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A better life: Daughters of newly citizenized Ivory Coast man get surprise celebration

Neveln Elementary School English Language teacher Stephanie Garbisch carefully guided sisters Keren and Gnima Ehon, eyes closed, through the doors of her classroom.

Waiting for them was their class, teachers, staff, their father Kouassi Ehon and one-and-a-half-year-old brother Elisha to surprise them. It was a congratulations for Kouassi’s new-found citizenship the day before and the fourth-graders’ impending citizenship.

However, the surprise was somewhat lessened when Elisha decided to speak up.

“That’s my brother,” Keren said as they entered the room recognizing the voice.

Still, it didn’t take away from the day’s celebration.

“We’re so happy you’re part of the United States now,” Garbisch said to the two girls and their family. “We’re so happy to have you.”

Keren, from left, Gnima, Elisha and Kouassi Ehon come together for a photo Wednesday at Neveln Elementary.

Citizenship has been in the process of becoming reality since 2012, when Kouassi first immigrated from Ivory Coast.

A few years later, Gnima joined him, but Keren still remained in Africa with their mother.

But with a little help from Santa, the sisters were reunited in 2018.

“We were writing letters to Santa and Gnima, who had already been here, had written that she wanted her sister here for Christmas,” said English Language Teacher Nicole Thompson. “That spring (Keren) came and that was really neat.”

Wednesday’s party consisted of fun and games and pizza with Kouassi and Elisha joining in. While the girls feigned embarrassment, they quickly embraced the party atmosphere with the friends in their class.

“I really liked it,” Gnima said. “It’s all a surprise for us.”

Keren agreed. “It’s really fun.”

Keren, left, and her sister Gnima, right and little brother Elisha play a game with English Language teacher Stephanie Garbisch and classmates Wednesday morning at Neveln Elementary.

The idea that citizenship might be on the horizon wasn’t known to school officials until this past Friday, when Kouassi stopped at the school to sign an approved absence for one of the girls, leaving a note that said he was about to gain official citizenship.

Now that Kouassi is a citizen of the United States, he can start working towards gaining full citizenship for his girls.

It’s a dream that means a great deal to his family, including current wife Charlotte.

“It is meaningful,” he said. “This new opportunity. Now I am not an immigrant. I am an American citizen. I can walk anywhere.”

The idea means a great deal for his daughters as well.

“I haven’t really thought about it, but we do the Pledge (of Allegiance) every morning at home,” Gnima said.

Keren jumped on as well. “We have to get a Christmas tree now,” she said.

Keren Ehon gets a hug from classmates after she was surprised with her sister Gnima with a party to celebrate her dad’s citizenship Wednesday at Neveln Elementary.

For Garbisch, she couldn’t imagine anything better for the girls, who she said take on a life vibrance every day in the classroom.

“I get bossed around on a daily basis,” Garbisch joked. “They are spunky and creative and fiercely competitive and smart.”

Things like this can be like a window, Garbisch added.

“It’s awesome,” she said, exemplifying the capabilities of children in her class. “I feel like it’s hard to explain and I wish all of these people knew about these kids and what they can do.”

As the party wound down, Kouassi gathered up Elisha and made his way to leave, but before he left, he talked about what citizenship means as a way to open doors for his girls and the rest of his family.

“I think it’s a better life for my daughters,” he said. “It shows they need to work hard, but it is not easy. For what you want you have to work hard.”

But there is more, and perhaps it was Gnima who summed things up so perfectly.

“I’m looking forward to really staying here,” she said. “This is our family too.”

Keren Ehon, right, and her sister Gnima, second from left have some pizza with her class at Neveln Elementary Wednesday morning.