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Liberian Immigrant in the U.S. Navy - 2002-06-27

English Programs Feature #7-36453 Broadcast July 1, 2002

A young man leaves war-torn Liberia for America, and a year later finds himself a seaman in the U.S. Navy. We have his story today on New American Voices.

“When I came to America I really did not have any intention of joining the military. First of all when I was in school in Liberia I used to be a free-lance writer… and then because of their record--in Africa the military were crooks and all those things--and I really couldn’t associate myself with the military. But when I came to America life was so hard, you know…”

Twenty-five-year-old Nvasekie Konneh was an aspiring writer and a student at Zion Community College in Monrovia in 1995 when he won a green card in the diversity visa lottery, and came to the United States as a permanent resident. His hopes of becoming a journalist here were soon dashed – at least for the time being - by the necessity of earning a living. His first job in New York was washing cars, his second mopping floors and shelving goods in a grocery store. He was desperately looking for something better.

“I was walking on 125th street in Harlem one day, and I saw a sign in the window, ‘we’re now hiring”. So to me it was any type of job, so I went in there, and saw a military person, and I said ‘I’m looking for a job’. He said ‘okay, I got a job here’. And I asked what kind of a job it was, and he said, ‘the military’. And I said ‘oh, no, I don’t do that, and besides, I don’t even have an American citizenship.’ And he said, ‘no, if you have resident papers, it’s no problem, we can take you, you can join the navy’. If I had a better job at the moment, I wasn’t going to join the military, but because I really had no choice, so I decided to give it a try.”

Not long after this Nvasekie Konneh was in boot camp in the American Midwest, undergoing three months of basic training. At first, the going was rough for this recent immigrant from Africa.

“Psychologically it was difficult. Because joining the military and going through the training is a whole different situation, you know. Because you’re going to be meeting different, different people from all parts of America that you’re going to go into training with, you know, a lot of young people, and it was really, really hard for me to adjust to that situation. But I said, ‘man, look, I have to adjust to this, I‘m already here, you know, going back home it’s going to be a failure’, and I adjusted, and I went through training, and it was positive for me in the end."

Part of the problem was the attitude of some of the other new recruits toward Mr. Konneh. He says that while the recruiters and officers bent over backwards to treat everybody equally, this was not necessarily true of his fellow-soldiers.

“The other people, you know, they treated me differently. Even some African-Americans that were there treated me differently, as somebody who came from somewhere else. The stereotype of African people is that you’re not up-to-date, you don’t know anything. Because people are used to watching so much negative stuff about Africa on TV, listening to it on the radio, in magazines, newpapers. So that’s the mentality people have of you. They ask you about chimpanzees, about lions, about all these wild animals, and you say, ‘man, I don’t know anything about those’, and they say ‘but you’re from Africa’. So they categorize you as being some kind of sub-human. So on a daily basis you have to prove to them that you’re not what they think you are. But at the end of the day people really accepted me for what I was.”

After boot camp, Nvasekie Konneh was assigned to duty on the ship - the USS Detroit. For two years he was a regular seaman – standing watches, tying the ship to the pier when it docked, swabbing decks. Then, to improve his situation, he took – and on the third try passed - the Navy’s test to be a storekeeper. That became his job for the next two years, still on board the USS Detroit. He says that on shipboard, he had no problem with discrimination.

“The military has done a better job of accommodating people of different backgrounds than the whole society itself in America. Yeah, for individual members, yeah, they can be discriminated against, but when it comes to promotion, when it comes to opportunity, when it comes to everything you’re supposed to enjoy as a member of the military there’s no discrimination.”

After four years at sea, Nvasekie Konneh is now a Second Class Petty Officer assigned to shore duty in the Eastern American city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia and I drive to work every morning. I have a house – I used my veteran’s loan from the Veterans’ Administration to buy a house, you get a house for no down-payment.”

Mr. Konneh has enrolled in college, using the Navy’s tuition assistance program, and hopes to study journalism, to realize his dream of becoming a writer. In his spare time Nvasekie Konneh writes poems, short stories and feature articles for magazines. In his writing he often returns to Africa where his extended family of over a hundred members still lives. Listen as he reads an excerpt from his poem, “Africa Must Be Free.”

“Africa must be free from the crippling disease of ignorance that has kept us down for so long.

Africa must be free from the tyrants and tyrannical leadership that is sentencing us to the inescapable dungeons of poverty.

Africa must be free to love and embrace each other as the soul brothers and sisters that they are.”

To hear Nvasekie Konneh recite the complete poem, visit our links.