Twins Hassan and Fousseyni Drame thought they’d be spending the days before their June 12 graduation ironing their robes and decorating their caps in preparation for the culmination of their high school years.
Instead, they found themselves cramming their 6'7" frames into small seats for a 14-hour flight, bound for their native Mali to iron out a visa issue before traveling to Greece to compete in the 2019 FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup.
At the airport, the 18-year-old identical twins wore matching T-shirts that were given to their school’s senior class. They packed several suitcases and two extra bags of clothing to distribute to kids in need in Mali, where they had spent the first 15 years of their lives.
Just days before the flight, Our Savior New American School associate head basketball coach Eric Jaklitsch got a call from the Mali Basketball Federation. The twins had to leave for Mali earlier than expected so they could get their visas in time for the start of the tournament.
“We were sad but at the end of [the] day we were like, the country is above everything,” Fousseyni said via a WhatsApp interview. “If they call us, we will answer anytime.”
“Had we known earlier, we could have gotten their visas here in the States,” said Jaklitsch. “You just have to adjust with it and work on the fly.”
Compelled to improvise, the Centereach school held an impromptu ceremony, where the Drames read their graduation speeches, surrounded by Headmaster Rev. Ronald W. Stelzer, Principal Dolores Reade, Jaklitsch, ESL teacher Paul Licausi and a few friends.
“I remember my first time in [the] United States, the only English I knew was yes, no and OK,” Hassan said in his speech.
Fousseyni and Hassan came to the United States in 2016 to attend OSNAS. They left their parents, Fatoumata and Dembra Drame, to pursue an education and their basketball dreams.
“It was one of the toughest decisions we ever made in our life, leaving friends and family at [a] young age and come somewhere that you don’t know anybody or speak the languages,” said Fousseyni.
“I have to say when they first came, they didn't have many English language skills but they had a thirst to learn,” said Josette Leon, the twins’ freshman ESL teacher. By the end of their first year, Leon said the boys had learned the language “very quickly.”
Now, Fousseyni and Hassan are attending Saint Peter's University in Jersey City, New Jersey on full basketball scholarships, where they plan to study marketing.
The Drames have devoted themselves to being good athletes in addition to being good students. They helped the Mali team make it to the FIBA title game before losing to the United States, where Hassan led his team with 17 points. Mali became the first African nation to place second in the U19 tournament.
“When the two were on the court, my husband and I dubbed them ‘Double Trouble,’ ” said host mom Christina Semple as she recalled watching high school games. “When the two play together, they are really in sync with one another.”
The twins’ impact can also be felt off the court.
“If they saw me walking, they’d be right there picking up my books and opening the door,” said Reade, who has been principal for 27 years.
“They had the ability to change the atmosphere around them. They just put a smile on everybody’s face.”