Top scholars rise above MS-13 violence in suburban NY town

A street gang with Central American ties, MS-13, has been a scourge on immigrant communities in New York.

MS-13 has been responsible for nearly 20 killings on Long Island, many in Suffolk County’s Brentwood and Central Islip communities, over the past 18 months, authorities said.

The cases caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who in April dispatched Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Long Island pledging to stem the violence.

The Treasury Department labeled MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization” engaged in drug trafficking, kidnapping, human smuggling, murder and sex trafficking in the United States and elsewhere.

Although the New York community has contended with gang violence for years, the murders that galvanized the community were those of 15-year-old Nisa Mickens and 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas. The girls, lifelong friends, were slaughtered with machetes and baseball bats as they walked near their homes. Authorities said Kayla had been feuding with gang members but Nisa was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, teens from Brentwood High School preparing to graduate Sunday — two valedictorians and one of the salutatorians — insist their stories of scholarship, unity and perseverance deserve as much attention as the carnage.

All three are children of immigrants and the first in their families to graduate high school.

One spent her junior year living in a homeless shelter.

“The Brentwood that the world has come to know is not the Brentwood that we have come to know,” said Reeda Iqbal, valedictorian at the district’s Sonderling Center, who is headed to Harvard. “I’ve had so many people say, ‘Oh, do you have to carry a knife or a gun to school?’ and I just say ‘No.’ I feel like in the hallways everyone is as equal as anyone else.”

Approximately 1,200 students from Brentwood’s two campuses, Sonderling and the neighboring Ross Center, graduate Sunday.

Residents say the suburban community of modest ranch homes, warehouses and strip malls 40 miles east of New York City always has been a diverse, welcoming place for immigrants and others trying to make better lives for their children. State statistics show the high school, one of the biggest in the U.S., has about 80 percent Hispanic enrollment, including many newly arrived immigrants.

The tragic impact of the MS-13  bloodshed is not lost on the school’s top scholars, but they say it is not the full picture of life in their school.

“All of us, we’re trying to prove a point that Brentwood is not a gang-filled place,” said Michael Simoes, valedictorian at the Ross Center, who plans on becoming a surgeon. “It’s filled with a lot of people with passion with a lot of dreams to go places.”

He will major in biology at Sony Brook University. His parents emigrated from Portugal before he was born, and emphasized the importance of education.

Simoes, who is chapter president of the National Honor Society and a player on the league-champion tennis team, says in addition to striving for academic excellence, he has worked with his father for years doing construction work and other tasks.

“He teaches me all the life skills people would have to pay for,” he said, citing car mechanics, concrete masonry, plumbing and electricity.

Saray Vazquez, salutatorian at Sonderling, spent her junior year living in a homeless shelter in Brentwood before her family found a home they could afford.

Her mother emigrated from El Salvador and father came from Puerto Rico.

“Since I was a kid, getting a good education and excelling was seen as the next step to achieving what they didn’t have,” Vazquez said. Her family’s financial struggles were another motivator.

“The thought that I could get us out of it in a way through working hard, doing well in school, was just something to push me farther. And I got through it.”

She will major in environmental science at The City College of New York.

Iqbal’s parents emigrated from Pakistan with hopes of going to college, but “financial realities” precluded that.

“I’m the first in my family to go to college, so that dream ... has kind of like shifted toward me,” she said.

In her junior year, she started a program called Generation Success that mentors first-generation students on preparing for college. It also provides tips on financial aid, writing transcripts and college essays. “You’re making a difference to kids whose parents didn’t go to college and may be from lower income backgrounds don’t know about these things,” she said.

The Ross Center will have co-salutatorians: Roniesha Tinling and Nicholas Otera. Tingling is headed to Georgetown University to study law. Otera is going to Syracuse University to study forensic science and physics.

“I definitely would say to the world that Brentwood is not as bad as it seems, and probably will never be as bad as it seems,” Iqbal said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.