students watched as Geoffrey Coates, the professor, held up a glass flask and tested a solution for a chemical compound.

It was a class of 600 or so students, mostly pre-med, talented students all competing to get the best grades. There’s always a high level of anxiety at that point in the semester, Coates said. “A lot of tears have been shed on the front steps of the chemistry building,” he said.

Ahmed watched, amazed, as the reaction in the solution deposited a silver mirror on the inside of the flask until it was entirely coated with silver, gleaming. It almost seemed like alchemy, Ahmed said, seeing the power of organic chemistry.

Coates gave him the flask as a keepsake: On the last exam, of the 600 students, Ahmed had received the very top score.

And he asked Ahmed if he was interested in research — far from a given, since most pre-med students are necessarily focused on getting top grades in the intensive required courses. Ahmed was.

And so began Ahmed’s research into polymers, never an area he had expected to delve into, but one that he has found fascinating. They were working to find a way to make one of the most commonly used plastics without relying on fossil fuels.

“This is very, very high-level research with Geoff Coates, one of our very top chemists,” Rawlings said.

“I love the problem-solving aspect of it,” Ahmed said. “You’ve got this initial starting material, here’s your end, and you have to design a multistep synthesis to get there.” He liked the extra challenge of having to prove it in the lab after he had “solved” it on paper; he laughed at some of his early ideas, which worked in theory but required incredibly expensive, or potentially dangerous, chemicals.

In the spring, Ahmed designed a catalyst that lets them use vegetable oils to create the plastic. “I’m excited to get back in the lab and work on this — oh, man!” he said, jumping out of a chair to sketch out the chain reaction on a whiteboard. “This happens within milliseconds, it’ll reattach … now, boom, boom, boom, your double bond is now here.”

It still needs work, Ahmed said, but he expects it to result in publishable work.

“It’s a really important advance for the Center for Sustainable Polymers,” Coates said this week.

Over the years at Cornell, Ahmed was also making time to volunteer, including with emergency medical technicians on campus, and a mentoring group formed to improve graduation rates for black men.

With some really high-achieving students, you can get a sense that they’re checking all the boxes they need to check, said Steven Strogatz, a professor of mathematics at Cornell. But with Ahmed, he said, “it’s really heartfelt.” He remembered an essay Ahmed wrote about shadowing doctors treating a young man with gunshot wounds, and wondering what separated him from the patient: Not much, really.

Ahmed could see how much impact his time could have on younger students struggling to fit in on campus. He would give them advice on when to apply for internships, how to ask for extra help, suggestions on study skills.

“He’s just really an amazing individual,” Coates said, combining intellect, discipline, and an ability to handle intense pressure with grace. “He’s fun to talk to. He makes everybody around him happy and excited.”

“There are just people who, when they walk into the room, grab you. They have that charisma,” Strogatz said. “He’s got this sunny, upbeat attitude,” one that’s infectious, and that makes even something that might sound corny ring true. The example Strogatz gave: Ahmed keeps a gratitude journal and writes in it every day.

“So when I’m having those tough days where I feel emotionally drained,” Ahmed explained, “I just flip back through my gratitude journal and read through all that I am thankful for, and it goes a long way.”

Ahmed graduated this weekend, with his family joining him at Cornell for the first time, meeting his friends and professors, enjoying it all.

He’s still hoping to go to medical school. He hopes to work in communities that need more doctors, one day, and find ways to improve access to care more broadly. He remembers how his older brother had to live with pain in his teeth and his stomach until it became acute. He remembers his father’s death.

But first, he’s going to Britain: Ahmed will be a Rhodes Scholar.

Rather than studying organic and medicinal chemistry at Oxford College, as he initially planned, he will pursue a master’s degree in higher education. He’s going to study the barriers that can keep students whose parents didn’t go to college, students from low-income families, and minorities, from higher education.

It bridges to his interest in medicine, he said, because care will improve in underserved communities if medical professionals are more familiar with the issues their patients face.

While Rawlings worries that top students, such as Ahmed, will be snapped up by other countries, such as Britain, if the United States is unwelcoming, Ahmed is full of gratitude.

“I feel like my story would only be possible in a few other countries — if any,” he said. He and his family are all U.S. citizens now.

The United States has been the beacon of hope his mother promised: “This country has been amazing for us.”

When he called his mom to tell him he got the Rhodes, she said, “What? … You’re leaving the country?”

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Education

Somali graduates praise peace, harmony and good social development in Malaysia

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Somali graduates Abbas Mohamad Mahdi , 28 (left), and Ahmed Derow Isak, 32, from Mogadishu, are determined to return home and work in their home country after completing both their Bachelor and Master degrees in Information Technology. Pix by Amran Hamid

SINTOK: Despite the unrest in some parts of their country, two Somali graduates from Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) are keen to return home to serve the people.

Abbas Mohamad Mahdi, 28, and Ahmed Derow Isak, 32, from Mogadishu, are determined to return home and work in their home country after completing both their Bachelor and Master degrees in Information Technology.

The duo received their Master of Science (Information Technology) from UUM Pro-chancellor Tan Sri Osman Aroff today.

Abbas said as the second of six siblings, he wanted to support his younger siblings to further their education.

“My father passed away when I was eight years old and my mother raised the family by doing odd jobs.

“I was able to further my studies here thanks to my elder sister and a younger brother who helped me financially,” he said when met.

Abbas said he chose to come to UUM after he heard about it from friends who had furthered their studies at the university.

He initially planned to further his studies in Sudan but when he came to know about the peace, harmony and good social development enjoyed by Malaysians, he decided to come here to study.

Ahmed Derow said life in Malaysia was better than Somalia but he would still return home to work in his own country.

“My wife is there and so are my siblings who have helped to finance my studies here.

I will use the knowledge and experience I gained in this country to give back to my people back home,” he said.

Ahmad Derow said although his mother has migrated to United Kingdom and he could further his studies there, the cost that he need to bear was too high.

He said Malaysians should be grateful by the various benefits that they enjoy especially in the furthering their studies locally.

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Education

Turkish NGO puts Somali doctors through medical school

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Five Somali doctors on Friday graduated from medical school under a special program organized by a Turkish NGO.

The new MDs got their diplomas from the program organized by Doctors Worldwide Turkey (DWWT) at a ceremony in Mogadishu, the capital of the Horn of Africa country.

Safa Simsek of the NGO told Anadolu Agency: “Apart from nine physicians who graduated last year from the program, which we started in 2013 in Somalia, five more doctors graduated this year, including three general practitioners and two internal medicine specialists.”

Simsek also pointed to Muhammad Osman, a 12-year-old Somali who got cataracts six years ago, and was cured by Turkish doctors in a free operation.

“To date we have performed 3,000 cataract surgeries in Somalia,” he added.

Cataracts are an eye condition that results in cloudy vision.

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The chosen

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Ayan Abdi is one of 5,000 refugees at a Kenya camp vying for a scholarship – and a new life in Canada. Will she earn her way out?

DADAAB, Kenya

Story by Kevin Sieff
Photos by Nichole Sobecki

IT WAS TIME TO GO. Ayan Abdi slipped on a long black headscarf, grabbed her refugee ID and set out for the interview that could save her life.

Since she was 2, Ayan had lived in the world’s largest refu­gee camp, a constellation of tents and huts stretching across the red desert near the Somali border. Now, a few miles from her shack built of sticks and cardboard, three examiners with a Canadian university foundation were sitting at a wooden table, deciding which students were worthy of a way out.

Ayan hurried along the sandy road. Past the piles of burning trash surrounded by giant scavenging birds. Past the girls no older than her, at 20, who balanced firewood on their heads, trailed by barefoot children. Past the group of men who stared at her — a small figure in a flowing black robe and bright red shoes — and hissed in Somali, “Where are you going, girl?”

When Ayan finally found a taxi, it was already full. She squeezed in, her whole body tense, dots of sweat on her forehead.

“I’m in a rush,” she told the driver, who didn’t ask why but careened a little faster from pothole to pothole.

