News: Why we serve: From African refugee to US soldier
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon
PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Spc. Alfred Kollie escaped civil war, genocide, and more than eight years living in African refugee camps to join the U.S. Army.
“I went through a lot of hard [stuff] when I was coming up as a kid, because I grew up in a war-torn country,” said Kollie. “I was only privileged to go through high school, and that was it.”
So Kollie joined the U.S. Army in 2010, just a short time after moving to the United States, to earn the privilege of higher education. How he got there, however, began much earlier.
In 1989, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a rebel group led by Charles Taylor, launched an insurrection against the standing government with the help of neighboring countries, triggering the first Liberian civil war, says a BBC News Liberia Profile.
By September 1990, Taylor’s rebels controlled all but a small area outside the capitol, and managed to capture and kill then-president Samuel Doe.
Following the presidential assassination, the rebel forces split into various factions and began fighting one another. From 1989 to 1996, the U.S. State Department reports one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and displaced a million people into refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Kollie’s family was among them.
“We fled Liberia and I lived most of my life in the refugee camps,” said Kollie, whose family is originally from Lofa county, Liberia. “All we prayed for was to come to America, because Liberia at the time was done; there was no opportunity.”
Kollie was 10 years old when they fled to the Buduburam refugee camp outside Accra, in nearby Ghana. It was 1996. Although Liberia’s first civil war had ended, the second was just a few years away, forcing the family to remain in the refugee camps.
“I’ve never been to hell, but I have to imagine that’s what it’s like,” said Kollie. “Some days we didn’t have food, and we’d have to wait for family in the States to send money so we could eat. That’s how we survived.”
His family was lucky to make it that far. Growing up, Kollie’s family escaped rebel brutality on multiple occasions by moving around, hearing stories of families who had stayed back and were slaughtered. It was a struggle to survive, he said.
“Over there, being 10, you’re not really young anymore, because they had six-year-old rebels walking around with AK-47s, killing innocent people,” explained Kollie. “I thank God I didn’t find myself in that situation to live the rest of my life with the guilt of being forced to kill people or be killed. That’s how they got a lot of kids to join the rebels- they’d kill their families and take the boys and compel them to join. I always give thanks to God.”
When the family moved to Ghana, they waited three years to enroll in a program which would help them emigrate to the United States in a resettlement program under Temporary Protected Status. According to the Buduburam Refugee Camp website, www.buduburam.com, the program began in 1991 to help Liberians escape “a decade of brutal conflict.”
It would be another eight years until the family was finally chosen to move to the U.S.
“The first year was fine,” said Kollie. “Then the second, third and fourth went by, and when we hit the sixth, everybody was like ‘we have to go back [to Liberia], this isn’t working.’”
In the meantime, Kollie enrolled in a program to learn computers and Microsoft Office, enabling him to become a teacher.
“One day I was hanging out, and the owner of one of the refugee camps passed by. We were just a bunch of guys hanging out, and every time he’d pass by, we’d go ask him for money to get something to eat,” he said. “One day, he was like ‘OK, I’m always in the area and I always help you with money, but which one of you can operate a computer?’”
Kollie was the only one in the group who had learned basic computer skills, and took the man up on his offer.
“I went over there and he told me they were about to open a computer school to help Liberians,” said Kollie. “He said he couldn’t pay me, but could give me a stipend of U.S. $10 per month, so I took it. That was my first real job. I was just sitting on the block with my buddies, not getting anything before that. I knew if I had $10, I could split it with my sister and we could buy something. So, I used to wake up every morning and go over there. I started off as a teaching assistant in the background helping out, and then got promoted to teacher with my own class.”
Kollie said it was there his now well-known work ethic was born.
“It was hard, but in life you have to make the best of what you’ve got,” said Kollie. “All my life I’ve tried to do that, and I always try to learn from the people around me, and always try to be the best in whatever I do.”
Many years later, it’s that work ethic his U.S. Army co-workers first mention when they talk about him.
