The Tulane University law school classmates ran up the stairs in the empty parsonage in Silver Spring, their foreign accents echoing through the big rooms as they stared in disbelief at all the donated desks.
Three weeks ago, they weren't sure what a hurricane was. Where they are from in China, in Albania, in Chile, there isn't anything quite like it, they said.
Now they are hurricane evacuees, six students from six very different places, uprooted by Katrina and relocated to the capital of a country still foreign to them. In Washington, some don't have access to their ATM cards or their passports. Agnes Foldi even lost her Hungarian-English dictionary.
And yet, through chance, determination and the unexpected grace of strangers, they've found a home together.
"We are a small family here now," said Rudina Jasini, who left Tirana, Albania, this summer with a Fulbright scholarship.
Like her new housemates -- students from Australia, Costa Rica, Hungary, China and Chile who were studying for specialized law degrees at Tulane -- Jasini had just begun to get over the aggravations of an unfamiliar place and to embrace New Orleans.
She loved the city's architecture and its etouffee, its seamy edges and its history. She loved the way strangers smiled and called her honey, sweetie, baby. Some nights, her classmates said, a band would start playing and people would dance in the streets, and drivers would find another way home.
There were more than 50 foreign students in the master of law program at Tulane. They were just becoming friends when they heard the hurricane warnings. While many U.S. students fled to their parents' homes, those from abroad weren't sure what to do.
At first, Shengyang Jiang, a quiet, bespectacled 28-year-old from Wuhan, in central China, refused to leave. Finally, he grabbed his wallet, some clothes and, mostly, stacks of his law school books.
Australian Yanya O'Hara and Chilean Paula Carvajal took off to Alabama, then got someone to rescue Foldi from a shelter in Mississippi. After that, the three friends set off to Florida, calling home to Perth, Vina del Mar and Budapest on their one working cell phone, while classmates Jasini and Marco Solano scattered westward.
They watched TV, saw water filling New Orleans and began searching for other programs. They knew virtually nothing, they said, about U.S. law schools' reputations and locations.
Carvajal had brought her cross, her rosary beads and an icon of Saint Expeditus, to whom she had prayed for a scholarship to study maritime law; the items provided solace as she tried to figure out what to do.
They all thought about going home.
At Georgetown University Law Center, meanwhile, the staff worked through Labor Day weekend to allow the students to enroll as visiting scholars, tuition-free. A couple of them chose Georgetown for its academic reputation, but Jiang said he came because it was the first school to admit him.
"I think it is a good school, maybe?" he said.
O'Hara called the American Petroleum Institute to ask for suggestions on schools that specialize in energy and the environment. Foldi and Carvajal followed her to Georgetown. Though the school doesn't offer her academic specialty, Carvajal decided it was more important to stay with friends.
They rushed to Washington with no idea of where they would live or how they would pay rent. A law student offered a room, and Jasini moved into a professor's home in Cleveland Park for a few days. O'Hara called her contact with the American Petroleum Institute and asked whether a few of the students could stay with the woman's family that night.
"We didn't know them from a bar of soap," O'Hara said, "and she has taken us in like daughters."
The law school gave them a mini-orientation, told them their books would be donated, bought them clean shirts -- but at any moment, Carvajal thought, her money would run out and she would have to return to Chile.
O'Hara dropped her blond head in her hands while talking at the law school recently, then turned toward Carvajal for comfort. Solano said it had been like that all week -- holding one another up.
They have been too worried to sleep. They need to get immunizations all over again, learn computer passwords, find their way around.
"We are shock shelled," Jasini said, her blue eyes shadowed with exhaustion.
They wanted to live together. After everything they had been through, they couldn't imagine splitting up again. Even the courses they chose were almost the same.
Wendy Perdue, associate dean of graduate programs at the law school, and her husband talked with the pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring about letting the students stay in the vacant parsonage in their neighborhood for free. Members of the congregation began donating furniture, and by this weekend, all the students had moved in.
Perdue took the students on the Metro to Silver Spring. They walked through town, up a little hill toward the five-bedroom brick house with white pillars and a garden blooming in the back.
Foldi couldn't stop smiling -- she was so thankful, she said, she didn't have words.
They had just heard that five of their law school classmates had ended up at American University, and one at George Washington. "We can have wicked parties here," O'Hara said.
The house has a big kitchen, Solano said, so they might cook family-style meals six days a week.
Already it feels more familiar than his apartment in New Orleans. It feels cozy, he said. It feels like home.