People, Profiles

Podcast: A ‘fast friendship’ that took 16 years — and admission to Berkeley — to happen

When the two freshman met at UC Berkeley last year, they were amazed at how much they had in common. Just last week, they found out their friendship wasn't a new one

“So basically at the start of my freshman year, I got a call from my debate partner that I had in high school and she called me up and was like, ‘Okay, there’s this girl that I met four years ago at a summer camp in New York, and I just realized she’s going to Cal, and you guys absolutely have to meet. You guys would definitely hit it off.’”

Roaya and Nissma

Roaya Jannatipour and Nissma Bencheikh are sophomores at UC Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

That’s Roaya Jannatipour, a sophomore at UC Berkeley. She’s talking about meeting Nissma Bencheikh for the first time last year. Or what she thought was the first time.

“Just from the first 15 minutes of talking, we found out we’re both Moroccan, both Canadian, both pre-med and both accidentally placed on an all-girls floor.”

Roaya and Nissma

(UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Although both students were born in Canada, they had moved to the U.S. — Nissma to Virginia and Roaya to California — when they were toddlers, so they just thought it was a coincidence they had so much in common.

The two freshmen became fast friends. And at the start of this school year, they decided to become roommates. As they were moving into their apartment last week, Roaya was FaceTiming with her mom and Nissma was moving furniture into their living room with her dad. They introduced their parents — and found out that their friendship wasn’t a new one.

Roaya and Nissma being filmed on campus

Good Morning America shoots video on Berkeley’s campus for a segment about the reunited friends. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

“Roaya goes back into her room, and my dad starts asking me all these questions about her family, and, weirdly, he already knows what I’m about to say. He’s just kinda fact checking. So it turns out that our moms were best friends in Canada 16 years ago.”

In Canada, their mothers were neighbors and Nissma and Roaya spent a lot of time together as babies.

“She had bunches and bunches of baby pictures,” says Roaya of her mom, Saida. “I saw the first picture and had to do a double take. I instantly start screaming. Ran into the other room, and was like, ‘Have you seen this?’

Roaya and Nissma as babies in strollers

Nissma (left) and Roaya as babies in Canada (Photo courtesy of Roaya Jannatipour)

“Just to give you an idea of how close our moms were, Roaya’s mom actually took my mom to the hospital when my mom was in labor with my younger sister, and she actually chose my sister’s name. So they were best friends.

“And cut her umbilical cord.”

Saida, who took care of Nissma’s mom, Naima, after she gave birth to Nissma’s younger sister, has been searching for Naima since the families moved from Canada to the U.S. 16 years ago.

The students told their story so many times that night that they lost their voices. And they just told it again on Good Morning America, where their moms were reunited as a surprise in front of a national audience.

Roaya's and Nissma's moms

Roaya’s mom Saida Chehbouni (left)
and Nissa’s mom Naima Souissi, both pregnant with their daughters, in Canada. (Photo courtesy of Roaya Jannatipour)

At Berkeley, Nissma plans to double major in business and molecular and cell biology, with a goal of becoming an anesthesiologist and practicing in the Middle East. Roaya intends to major in integrative biology and psychology, and wants to become a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon for Doctors Without Borders.

Roaya and Nissma say it was fate that they found each other at Berkeley.

“We almost didn’t choose Berkeley,” says Nissma. “I’m out of state, that was a huge, like, ‘Am I really going to move across the country?’ Roaya had other options that she was kind of set on before deciding to come to Berkeley. It feels like it was meant to be. We had to come to Berkeley.”

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“It was confirmation that everything happens for a reason,” says Roaya. “Don’t worry, life is going to go on as it should.”

Berkeley is a place, they say, that continues to challenge them in new ways and inspire them to change to the world.

“Amazing things always happen at Berkeley,” says Nissma.

Read their story on Good Morning America and watch the video of the mothers’ reunion.