The room is bare save for two identical medals hanging on the concrete wall and several unframed photos; one of the Virgin Mary, the other of Jesus. Oh, and the last of the Egyptian Pope.
This may not seem like the dorm room of two typical college girls. There are no colored lights and no Walking Dead posters. But Merna and Myryam Ishak are not your typical college girls.
They are identical twins from Cairo, Egypt.
The pair moved with their parents to Hartford, Vt., four years ago this fall, after a 10-year wait for visas.
“We waited for years to get the paperwork to move to America,” said Myryam.
“Then one night, the phone rang. And we suddenly had eight months to pack up and say goodbye to everyone we had ever known,” Merna said, finishing the thought for her sister.
Their family decided to move to the United States so the girls could receive a better education. Public Egyptian schools offer no encouragement or sense of structure for students, so Myryam and Merna attended a private, all-girls Christian school instead. But even with that improvement, they were not getting the education they needed to continue on to college.
“Classes were so overcrowded that the teachers didn’t even have time to check your homework,” said Myryam.
She said when extra help was needed, you had to seek out your teacher and pay money just for homework clarification.
The girls’ parents didn’t want those barriers for their eager daughters, so when all of the government paperwork was settled, they made the 5,400-mile move to Hartford.
“It was so hard leaving all of our friends,” Merna said.
“It was frustrating at first,” added Myryam.
The school they first attended in Vermont was independent, and relied heavily on teaching students via computers and DVD’s.
“We got no language interaction,” they said in unison, their matching faces deeply concentrated at the memory.
When the school failed to improve their English, the twins took their education into their own hands. They found that going shopping and forcing themselves to get involved in the community really helped them develop the new language.
After suffering through two years of ineffective schooling, their parents decided to move them to Hartford High School.
There, the girls thrived.
“At first we worried that no one would like us, we would be outcast because we’re different,” Merna said, and her sister was quick to agree.
But that was not the case; the girls were flooded with friends, questions about their previous life, and were made part of the class instantly. The pair even received the customized nickname “M&M.” They were also challenged academically, a change they gladly accepted.
“School was hard!” Merna said with a laugh, comparing it to their previous Egyptian education.
But both embraced the difficulties and stuck it out. Their hard work paid off; both became academic honor students, receiving the medals that are now displayed in their dorm, proof that they deeply care about their futures.
Merna and Myryam plan on continuing their education by attending medical school after graduating Castleton in four years. Both are majoring in Biology. Both want to be doctors. Both imagine a life that will always involve each other.
“We grew up beside each other,” said Merna, looking at her sister with love only a sibling could understand. “We know each other better than we could ever know anyone else. Even if we had another sibling, we’re not sure the bond would be as strong.”
Myryam agrees. The girls have spent almost every day of their lives together. In Egypt, it is a rule that twins need to be in the same classes as each other. All they have ever known is that rule, and nothing could change that; even a move to another country.
“We explained to our teachers in high school that we needed to be together,” said Merna, “and they listened to us.”
They did the same when signing up for classes at Castleton. However, when only one of them got into their biology class, they emailed professor Cynthia Moulton asking if the other could join. If not, neither would be attending the class.
It may seem drastic, but they excel and do their best work side by side. Having shared everything together, from clothes to Huden waffles, they know nothing else. And this started from infancy.
When they were less than a year old, Merna became sick and her parents took her to the hospital, leaving Myryam in the care of their grandmother. While being fed her dinner, Myryam suddenly stopped breathing and went blue, forcing her grandmother to bring her to the hospital; the same hospital that Merna was at. The doctors could find nothing physically wrong with her. Their only explanation was she knew her twin was in pain and was sharing that pain.
The girls laugh at this story. Although they cannot personally recall the event, they do not doubt the drama of it one bit.
“We know each other through and through,” said Myryam. “Even through everything, we are best friends. We experience everything together.”
From typical sibling fights to a life changing move, from discovering Sloppy Joes as a favorite American food to realizing that snow really will make you cold if you wear jeans in it, they are there for each other, no matter what.
“I cannot even picture a life without her,” said Merna.
Myryam didn’t even need to respond to let her sister know she was thinking the same thing.