It was just one month ago that Ahmad Kamara was living in his home country of Liberia, rarely eating more than rice and struggling to live in a fractured nation on the mend. On Aug. 11, as 25 friends and family members saw him off, he boarded an airplane bound for the United States.
His destination was a far cry from Liberia’s capital of Monrovia, an impoverished city of 1.5 million. Now Kamara lives on a small farm in Palouse, Wash., with a friend he met while driving fire trucks for the United Nations. His mission in the United States: gain limitless experiences as he job-shadows the Pullman Fire Department.
Kamara left behind his wife and 3-month-old son in Monrovia to learn a new way of life and, he hopes, eventually bring them here. Kamara misses them and they miss him, but he said his wife, Mamieyan, wants him to stay in the U.S. to forge a better life for them all.
“If you have family and you come to the United States, they are happy,” Kamara said Thursday, bouncing in the cab of Pullman’s pump-and-ladder truck as it rumbled home from a false alarm.
Back at Station No. 1, he pulled up photographs of his family on a crew-room computer. There he stood, robed in colorful African garments, with Mamieyan and their son, Abraham, who is named after Kamara’s father. The picture, he said, was taken the day he left Liberia.
In Liberia, where a decade ago rebels were slaughtering and raping villagers, it is an enormous privilege to travel to the United States.
“Life is very different in Liberia, to be frank,” Kamara said. “It’s very different, especially if you have responsibility. You have to know someone to get a job there.”
Having attended first-aid school after high school, Kamara landed a firefighting job at the Monrovia airport, from which the U.N. flying supplies to rural areas. . He was supposed to be paid $380 a month, but once his paycheck was sifted through the Liberia Domestic Airport Agency, he saw $150.
While working there, he befriended Mike Carlton, a former Pullman police officer working this summer as a fire chief for the U.N.’s Liberia complex. Carlton, who said he sensed Kamara’s strong work ethic, got Kamara a second job driving fire engines for the United Nations, netting him $445 a month.
“We fell into a conversation and he said he wanted to come” to America, Carlton said.
Carlton, who has connections in Pullman from his years as a firefighter, set up the job shadow.
Kamara passed up a raise – to more than $700 a month – so he could shadow American firefighters, something for which he would not be paid.
“I had to decide whether to stay and forego the job, or whether to come learn new things.”
In one month, he has learned multitudes, he said. And not just firefighting and medical techniques – he has been slowly picking up on American culture, which he said is far more respectful and welcoming than present-day Liberia.
“Our fire department there is not exposed to many good things, like working relationship,” Kamara said. “Our firefighters are not well-respected.”
In Liberia, he never had a fire uniform; when Kamara stepped into Station No. 1, Pullman commanders gave him his own uniform and bunker gear.
“I was proud. I was very happy,” he said.
Kamara can only help with chores and crowd control. Working 24-hour shifts three days a week, he sleeps at the fire station and has participated in some training sessions, said Pullman senior firefighter Chris Wehrung. But Kamara is not licensed to man hoses or perform CPR.
“He’s actually helping us out by telling us what it’s like to fight fires in another country,” said Wehrung, who was the commanding officer Thursday.
The biggest difference, Wehrung said, is the superior condition of U.S. firefighting equipment.
Liberia also lacks fire education and prevention, Kamara said. Because many homes do not have electricity, people burn candles, and those start a lot of fires. Most of the country’s wildfires are caused by cigarettes, he said.
Kamara’s fire department was not allowed to fight a blaze just 10 feet from airport property, because it was out of their jurisdiction. Instead, crews were dispatched from about 10 miles away, and two people were killed, Kamara said.
Liberia is still recovering from a violent civil war from 1989 to 1996. In 1990, Kamara’s family had a farm in rural Bong County, but he went to Monrovia for high school. When the war escalated, he went to stay with his brother in Guinea. When he returned three years later to his six other siblings, his mother told him of the violence rebels had brought upon the family.
They raped Kamara’s mother. They raped one of his sisters. They shot Abraham and slit his throat, throwing his body into a river like so many other Liberians.
“They don’t have graves,” Kamara said through tears. “The grave is the river.”
It is not a subject he likes to talk about. Now 34, his focus is his family and future.
Because he doesn’t get paid at the Pullman Fire Department, he can’t send home money. His wife hopes to become a taxi driver in Liberia.
Living on Carlton’s farm, he’s learning cattle husbandry and how to run an orchard.
“Fortunately, he’s an easy keeper,” Carlton said. “He comes from a place that doesn’t have a lot, so he doesn’t ask much.”
Carlton said he also plans to take Kamara to California and to teach him about the U.S. court system. He’s already taken Kamara to Seattle and Montana. In Missoula, Kamara watched his first American football game.
On Thursday, Kamara walked through a newly renovated Martin Stadium in Pullman as the firefighters prepared for tonight’s Cougar football game.
“It’s fun being around here,” he said. “Lots of good people around here. A good area around here.”
Kamara considers everything he does in the United States as an opportunity, from shadowing the Fire Department to working on Carlton’s farm to eating his new favorite food, pizza. Most of his friends are Pullman firefighters. “They love me,” he said.
Kamara’s travel visa is good until January. He wants to work and make enough money to fly over Mamieyan and Abraham, but that might take a couple more years of experience.
“I’m happy I’m learning new things,” he said. “Not many people are as fortunate.”