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Immigrant from Africa blossoms into honor student at Greece Athena

Susan Notes:

Ohanian Comment: My desk is piled high with ugly story; it is indeed uplifting to get one like this. What a remarkable young woman, a remarkable family. And don't overlook the part played by a remarkable teacher who fought hard for this student.

Meaghan M. McDermott

In 2001, Marius "Mimi" Kothor was a shy fifth-grader struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar new culture and keep up with schoolwork at Rochester's Holy Family School.

"She had been here with her family for about a year and was very quiet, very depressed and really kind of sad," said Lynn Ellingwood, an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher assigned to Mimi that year.

Mimi, who spent most of her youth living as a nomad with her family in the African nation of Benin after fleeing political strife in neighboring Togo in 1993, frustrated her teachers and school officials.

She'd had no formal education before coming to the United States. She could speak some English but couldn't read a word. Understanding mathematics seemed beyond her grasp.

"People thought there was something wrong with her, that she just wasn't too bright," said Ellingwood.

Now 18, bubbly and energetic, Mimi is looking forward to her last few weeks of high school.

She will graduate with honors from Greece Athena High School on June 27, becoming the first female in her family to ever complete high school.

Not only that, the little girl teachers used to worry was learning disabled has earned a full scholarship to the University of Rochester, where she will study evolutionary biology and medical anthropology to prepare for a future in medical school.

"I am ready to leave high school, although I'll miss the routine," said Mimi last week. "I'm ready for my next steps."

She grinned.

"I'm so excited."

Blessing from God

One day in 1993, Eklou "George" Kothor didn't return from his day job as a truck driver in Togo. His wife, Afiwa Ahianyo-Kothor, feared the worst. "We were in civil war and I thought my husband died, that they killed him because they were killing our people" said Ahianyo-Kothor. Afraid for the rest of her family, she gathered up her three children, sons Djifa and Kodjo and baby Mimi, who was "little in my hand," and went to live with her husband's relatives in another village.

Three months later, a letter arrived from George.

"He said they were going to kill him, so he ran away," said Ahianyo-Kothor, who still sometimes struggles to find the right English words to fill in for her native tribal tongue of Ewe. "So we go to Benin, a neighboring country, to meet him."

For seven years, the Kothors roamed Benin, often sleeping on floors and rarely having enough to eat. There was no medical care. When Kodjo was 10, he stepped on a rusty nail and died from a raging, untreated infection. That same year, a new baby, 2-month-old Kushie, died from malnutrition.

Ahianyo-Kothor believes God intervened in late 1999, when strangers came to the refugee camp they'd settled in and asked her to fill out some papers.

"They promised they could help take us out of all that trouble," she said.

Six months later, the Kothor family ΓΆ€” George, Afiwa, Djifa and Mimi, younger brother Victorin and babies Victoire and Olivier ΓΆ€” arrived in Honeoye Falls, sponsored by Honeoye Falls United Methodist Church.

"We were not planning to come to America, but God helped us," said Ahianyo-Kothor.

Learning English

Not knowing any English and facing a steep cultural learning curve, the Kothors settled in Honeoye Falls in 2000.

Ellingwood said their transition was sometimes difficult.

"Their sponsors put them up in a (two-family home), and they didn't really understand that," she said. "They thought that was just the basement and the other tenant had to keep locking them out because they kept trying to go upstairs."

With help from their church sponsors, the older Kothor children ΓΆ€” Djifa, Mimi and Victorin ΓΆ€” enrolled in area Catholic schools. George began working in a Wegmans grocery store.

Afiwa and George took English lessons from teacher Juanita Jolley at Rochester's Office of Adult and Career Educational Services.

"I admire that family so much," she said. "They've overcome so much and are just a wonderful family, very strong."

Ellingwood, meanwhile, took Mimi's education personally. She enrolled her in special weekend English clinics at Nazareth College, found a way to make payments and drove the little girl to her intensive lessons.

"Lynn is a very tough lady and she said to the parents all along, 'You have to get these kids a good education,'" said Jolley.

The Kothors moved to Rochester's River Park Commons ΓΆ€” a Mt. Hope Avenue apartment complex currently being demolished to make way for new townhouses ΓΆ€” and then in 2005, to Affinity Orchard Place in Greece.

In the midst of those moves, Mimi continued to struggle with her education. Although she'd managed to read her first English chapter book ΓΆ€” Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home ΓΆ€” by the middle of fifth grade, she had trouble catching up.

"One of the hardest things in my life was assimilating to American culture," said Mimi. "It's so different and with no educational background, I was teased because I couldn't read and didn't know a lot of things."

When she moved to seventh grade at the former All Saints Academy in Gates, school officials threatened to send her to elementary school.

"We weren't sure she could stay at the middle school," said Ellingwood. "But ESOL kids really need to be with kids of their own age group."

But Mimi applied herself harder and stayed in the middle school. When she moved to Greece, she enrolled at Athena High School, where she finally hit her educational stride.

Remarkable journey

Now, Mimi takes a rigorous course load. She's a member of Future Educators of America, Model U.N., a student leader and a member of Athena's Scientific Research Club. She works part time at Unity Health System as a food service aide. Earlier this year, she received an honorable mention in a statewide contest where she presented the findings of her study of how vitamin D affects bacterial infections in a particular strain of roundworm.

"Don't get me started talking about that project, because I won't stop," warned Mimi.

Last month, she was inducted into the Greece Youth Hall of Fame and won her school's Jim Lissow Memorial Award.

Guidance counselor Todd Wallace nominated her for the hall of fame. Although he met Mimi only this year, she's made a lasting impression.

"She's incredible," said Wallace. "Seeing this amazing young lady now, you'd never know how far she's come and the journey that's led her to where she is today."

But to Mimi, that journey doesn't always seem remarkable.

"Sometimes I forget how far I've come," she said. "But if you asked me five years ago did I think I'd be in the position I am in now? When I struggled so much to read and in the refugee camp never even dreamed of the concept of being educated? No."

Twice a week, Mimi volunteers to tutor students in an ESOL class at her school.

"When I see students who struggle like I did, it seems natural to me to help them," she said, bending over a worksheet on probability and statistics with freshman Katherine Yankevich, whose native languages are Ukrainian and Russian.

Katherine said Mimi is a role model.

"She's great, so smart and friendly," she said. "She's always willing to help someone."

As far as her own role models, Mimi cites three: her older brother Djifa, who struggled with language as she did, went on to graduate from Bishop Kearney High School and is now studying political science at St. Lawrence University in Canton; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia and the first female president of an African nation; and most importantly, her mother.

"She's a really strong woman and I don't think we would have made it to the U.S. without my mom," Mimi said, tearing up.

Looking back, Mimi said all of her struggles helped push her to achieve.

"No matter how much people tried to discourage me, I didn't fall," she said. "I just took people not believing in me as encouragement to prove them wrong."

Democrat & Chronicle



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