Djamila El-Frih, In many ways, Djamila, Fatiha and Wahiba El-Frih appear to be typical American teenagers.
The living room of their Waverly home reverberates with MTV. Jeans or sweats are the uniform of the day. Scattered soccer trophies reveal a passion for sports.
Last fall, Wahiba, a freshman, scored the winning goal as City beat Western, 1-0, for the Baltimore City soccer championship. A year ago, Djamila and Fatiha, both seniors now, won a city tennis title in doubles.
No matter how ordinary these sisters seem, appearances can be deceiving.
"I don't think we'll ever be average American kids," said Wahiba, 15. "We have experienced too many things."
Average American teens haven't had to flee their homelands and spend most of their lives on the run.
For the El-Frihs, whose father was targeted for assassination in their native Algeria, the quest for freedom did not end until they were granted permanent residence in the United States as political refugees in 2000.
"This was the best thing that happened to us in our lives, what America gave to us. We are living now," said Djamila, 19.
In 1990, the girls fled Algeria with their parents and siblings. Their father, Kada El-Frih, an engineer at a large petroleum plant, had drawn the wrath of Islamic terrorists and government officials because of his union activism.
"Algeria just didn't want anyone to speak," El-Frih said in Arabic, as Djamila translated. "It's like suicide, speaking out. In the last 10 years, they killed 400 unionists, maybe more."
El-Frih knew his large family was in danger, so he paid off officials to speed up the passport process. They left everything behind and headed for Germany.
"We didn't really know what it meant to leave," Djamila said. "It was like you were born new, but it wasn't hard because I was 7 years old. Compared to when we came to America - then I already had a life. I was a gymnast. I had friends."
In Germany, the El-Frihs found temporary political asylum, but after 10 years, they were forced to move again. There would be no permanent residence for the family, which had grown to nine children with the addition of youngest son Adel, now 9.
El-Frih tried to convince German officials that deporting his family to Algeria would condemn them all to death. Algerian officials had made their point by killing two of the family's prominent relatives.
His letters made no difference, nor did his assertion that he knew of other dissidents who had returned to Algeria only to disappear forever after reaching the airport.
"We were authentic refugees," said Djamila, explaining her father's pleas. "If he would have gone to the country, we would have been killed - my father, my mother, the kids. Just because my father knew so much of what was going on in Algeria."
El-Frih finally appealed to the United Nations office in Bonn, which eventually folded them into a resettlement program for Bosnians. On July 12, 2000 - the girls' mother's birthday - the family was granted permanent residence in the United States. Five years from that date, they can become American citizens.
"My father was crying," Djamila said. "This was the biggest thing that ever happened to the whole family. We were free."
Their thrill made the hardships of settling into yet another culture seem less daunting.
"In ways, it was tough. In other ways, we were very happy to leave Germany," said Fatiha, 18. "It wasn't easy living in a foreign nation with a big family and having no permanent residence there. Any day could have been our last day, and there's a fear just in not knowing where you're going to be the next day."
Still, it was a struggle for the parents and seven of their nine children - one grown son had stayed behind in Algeria, another in Germany - to find a place to settle. They knew no one, had no prospects for work and did not speak English.
The girls missed their friends, their schools and the sports they played in the big yard of their Wester Wald home. All three were gymnasts, and Djamila and Fatiha were coaching little girls in the sport, but they said when they got here they could not find a gymnastics club close by.
Those holes in their lives were soon filled with help from what the El-Frihs considered an unlikely source.
After a month of looking for a place to live in Baltimore, the El-Frihs, who are Muslims, were adopted by St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Northwood.
Parishioner Owen Charles heard of the El-Frihs' plight from a Muslim friend and felt the church's immigrant outreach program could help. When Charles told the Rev. Joseph L. Muth Jr., the priest opened the vacant church convent to the family for five months.
Charles, who immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago 30 years ago, helped cut through a lot of red tape. Guidance from Charles and Muth also helped El-Frih find a job and get his family on its feet.