“I feel like he thinks he’s always had something to prove, so I think that motivates him more than other people,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Brian Vinyard, of Modesto, Calif. “It’s definitely pushed him to excel, maybe more than others feel the same need. He’s fresh out of training, and this is his first deployment, so right away, he had the deck stacked against him for success, especially coming to a foreign country- but I think he’s really stepped up to the plate.”
While Kollie was teaching, though, his father became ill. He was sick numerous times, said Kollie, and each time, the family would gather and pray to God to keep him healthy.
“If he died while we were in the refugee camps, it was done for us,” recalled Kollie. “We were never going to come to the United States, because he was the head of the family. If the head of the family dies in the process, the entire family stays back. You’re done. It happened to a lot of families over there.”
On June 14th, 2002, the family finally got the news they’d be leaving for the United States the following month.
“They usually put people’s names on a board, and you go to see your name, and if it’s on there, you’re going to the States,” explained Kollie. “We checked every day for three years, then we gave up. Then we were just sitting around one day, and a lady came up and said ‘You guys are Kollie, right?’ She told us she had seen our names on the board, and we were leaving for the United States on July 12th.”
He ran to the board and looked for his name, just to be sure. Kollie saw all 12 members of his family on the paper.
“When I saw Kollie, all I did was start running,” said Kollie, smiling. “I ran all the way from where I saw the name to my dad, and I told him our name was up and we were going to the States. After that, I ran to the church, and all I could do was praise God. Then I ran to my sister and I could see the joy in her face. She just jumped up and down, over and over. Everybody in the family couldn’t believe it. It was like a miracle.”
The family of 12 flew from Ghana to New York, then Houston, then Louisiana, where they stayed with a brother. Kollie’s dad had quite a few children, some of whom were already living in America. The brother connected them with a Catholic organization which had helped him, and got the family started with an apartment, jobs, and money.
“We had to pay back the money they spent to get us to the States,” said Kollie. “Each of us had to pay back $889 for plane tickets and medical and everything. It wasn’t free. I remember I paid mine in installments of $35 per month and it took me about a year-and-a-half to complete.”
Kollie got his first job packaging spices for chicken in a factory in Louisiana for $8.30 an hour. It was more money than he’d ever seen in his life.
“I wasn’t making really any money in Africa, so I remember my first paycheck, it was like $200,” said Kollie. “I had never held $200 in my life up until that point. Imagine that- I was 21, and had never held $200 in my life. I was so excited, because I always kept my head held high and I knew where I came from to make a better life for myself and my family.”
He saved his paychecks for about two months, amassing almost $1,000. As a sign of his new-found prosperity in America, the first thing he bought himself was an X-box video game console; something he had dreamed of owning while living in the refugee camp.
“Back in the camp, there was a station where you could pay money to play a video game. So, if you got lucky that day and you had a little extra, and you could get enough food to eat and still had a little left over, you would go play a game. Everybody wanted to play the soccer game. I always told myself the day I went to the United States I was buying my own game. I didn’t have to pay to play it anymore. I remember when I went to the store to buy it and it was like $350. I thought, ‘damn, that’s a lot of money,’ but nothing was going to stop me.”
Kollie continued to save until he and his sister, Saba, decided to move out on their own, and headed to Maryland. He got an apartment with her in Hyattsville, and a job as a salesman in an urban store. He worked his way up to assistant manager, and was making good money, he said, but hadn’t achieved a serious goal he’d set for himself.
Alfred Kollie, Liberian refugee and newly-minted U.S. resident, wanted to go to college.
“I tried to go to school, but couldn’t get loans or grants or anything, so I decided to pay from my pocket,” said Kollie. “I tried for the first year, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere. I was making money, but I looked five years down the road, and where I’d be if I kept working there. I had been promoted to manager, but I still worried about where I’d be in five years.”
Since he had been a child, Kollie had been fascinated with the military lifestyle, although not the rebel armies he grew up avoiding in his own country.
“They’re not an organized fighting force; there’s a lot of abuse, and I didn’t want to find myself in that situation,” he said. “Once I found myself in a country where the military is widely respected, and the military would provide me shelter, food, pay me to do what I enjoy and pay me to go to school, I decided to join. It was a win-win situation for me.”
He then went to see a recruiter, nervous at first, because he had come from a country at war, had experienced it first-hand, and knew he would likely find himself fighting in Afghanistan.
“I had to take a chance,” said Kollie. “Life is life and stuff happens, but I wasn’t going to change anything unless I took a chance. When I told the recruiter where I was from, he asked whether I was willing to go back to war, because that’s where I was headed. I told him as long as I got paid and had money for school, I’d go.”
Kollie joined the Army in September, 2010, in military occupational specialty 92F, Petroleum Supply Specialist.
“I didn’t know what my job was when I picked it, but I saw a video and they were fueling aircraft, and I thought that was cool,” he said. “I wanted to work on an airfield with helicopters.”
He attended basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., then advanced individual training at the U.S. Army Quartermaster school on Fort Lee, Va. He graduated at the top of his class, with a 98.7-percent grade-point average.
“I do my best to learn and do my job with perfection,” he explained. “I always try to be 100-percent, because I realized this job is dangerous, and you always have to be on point. You always have to do the right thing, because if you make a mistake, it can cost you your life or someone else theirs.”
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. John Tune, of Newbern, N.C., says Kollie’s attention to detail has made him one of the most valuable soldiers in E Company.
“If he stays in the military, I have no doubt in my mind he’s going to become a Sergeant Major someday. One day, we went out to one of the Hemmits (a big fuel truck) out here, and he named every part on that truck. That’s unheard of. I have 17 years in, and even I can’t name everything on that truck. He learned that in AIT, but for him to have that kind of memory, that impressed me.”
Following school, Kollie was stationed with the Task Force Wolfpack, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, on Fort Bragg, N.C. He arrived in March only to spend a few short months and deploy that fall. Around the unit, he’s not only known for his work ethic. They also call him “the wastefulness police.”
“A lot of people don’t understand,” said Kollie while sitting at a picnic table in a small, wooden hut on a hot summer night. “Where I’m from, you just can’t waste stuff, because you don’t have it. Like I was telling my sergeant today, someone said ‘that food’s been sitting over there for a while, it’s not good anymore,’ and I told him I was going to eat it, because there were days in the camps when you knew the food wasn’t good, but you had to make it. You had to eat it, or you weren’t going to eat at all. If you didn’t, you were done for that day. That’s how hard it was.”
“Kollie expresses where he came from in his everyday work ethic,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Frank Knox, of Charleston, S.C. “Kollie is a born leader in my eyes. He’s expressed that many times. When he comes to work, he’s on a mission, he goes straight to it. He’ll look around for problems, and he finds initiative. You don’t see that a lot anymore.”
Soldiers deployed to Afghanistan for a year get 15 days of non-chargeable leave and a plane ticket to just about anywhere in the world they want to go. Amidst supervisor concerns for his safety, Kollie was allowed to return to Liberia this year to visit his family.
On his way there, his father, who had returned to Liberia, suffered a stroke and died. His ex-wife had died a month before, said Kollie, and everyone felt like that was the end for him. After all the family had been through, he said, his father was just tired.
“At first I was scared when I went back [to Liberia] because I didn’t know what to expect, but I met a lot of people who were proud of what I’d done so far,” said Kollie. “They told me how brave I was. I’m like, you know, I had to do what I had to do, and I’m loving it- I get paid to go to the range and shoot weapons. A lot of people I left a long, long time ago were excited for me, and it felt good to go back.”
His dreams don’t involve returning to his home country, though. Kollie says he’s just begun to live the life he’d always dreamed of, and although he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, there’s still more to accomplish.
“Like I’m always telling people, five years ago to this day, I was still in a refugee camp, and I didn’t know where the first meal was going to come from,” he said, looking down at the table. He gathered himself, and looking up, said “I want to establish a family in the United States, and my dream is to give my family what I didn’t have. I want them to live a better life than what I lived, because my entire youth was taken away through hardship.”