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Going the distance, from Africa to graduation
May 12, 2005
Meghan Mullan
Staff Writer

Allison Pasek/The Gazette

High Point senior Delwin Kamara works on a digital art piece in the computer art lab at school.

High Point High School seniors Marian Toronka and Delwin Kamara were born in the same war-torn African country.

Later this month, they will graduate and head to American colleges, accomplishments that would have been impossible in their native Sierra Leone.

Toronka, a pretty 17-year-old with a penchant for hugging her friends and teachers, said she remembers when rebels attacked near her school in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. She was trapped and scared for hours, she said.

Kamara, a tall polite18-year-old, suddenly remembers that day, as well. The school children were locked inside without their parents, he explained.

Toronka and Kamara were about 9 years old in 1996 when civil war raged in Freetown. Soon after the end of the war, both children immigrated to Maryland.

Kamara came alone to join his father and stepmother; his mother and an older brother stayed behind.

Toronka came with her mother and siblings after her father won a visa and then worked at a car wash in Langley Park before being able to pay for their travel.

Today the two speak with the confidence of young adults who have overcome obstacles and know who they are.

Toronka, an honors student with a 4.14 grade point average (GPA), will begin pre-medical studies on a full scholarship next fall at Towson University. Kamara, also an honors student with a 3.2 GPA, heads to the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore to study art.

High Point boasts one of the most diverse graduating classes in the state, said Ernie Welsh, a High Point administrator who has worked at the school for 20 years.

This year's senior class has 511 students, 7 percent Asian, 11 percent Caucasian, 53 percent black and 29 percent Hispanic. The school has the largest English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program in the county, and has children who were born in 78 different countries, Welsh said.

Out of the senior class, Assistant Principal Cathy Miller said Toronka and Kamara are "exceptional."

Toronka, whose father now works as a security guard and his mother as a nursing aid, is "self-motivated," said Martha Alexander, Toronka's biology teacher. Alexander said Toronka is one of those students "who will persevere through anything." "She is stubborn and incredibly hardworking," she said.

Toronka, whose ultimate goal is to become a pediatrician, said she likes math and science because she is "determined to solve any hard problem."

But, success at school was not always easy for Toronka. Arriving at Langley Park Elementary School as a fourth-grader in 1996, she could only speak "broken English," or what she describes as "Creole," a form of English mixed with African words.

"The kids were mean," she said.

Kamara, who was quiet and shy as a child, agreed. Now, able to give presentations and talk about his art portfolio on display in the school's main lobby, Kamara said when he started school in Langley Park, he was "bullied."

"I tucked in my shirt and I had an accent. They said I was a nerd," he said.

Both students credit academics, caring teachers and single-mindedness with getting them through the years of being considered an outsider.

"Fitting in isn't everything," Toronka said. "I don't care about that so much as my goals."

When life got hard for Toronka, she concentrated on doing well in school so she could win a scholarship and go to college.

This fall, she will be the first person in her family to go away to a four-year college. But she knows she will have to work hard to go to medical school and achieve her dream of becoming a doctor, traveling internationally and returning to Sierra Leone to help sick children, she said.

Kamara said he has always known he was given opportunities not available in Sierra Leone and he must succeed. His older brother, still in Sierra Leone, has a scar on his neck from when he was almost killed by rebels. Kamara said he knows how lucky he is.

This year, he has taken the opportunity to be in teacher Lou Morrissey's student government class where he has become a leader.

Kamara has successfully organized presentations on teen issues and lead other students. He has come a long distance from the scared boy he was when he first arrived, he said. "I didn't know I could be a leader," he said.

After college, he hopes to own his own art gallery and go back to Sierra Leone to open a business, he said.

To other new immigrants at High Point, Kamara says "school should come first, everything else second." And always remember "what you are here for," he said.

E-mail Meghan Mullan at