Mixed Doubles

updated 06/11/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/11/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The woman in the nail salon in San Francisco does a double take. "Twins and twins," she marvels. Two identical 17-year-old girls set down car seats containing two identical baby boys—not their children, they explain, but their brothers. While the infants sleep, Chanthan (rhymes with Canton) looks at a color chart of nail enamels, and Chantha (rhymes with Santa) soaks her toes. They are getting prepped for tonight's junior prom, and the pampering—manicure, pedicure, makeup—says Chanthan, makes her feel like a queen. Their mother had promised to make their prom dresses out of traditional Cambodian fabric. But three months ago their mother, Khorn, died at 43 giving birth to the babies, leaving eight children in the Khiev family with a father who spoke little English and knew nothing about child care. Since then, there hasn't been much time to be teenagers.

Whether it was the symmetry of twins caring for twins or just that the sisters are take-charge types, Chantha and Chanthan stepped into the parental role. Their mother had done everything—cooking, cleaning, taking the kids to school. Due to bullet wounds suffered during the Cambodian war, their father, Norn, 49, had quit his part-time job delivering doughnuts but still spent little time at home. Their oldest brother, Noeun, 20, a U.S. Army serviceman, was to be posted in Korea, and older sister Sokhoun, 18, a senior in high school, was busy applying to colleges. The two younger brothers, Dararath, 16, and Eric, 14, were hardly equipped to care for a pair of infants. That left Chantha and Chanthan to watch over little Joshua and Nicholas.

Not surprisingly, as in some 140,000 households nationwide where older siblings are raising younger ones, there is a Party of Five feeling to the Khiev residence—albeit in a poorer neighborhood. Their three-bedroom bungalow in East Oakland, Calif., crouches behind a chain-link fence on a street where every car seems to emit a throbbing bass line. Inside the house a mound of baby gear blocks traffic in the kitchen, so the family tends to converge in the living room.

"Hey, little dude, can I give you a kiss?" Chanthan asks Joshua, who sits in her lap on the velour sofa. "He needs you to change his diaper," she tells her twin.

"You change it," says Chantha.

"No, you change it, Chantha."

"Okay, come on, Joshua," says Chantha in resignation. "Let's go change your diaper."

The girls' lives were transformed in the middle of the night on Feb. 16, when Chanthan was awakened by her mother's voice. "Call the ambulance," Khorn, then eight-months pregnant, gasped. "I can't breathe." With complications from asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes, she knew hers was a risky pregnancy. Chanthan went with her mother in the ambulance to translate from their native Cambodian. In the emergency room, between cries, Khorn spoke the only English she could muster: "Help me! Please!"

Doctors told Chanthan they were going to do an emergency cesarean section. "They said they don't know if she's gonna survive," she recalls. She sat in a social worker's room until her father—who had been visiting a friend in a neighboring town—got there; meanwhile, her siblings waited for word at home. At 5:30 a.m. their father went back to the house. "He was crying," says Chantha. "He said my mom passed away."

The twins tried to pull themselves together. Diligent students, they knew their mother had an appointment that afternoon with Karen Grace, 29, a teacher at Oakland High School. Chantha called "Miss Grace" to say her mother wouldn't be able to make the meeting, but she quickly broke down in tears. As soon as she could find someone to take over her class, Grace and two other teachers drove to the Khiev house, where they found the kids hysterical. People in the community were urging the family to put the babies—who were born healthy—up for adoption, but Chanthan said her mother had consigned them to her care.

The teachers drove the hungry teenagers to McDonald's and then to the hospital, where they scrubbed up and held their little brothers. Their father had said they could pick out names. One of the babies was bigger, at 5 lbs. 15½ oz., so they gave him the longer name, Nicholas Samnang. (His middle name means good fortune in Cambodian.) The other (5 lbs. 4½ oz.) they called Joshua Vasena. (Vasena means to follow fate.) But as she left the family to their grief, Grace wasn't convinced of the older siblings' good fortune. "I was scared for them," she says. "They lost their childhood and became adults all at once."

When the babies came home from the hospital a week later, the sisters realized how little they knew about infant care. A social worker at the hospital had taught them how to change diapers and mix formula, and in those first weeks a handful of dedicated teachers—especially Grace—came to the house to cook and worry along with the twins when Joshua wasn't gaining weight. Still, the girls missed having aunts and grandmothers to help out.

Like many children of Cambodian refugees, Chanthan and Chantha had never known their extended family. Back in Cambodia, their relatives had been killed along with an estimated 1 to 2 million people during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot. Their parents—who met at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1976—were the only family members to get out alive. They married and had two children, and in 1982 the International Rescue Committee allowed the Khievs, with 20,000 other Cambodian refugees, to come to the U.S.

The twins were the family's first U.S.-born children, delivered at seven months at 11:59 and 12:01 on Sept. 18 and 19, 1983. "My mom called us 'little frogs,' " says Chanthan. Growing up in Oakland, they gravitated toward trouble—getting suspended for fighting, gabbing in class. "We were out-of-control active," says Chanthan. But by eighth grade they began to settle down, joining student government and doing volunteer work. They met Karen Grace in 1988, when they were assigned to her special tutoring class. Both girls are now B students in the school's Visual Arts Academy, taking photography and design as well as regular llth-grade classes. Now they have to learn how to balance schoolwork with motherhood.

Luckily, they have a good teacher. After the babies were born, Grace collected donations (contributions have ranged from schoolkids' pocket money to hundreds of dollars from Bay Area residents), set up a trust for all eight children and lined up free daycare for the babies. "Family is where you find it, and it was right here at this school," says Academy codirector Wanda Scott-Broussard, who is concerned about the big kids in the Khiev family as well as the little ones. "Five teenagers, all in high school at one time. These babies need just as much."

For the time being they're willing to go without. The twins share a double bed with their older sister in one bedroom, the boys share another, the babies have the third, and their father has the sofa. "When I go to sleep and they cry, I don't want to wake up," says Chantha, "but I have to." She looks at the drifts of donated clothing, the stacked boxes of disposable diapers. "Sometimes I want to hold the babies so tight—and sometimes I don't want to hold them at all," she says, adding with a smile, "but I miss them when I'm at school."

If not at the prom.

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