Students + Campus

UCLA-bound twins find peace after leaving religious persecution behind in Egypt

To honor their parents' sacrifice, they strive for academic success

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Marina and Youstina Salama at Powell Library
Rebecca Kendall/UCLA

Twins Youstina and Marina Salama immigrated from Egypt at the age of 9 without knowing a word of English. The Coptic Christian sisters found religious freedom and academic success in the U.S. Graduating at the top of their high school class with GPA scores of 4.7 and 4.6, they are now freshmen at UCLA who have their sights set on pursuing careers in medicine.

It’s a long way from Alexandria, Egypt, to Bellflower, Calif. It’s an even more arduous journey to go from speaking no English as a new immigrant to graduating at the top of your high school class and being accepted by the most applied-to university in the nation in less than 10 years.

For twin sisters Youstina and Marina Salama, this road is their reality. 

This month, the sisters will join an estimated 5,700 freshmen and 3,150 transfer students as members of the newest class of incoming UCLA students, and they couldn’t be happier.

This spring, Youstina and Marina, 19, graduated at the top of their class at John Glenn High School in Norwalk, earning GPAs of 4.7 and 4.6, respectively. They also served as class valedictorian and salutarian, respectively, at their graduation ceremony. On the night of their graduation, they urged their classmates to be courageous by becoming everyday heroes in the lives of others and not being afraid to choose a difficult path. Their fellow graduates were also encouraged to find their strengths and use their talents in a way that benefits society.

“Although many might put you down or discourage you from striving to achieve a certain goal or career, please do not be fooled or discouraged by that,” Marina told her graduating class that day.

Finding peace in a new land

Youstina and Marina’s last name, Salama, means “peaceful” in Arabic, but for them, life in Egypt was anything but. As Coptic Christians living in a predominantly Muslim nation, their family, like other Christian families, was subjected to harassment, threats and violence by those who despised Christianity.

“Christians were always considered second-class in all fields of society,” said the girls’ mother Susan Nawar, adding that it is difficult for Christians to enjoy high levels of educational and professional success because of religious persecution in their homeland. “Many incidents, including the burning of churches and the kidnapping and rape of young girls, is common,” said Nawar, who now works as an office clerk while her husband, Farouk Salama, holds down a part-time security guard job. “This really frightened me and my husband, and we took this major step to ensure the girls’ safety. We knew that it would become worse.”

The family left Egypt just four months before the Alexandria riots, an anti-Christian melee that left 100 injured and three dead in the nation’s second largest city.

A rough beginning

When Youstina and Marina first started school in Bellflower, they were bullied because they didn’t speak English. It was a difficult time for them as they desperately wanted to chart a new course for themselves in their new surroundings and find acceptance among their peers. Together, they found inner peace by studying and working hard to gain the respect of their teachers and classmates.

“When you’re respected as a student, you’re respected as a person too,” said Youstina.

They relied on one another for support and learned English by immersing themselves in books. “We read five, six, seven books a week,” said Youstina.

Before long, the girls, who were reading at the first-grade level shortly after arriving at their new school, were advancing beyond their peers. By the fifth grade they were reading at a higher level than the majority of their classmates.

That motivation and the momentum they gained as little girls never slowed down.

By ninth grade they were taking Calculus II AP, something their teachers had never witnessed before. The sisters went on to complete roughly a dozen AP classes each, in addition to their honors classes. Although school was their top priority, they also found time to enjoy other activities. They played on the school’s tennis team, participated in student government, tutored other students and were members of the National Honor Society, the National Scholarship Foundation and the Associated Student Body.

“I think it’s about endurance and commitment,” said Youstina, when asked how she and Marina juggled so many activities alongside their studies.

Added Marina: “Our parents encourage us, but they’re not strict at all. It was just my sister and me helping each other out so that we could get to that level.”

The twins were not only accepted to UCLA, but turned down offers from Cornell, USC, UC Irvine, Berkeley and UC San Diego.

“I think the biggest motivation to excel was our parents, because they risked everything for us to have a better life, a better education. And we felt like it was our job to do very, very well,” said Youstina, adding that, without the grants and scholarship funding, she and Marina would not be able to attend college.

“It was really important to just take everything seriously and not take anything for granted,” said Marina. “I feel like it’s a blessing to be here, and all I wanted to do was try my hardest. And I guess it worked."

At UCLA, Youstina will study molecular, cell and developmental biology, while Marina will study biology. Both plan to become doctors. “We’ve seen how doctors really change lives,” said Marina, adding that their dream to become doctors would not have been possible to realize in Egypt.

“You rarely see doctors in Egypt that are women, let alone Christians,” said Youstina. “We just think it’s a great way to help people.”

► More Welcome Week 2014 stories and photos.

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