A year ago, Ayan was one of about 5,000 students who jammed into classrooms across the Dadaab refu­gee camp for a two-hour exam, the first step in seeking perhaps the most generous scholarship anywhere. The World University Service of Canada, or WUSC, would award 16 of those students not just a college education but a new life, with the Canadian government providing them with citizenship and a chance to sponsor their families.

Now Ayan was one of 29 finalists, heading for the interview that would determine whether she won.

Her other options were being snuffed out. Kenyan authorities were trying to close Dadaab, which for a quarter-century had sheltered the victims of Somalia’s endless war and hunger crises. In the United States, which had resettled more than 100,000 Somalis since 2000, President Trump had ordered a temporary ban on accepting refugees. Around the world, countries were shutting their doors to people like Ayan, even as the number of refugees surged past 22 million in 2017, the highest in recorded history.

What was left was the WUSC scholarship — a chance for the bright young refugees of Dadaab to earn their way out.

“It’s life or death,” said Joseph Mutua, a program officer with the scholarship foundation in Dadaab. “That’s how it’s seen.”

In the taxi, Ayan was drumming her fingers against her knee. A printed verse from the Koran swung from the rearview mirror. On the bumper, a sticker read, “Succeed.”

The cab pulled up to a walled compound. “Is this the right place for the scholarship interview?” Ayan asked a security guard.

In her hand, which trembled, was a brown envelope with her documents. The white food-ration card that said “Family size: 1” because Ayan’s parents and siblings had returned to Somalia years ago without her. The report cards she had earned since primary school. The recommendations from a Dadaab school where she was now teaching biology.

She carried the envelope to the cinder-block building where the interviews were taking place and sat under a tree, waiting her turn. “I’m getting a headache,” she told one of the other applicants.

She looked down at the cracked screen of her white cellphone, where she had written notes reminding her what to tell the interviewers.

“This scholarship is my only way out,” it said.

“I’m the best girl in the camp based on merit,” it said.

“Here I cannot awaken my dreams,” it said.

She took a deep breath.

A middle-aged woman stepped outside and called her name.

Ayan walked inside.

THE AFTERNOON BEFORE THE INTERVIEW, Ayan had pulled two lawn chairs into the sandy expanse in front of her hut. Her best friend, Maryan Hassan, sat across from her, with a list of mock interview questions ready.

“Describe yourself,” said Maryan, 20, a tiny girl with a high-pitched voice who was also a finalist for the scholarship.

“I was born in a refugee camp in 1997,” Ayan began, in the careful English she had studied in school. “My parents are in Somalia.”

“Don’t forget to tell them what you want to do for your country,” Maryan interrupted.

Ayan nodded.

They were trying to figure out how to distinguish themselves from the other refugees. But on the Internet, all they could find were generic interview questions, so that’s what they studied.

“What are your strengths?” Maryan asked.

“My ability to collaborate,” Ayan answered, a little unsure of herself, trying to remember what she had read online. “What are yours?

“I don’t give up,” piped Maryan.

A cloud of flies hovered around their faces. The goats living nearby yapped. In both directions were rows of hundreds of huts made of whatever people could find — tin cans, tree branches, plastic sheets bleached by the sun. There were 250,000 refugees in all, surrounded by police checkpoints.

“If I get out of here,” Ayan said under her breath, “I’m never coming back.”

For years, Ayan and Maryan had watched their friends disappear, dropping out of school as they were forced to marry older men, in accordance with old Somali cultural traditions. Fatima left when Ayan was 11. Mahado when she was 13. Farhiya when she was 14. They would reemerge, sometimes years later, balancing babies in their arms, sullen and tired.

What was the point of school anyway, some of Ayan’s friends scoffed. You could finish high school, but there was little work in the camp. And refugees were not allowed to hold jobs in Kenyan cities.

Ayan was 12 when she learned of the WUSC scholarship, advertised in fliers taped to the sheet-metal walls of classrooms. It turned her from a good student who loved ad­ven­ture novels into someone whose grades were part of a grand strategy of escape.

