From a homeless shelter to a Syracuse degree


Lilian Agwu Ibeh, with two of her three children: Beverly, 21, left, who just graduated with honors from Syracuse University, and Willis, 19, right, a rising sophomore at St. John's University. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 30, 2013

The graduate unloaded her dorm stuff in her mom’s living room.

The boxes, the bags, all the certificates, limp balloons and cards that traditionally shower a magna cum laude from Syracuse University graced the entryway to the family home.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

The scene is a sign of victory, all the way around.

Because Beverly Ibeh, her mother and her two little brothers used to live in a homeless shelter.

The story of this family is about resurrection, determination and sacrifice. But it’s also not, strictly speaking, a Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches tale.

Unlike the other families at the shelter, the Ibeh family started out pretty fancy. Their fall was a big one.

Dad was a Nigerian diplomat, Beverly was born in London and the mom, Lilian Agwu-Ibeh, was the perfect diplomat’s wife — smiling, beautiful and savvy enough to know that elbow-length gloves are in order when you have tea with the queen.

But their dark secret was domestic violence.

After years of abuse, Lilian broke cultural taboos and risked everything to flee.

It was a complicated story and one that landed them in the news years ago. The family triggered a special kind of visa provision that allowed them to stay in the United States after the father lost his government position and returned to Nigeria.

They were shunned by most of the diplomatic community and fellow Nigerians.

“That was the worst time in my life,” Beverly, now 21, told me. She was 9 when life as she knew it blew up.

They moved out of the tasteful home in Silver Spring and slept in their car. “I do remember going from shelter to shelter, place to place,” she said.

Beverly, still in elementary school, became the co-parent to her 6- and 4-year-old brothers. Eventually, they landed in a shelter for battered women.

Increasingly, their lives became hard to hide at school. Beverly went on play dates. Her friends asked when they could come to her house.

“Where do you live? When can we come over for a sleepover?” they’d ask.

She finally confided in one friend, and that family opened up their home for a short time, until the Ibehs could move into a better place.

And a better place is about so much more than nice furniture and your own bathroom.

Beverly needed a better place for her head, too. That’s where she learned about the seemingly insurmountable problem of cyclical poverty and homelessness.

“At the shelter, I met kids in my situation,” she said. “But their mind set was so different from mine.”

Here is the part when we realize that Beverly’s story is not what we long for it to be. She’s not the poster child for all of the 600 homeless kids who were living in the D.C. General family homeless shelter this past winter. And she is keenly aware of that.

“Why I didn’t fall and break like the others? My life before was so different from theirs,” Beverly explained. “I always knew I was going to college.”

She had everything, and she lost it. But she knew what travel and a nice home and success and stability and the bills all paid up tasted like.

For most of the other kids in the shelter — and the thousands across America who grow up going from shelter to shelter, place to place — despair is the only flavor they know.

In high school, Beverly’s guardian angel came in the form of a restaurant manager.

She got a job at the Panera Bread in Gaithersburg, where she did homework, missed much of the Thomas S. Wootton High School social scene and spent her weekends and vacations working.

Sometimes, she earned pocket money. Other times, she paid for the gas to get Mom to her night job as a nurse.

Beverly went to Syracuse on a scholarship. Whenever she came home from college, even for a couple of days, the boss took her back, gave her some hours.

You can’t give every kid in a homeless shelter the drive that comes from a past life like Beverly had. But you can give them opportunity, flexibility and understanding, the way that Panera manager did.

Lilian says her children were her inspiration. She got a grant from Montgomery County to start her own magazine, We Refuse Abuse, that focuses on domestic violence, particularly in the immigrant community. And she works as a human resources consultant at the World Bank.

She holds conferences and galas, gathering abuse survivors for conversation and empowerment. She is planning to have her daughter speak at the next event in June.

Beverly, a psychology major, wants to move to New York and get a job, then go to grad school.

She wants to be a child psychologist. And she will do her best to reach kids and teach them about something other than despair.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments