New citizen shares his story

A young man who escaped warfare and hardship in West Africa reflects on the journey that brought him to American citizenship. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

September 22, 2015

Four days before Abdul Kamara was born in 1991, his country fell into civil war. The war for control of the West African country of Sierra Leone lasted nearly 11 years, killed nearly 50,000 people, and shaped the childhood of the 23-year-old Adams State student who just became an American citizen. Abdul and 18 other immigrants traveled to Four Corners National Monument to take the Oath of Allegiance to become American citizens on September 15.

Life in America meant a fresh start for Abdul, who grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, in a five-story house that was occasionally near the epicenter of bloody battles between government forces and rebel militias vying for power and territory.

“Our house was in the middle of the war,” said Abdul, a gregarious young man with an easy smile, sitting in a sparse apartment on the Adams State campus. “It was at the intersection of five major roads, the only place from which you could go in different directions. It was the tallest house in the area. You can’t really miss it.”

The conflict began in 1991 when former army corporal Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front militia waged war on President Joseph Momoh, eventually toppling the one-party government, but installing a weak leadership that would see multiple coups over the next several years. The war started in the villages and suburbs outside Freetown, but eventually made its way into the metropolis. By the late nineties, rebels were closing in on Abdul’s home.

“They came and burned houses and cut people’s hands off. They would take little kids. I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t abducted. They became child soldiers.“

Abdul’s father, a retired defense minister, was a high-profile target of the rebels, and fled the house, leaving Abdul’s mom in charge. The five-story home was a landmark to locals, and his mom took in terrified neighbors by the dozen, until the house was packed with 400 people, sleeping shoulder to shoulder in every available space.

“It was a good place to hide,” Abdul said. “My mom didn’t like to say no to anybody.”

When the rebels’ door-to-door looting of houses brought them to Abdul’s, the militia was shocked by the scores of people inside.

“They didn’t know who to start to kill,” Abdul said. “There was this guy in the area, we called him Balegu. He used to sell drugs to the rebels. The rebels were ready to kill everyone in the house, but Balegu was there. They said to him, ‘Oh, sorry! You stay here? C’mon, give us some drugs. You’ll be fine.’”

“They became friends with our house. But they went next door, and they killed the whole family. I knew them, we grew up together. One of them got away, but they shot him in the leg.”

The Nigerian army arrived to push rebel forces out of Freetown. When the Nigerians reached the five-way intersection near Abdul’s home, the rebels - who knew the city’s layout - ambushed them from behind. Two panicked Nigerian soldiers clambered over the fence surrounding Abdul’s home, and his family stripped them of their uniforms and gave them civilian clothes. The soldiers were still recognizable, though, by telltale tribal markings carved into their faces.

Rebels invaded the home, searching for the soldiers. Abdul’s family hid the pair between a mattress and the wood slats underneath. Neighbors sat on the mattress while the rebels hunted before leaving empty-handed.

“If they had found we were hiding soldiers, they would have killed everyone.”

While searching the house, the rebels got excited by the number of young women hiding there, and returned that night and lined up all 400 people in the street.

“They put flashlights in our faces. They went down the line. They took my sister and five other girls.”

Over the next couple days, the scores of neighbors drifted away.

“After they took the girls, it was like there was no more hope.”

Two days after the abduction was Eid al-Fitr, the joyous feast day at the end of the solemn Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The rebels returned with the girls.

“They were blessing my mom. They said, ‘Oh, thank you mother!’ Then they made her cook a feast for them. They dropped off the girls, they ate, and they left. As soon as my mom shut the gate, bullets started flying everywhere.”

The Nigerians launched a colossal counterattack, utilizing jets and armored cars. Although the civil war would not end for several more years, the rebels were pushed out of the city.

With the declaration of peace in 2002, Abdul started school, but Freetown remained in shambles. Refugees flooded in from the devastated countryside. Hunger and theft ran rampant.

“A lot of people went mad,” Abdul said. “The rebels did so many drugs that they just went crazy. Heroin, cocaine, whatever they could get. You might see someone on the street who killed your family members. You’d just have to forgive them, because they were on drugs. We moved on from the civil war. I don’t know how we were so strong. I saw so much death; I just had to get over it. When your time comes, it comes.”

Soccer became a popular diversion for the war-weary.

“There was lots of gambling on soccer games,” said Abdul. “I knew literally every team in Europe. People believed in me. I was just a kid, but older guys would come to me for scores and stats. They’d say ‘Who’s going to win?’”

Abdul’s mom traveled to her sister’s graduation at Denver University in 2005 and filed for asylum for her family. Abdul arrived in Colorado in January 2006, a bewildered 14-year-old catapulted from his war-torn tropical homeland to a frigid Denver winter.

“It was so cold,” Abdul said. “The kind of cold that hits your bones.”

Abdul started school three days after arriving. He had no trouble making friends.

“I’m a friendly guy. I talked a lot even though my accent was bad. People would make fun of me, but we’d just laugh and keep going.”

Abdul graduated George Washington High School in 2010. He came to Adams State because it was the cheapest option, and a friend already attending the school persuaded him to come. He’s a junior marketing major.

Ironically, for Kamara, American citizenship may mean a chance to travel back to his homeland.

“It feels good to have my American citizenship. Now I can travel the world. When I just had my African passport, I needed a visa to visit other countries. I don’t need a visa anymore.”

“I miss Sierra Leone so much. I want to go back and help. My people aren’t exposed to the world. I want to teach them how to use electronics. That’s the key to everything.”

“Everyone in Sierra Leone is just thinking about how to get food today. They don’t care what’s going to happen tomorrow. In America, people always look to the future. That’s the mentality I want people to get into.”

Abdul says he doesn’t necessarily think of himself as an American or a Sierra Leonean, but as a human.

“We’re not different because of skin tone or where you’re born. If you bleed, I bleed. When I hear people here complain, I just laugh. Just be thankful for whatever you have, or wherever you’re at. Because no matter how bad it gets for you, there’s somebody out there who has it worse.”

“For me, nothing is a big deal anymore. I have seen worse. I have seen my people kill each other. You mocking me, I don’t care. What does that prove? I’ve got to keep moving. I can’t pay attention to you trying to put me down. Even if you make fun of me, I’ll just make fun of you back. We’re all human beings. We can’t hate each other. We’ve got to help each other out to move forward.”