She and Maryan taught themselves to type at the camp in a market stall called Bukhara Computer School, with a row of old IBM desktops. In 2012, both girls received scholarships to attend top high schools hundreds of miles from the camp, with college-educated teachers and new textbooks. On their phones, they would enter in the search bar: “Best Universities in Canada.”

In 2015, when Ayan was away at high school, her mother and two siblings left Dadaab and returned to Somalia. They were sick of life in the camp and worried about Kenya’s threat to deport the refugees.

Come back to Somalia, her mom said by phone from a town outside Mogadishu, the capital.

Ayan knew what that meant. No schools. Few jobs. And a constant threat from al-Shabab, the Islamist extremists who controlled nearby villages.

In Dadaab, at least there was the WUSC.

I am going to disobey you for the first time, Ayan replied.

She graduated near the top of her class and then moved back to Dadaab, into a stick hut next to the home of family friends. She covered the dirt floor with a red bedsheet and surrounded the hovel with a pile of thorny branches, to keep out the men who knew she was unmarried and alone.

“The harsh realities of life here are traumatizing,” she wrote in her personal essay for the WUSC scholarship. Women were raped when they went out to collect firewood for cooking. Children died of chronic diarrhea during cholera outbreaks. When she was filling her water bucket one morning, Ayan was stung by a scorpion.

Ayan and Maryan talked about their lives in Canada, how they would walk across green college campuses, how they would get their families to safety.

“When I see her,” Ayan said, nodding toward her friend, “I see WUSC.” Maryan smiled.

Around the world, fewer than 1 percent of registered refugees are resettled each year, and most have little or no control over the process. They are selected by U.N. agencies and approved by host governments, their fate determined by luck and charity, with the sickest and most vulnerable put at the front of the line.

The WUSC scholarship represented something different. It was about merit.

“Make sure you’re smiling,” Maryan had told Ayan as they prepared for their interviews.

Ayan was determined not to become emotional.

“It’s not professional,” she had said. “You need to show them that you’re confident.”

FIVE MINUTES HAD PASSED since Ayan climbed the steps into the cinder-block building. Then 10.

Through the screened window, the other students waiting their turn outside could see her silhouette in front of the three interviewers.

It was the middle of the afternoon, the sun slicing through sparse trees.

“It’s taking a long time,” said Mohammed Abdi, one of the applicants, looking at the building.

Finally, Ayan emerged, glancing at the students waiting in a cluster of plastic chairs.

“I think I said the right things,” she said. “I think.”

But in the next hours and days, she would replay her performance in her head, over and over.

She had walked into the cinder-block room. The three women welcomed her. Ayan remembered to shake the interviewers’ hands, even though she was so nervous she could hardly focus. One woman told her to relax, and that had helped. She sat at a wooden desk.

They asked her when she had arrived in the camp, what she remembered about the journey. Ayan told them that she had been born in another camp in Kenya but that her family had to leave after it was damaged by fire, and that was how they had wound up at Dadaab.

“I told them the name of the road we took. I told them I was just a baby.”

They asked about the importance of education.

“I told them it had shaped me emotionally.”

Then one of the administrators asked about the challenges she had faced as a refu­gee. And suddenly, the weight of it all hit her.

“I told them: ‘I’m here alone. My family has left. Without this scholarship, I have no other options.’ ”

And Ayan began to cry.

“I couldn’t stop the tears.”

The women waited.

“They handed me a tissue. I tried to get back under control.”

The questions continued. They asked what she wanted to study, and she said nursing.

They asked how she would adjust to Canada.

“I told them I would wear more clothes in the winter. I told them I would get used to the food.”

Ayan tried to hold back her tears. She didn’t want to look desperate. Finally she managed to focus on the words she had prepared.

“I said, ‘I am the best girl in the camp based on merit.’ ”

THE DAY AFTER THE INTERVIEW, Ayan walked to Hagadera Secondary School in the camp, where she teaches biology, sending most of her $80 monthly salary to her mother.

In the classroom, there were 21 boys and two girls in their mid-teens sitting on opposite sides of the room. A bell rang and class began.

“What is the difference between a plant cell and an animal cell?” she asked.

No one answered.

Ayan tried her best to push her thoughts about the scholarship to the side. It was early June, and she would have to wait about a month for the results.

“I’m 50-50,” she said one day of her chances. But a few days later she had reassessed, thinking about the caliber of the other candidates.

“I’m 20-80.”

She thought: “Maryan will get it, but I won’t. I’m going to be stuck here forever.”

She wrote a text message to a friend: “I’m not sure I convinced the interviewers.”

The WUSC committee didn’t say exactly when the announcement would come. She checked her phone obsessively.

It buzzed and buzzed, often with messages from Maryan, who lived in another part of the camp.

“We still have to wait,” Maryan wrote in the middle of the month.

The school was a reminder of all the limitations of Dadaab. The boys often ignored commands from female teachers. Islamic clerics shut down the girls’ debate team, saying it gave women the wrong idea.

More female students dropped out every week, disappearing into marriage, often by force. Ayan had tried to intervene with one of the girls’ mothers, who responded with an old Somali proverb:

“A woman should be at home or in the grave.”

In late June, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, with its long, hot days of fasting. Ayan was desperate to get away.

She walked to the police station and applied for a temporary pass to leave the camp. She explained that she wanted to visit the family that had hosted her while she attended the private high school in Nakuru, in western Kenya.

Ayan was given a white piece of paper that allowed her two weeks outside the camp.

“I FEEL FREE HERE,” she said in the living room of the Abdirahman family’s apartment, on the bottom floor of a concrete apartment building, with a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and a gate that opened onto a paved road and passing cars.

She wore a pale yellow headscarf, shorter than the ones that women wore outside in Dadaab. She blared songs from her phone: Nigerian pop, American hip-hop, traditional Somali music.

It was easier to forget about the scholarship here, visiting her high school friends. But occasionally they would bring it up.

“We just hope you get it,” Anisa Abdirahman, 21, said one morning.

“Dadaab is not a place for a person to live,” said Anisa’s 23-year-old brother, Mohammed.

Ayan was looking at her phone.

The scholarship finalists had created a group on the WhatsApp messaging service where they shared rumors, news — anything at all about the WUSC program. But it was silent.

“Still nothing,” Ayan said the following morning, sitting on a couch in the living room.

She threw her phone down on the cushion and went to the kitchen to make tea.

She crushed cinnamon and leaves.

“All of us, we are qualified. All of us, we are refugees,” she told Anisa as the water boiled. “Maybe it’s just luck.”

In the other room, her phone started buzzing, The screen flashed.

From the kitchen, Ayan couldn’t see it.

“Ayan, I think your phone is ringing,” Mohammed said.

Ayan cleaned her hands, picked up the phone and saw the message.

“Congrats.”

Her eyes widened.

“WUSC? Is it a prank?”

Then she saw a list on the WhatsApp group: “The Successful Candidates for 2018 WUSC scholarships.” Her name was No. 4.

She burst into tears.

“Thank God! Thank God!” she yelled.

Her friend Farhiya ran into the room. She grabbed Ayan’s hands and they danced in circles, tears rolling off Ayan’s cheeks.

“You can stop crying now,” Farhiya said.

Ayan looked again at the list for Maryan’s name. It wasn’t there. “Oh,” she groaned.

But her phone was ringing nonstop now. There were calls from other winners. Calls from her teachers. Calls from numbers she didn’t recognize.

“Alhamdulillah,” she told one friend. Praise be to God.

“It is the beginning of a new life,” she told another.

Then Maryan’s number popped up on the screen.

“Congratulations,” said the voice on the other end of the line. It sounded as if she had been crying.

“Maryan, I’m very sorry,” Ayan said.

They would have another year together. Ayan would be applying to universities in Canada, practicing her English and getting an introduction to Canadian culture. Maryan would have one more chance to apply for the scholarship — albeit with poor odds after being rejected already.

“Goodbye, sister,” Maryan said.

Ayan lowered the white phone from her ear and stared at it. More congratulatory texts were popping up. But Maryan had hung up and was gone.

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