One man’s journey from refugee to Soldier

Story by Staff Sgt. Matthew Winstead, U.S. Army Alaska

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Samuel Banks, a survivor from a Liberian refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, holds up the only things he had with him when he was forced to flee his home country of Liberia, when rebels led by the extremist Charles Taylor invaded from the north and purged entire cities of their citizens. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Winstead, U.S. Army Alaska)

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – His peers have called him the “happiest man in the Army,” even though the tragic events of his early life have given him more than enough reasons to be bitter.

Currently serving as the material management officer for U.S. Army Alaska, the positive and energetic Chief Warrant Officer 3 Samuel Banks hasn’t always been as comfortable or respected. In fact, there were days he wasn’t even sure he would see another sunrise.

Banks is a naturalized citizen, something that you only begin to notice once you speak with the exuberant and good-natured Soldier as he goes about his daily routine.

His accent provides only a faint hint of his existence in 1990-era Liberia, where an army of violent rebels, led by recently convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, invaded from the north and changed his life forever.

“I believe it was Christmas Eve in 1989 when we first heard that rebels had invaded the northern border of Liberia, but the government quickly announced that they had repelled the invasion and there was no further need for worry. This was untrue,” said Banks, recalling the beginning of the tragic events that would soon unfold.

Banks and his family found out the rebels had not been beaten and pushed back — they were advancing at an alarming pace toward the capital Monrovia where he and his family made their home.

On the morning of the attack, he was awoke to the sound of artillery and rocket fire, despite the false reassurances of the government.

“The sound of weapons fire started around 5 or 6 in the morning and woke up everyone,” Banks said.

He and his family were forced from their homes under the guns of advancing rebel forces, who were systematically forcing evacuations with the thinly veiled intent of looting the abandoned houses and killing anyone with political or government connections.

“Prior to the invasion, the rebels had sent people into the major cities to get jobs as government workers. Once hired, they gathered information on people to target within the organizations and memorized the tactical lay of the land,” Banks said. “By the time they actually started their invasion, they already knew who to kill and probably knew the terrain of the area better than the actual Liberian army. When they came to us, they said we were being removed for only 72 hours for security reasons.

“That was the last time I ever saw my home.”

A grim journey 

The ousted citizens were forced into massive single-file lines and marched north out of town, deeper into rebel-controlled territory. All the while violent rebels drove vehicles up and down the lines, looking for people they recognized as having government affiliations and executing them on sight.

“They would kill people in barbaric ways right in front of us … even their own families. They used chainsaws to decapitate people and hammers to bludgeon others. It wasn’t uncommon to see decaying bodies or skeletal remains as we walked in these single-file lines.” Banks said.

All he and his family had with them were the clothes on their backs, something many in his family would later get rid of in an attempt to forget the days when they marched under the threat of almost certain death. But Banks kept his as a reminder that even in desperate times, there is always a reason to hope.

Eventually, the group came to a closed U.S. Naval base where they were able to take refuge for a few days. Base Omega had been shut down at the beginning of the tension earlier that year and the facility was locked up. With no way to access the buildings that had once housed U.S. military members and their families, the Bankses lived on the front porches of military housing units for about a week before the rebels discovered their makeshift camps and looted the installation.

Banks and his family fled into the forest surrounding Omega, and after days without food, soon found themselves forced back into single-file lines on the roads as their only alternative to starvation. There they learned that the rebels had broken into smaller factions after squabbling over power, and had begun a more desperate search for former military and government workers.

“They were making us remove our shoes and looking at our bare feet to look for the signs that constant boot wearing leaves on a soldier’s feet. If you had the (callous) marks they took you into the woods and you were never seen again,” he said.

At this point in the journey, three rebels approached Banks’ father and took him into the woods for a shakedown. The rebels wanted money, and if he wasn’t able to pay, there would be little chance of him ever emerging from the trees.

“My father was a computer analyst for one of the government offices, and they took him away for money. They ordered us to continue without him, so we had no choice but to keep walking, but we purposefully moved slower and lingered in the area until we were sure we would never see him again. During this time all we could do was pray and recite the 23rd Psalm.” Banks said.

The prayer did not go unanswered. With only one American quarter in his pocket there was little chance of his father ever returning to them alive. But something else in his wallet made even the rebels think long and hard about killing the elder Banks: a North Carolina driver’s license.

“In Liberia, America and Americans are greatly respected. We trace the beginnings of the country to America and based our constitution and flag off of the American ones. So thinking my father was a citizen of the U.S. made at least one of the men there reconsider killing him that day,” Banks said.

That moment of hesitation was enough. The rebels released his father after a beating and instructed him to fall back into the single-file line, at least one of them promising to kill him later. After his release, Banks’ father caught up with the others, and swapped his clothing with those of his son’s fiancée, Banks’ future wife Garmai, in an effort to better disguise his appearance.

Eventually, the rebel presence lessened and they began to travel in smaller groups and forage food from the forest to survive. Boiled and crushed roots, bark and leaves provided the majority of their nutrition, while news came by word of mouth from new refugees they encountered on the road. Soon, the rebels’ tactics turned even more brutal as they began pressing captured fighting age males into their numbers and raping the women they encountered.

Banks and his 37-person group hid in the wooded areas to avoid the rebels, and survived primarily on a diet of foraged foods and whatever sugar cane they could glean from the abandoned fields almost three hours and several river crossings away.

“When my brother and I made our trips to the sugar cane fields we would have to cross at least one river that was neck deep with 100 to 150 pounds of sugar cane on our heads. Another river we had to cross over a fallen tree that was only this wide (Banks held his hands roughly 7 inches apart), and the water was moving so fast that if you were to fall in, you were gone. Just gone,” Banks said.

They were situated outside the Liberian town of Kakata, where there was a strong presence of Lebanese businesses that could afford to bribe the rebels. This did not make things any safer for Banks and his group however, so they remained mostly in seclusion, even when the rebels began to break up into still smaller factions and again changed their methods. They began attempting to soften their image by offering food assistance in the form of small bags of rice to the displaced Liberians.

The Banks family gathers together in his office for a group photo following their recent reunion with his wife’s mother and just prior to his next deployment to Afghanistan. From left to right, his wife, Garmai Banks; his son, Samuel David Banks; his mother-in-law, Kula Deddeh Roberts, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Samuel Banks; and his 1-year-old son, Titus Banks. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Winstead, U.S. Army Alaska)

Members of the group added potato greens, a dark, leafy vegetable similar to collards, to augment their meager daily rations of rice. The greens also boosted their iron levels, which was crucial, as many of their people were becoming sick from blood loss, minimal medical care and poor nutrition.

While the rebels continued to try to improve their image, they also began trading stolen raw gold and diamonds in exchange for goods like cigarettes and other commodities, with the Lebanese in Kakata.

Several of the businessmen developed a degree of trust with the refugees and it was one of these men, dating a woman in Banks’ group, who eventually helped them cross the border into the Ivory Coast (officially known as The Republic of Côte d’Ivoire). The man instructed her to tell the group to wait; he didn’t return for three weeks.

“This was a very stressful time for us because we assumed he would be back that day, or the next at the very latest. But when he didn’t come back for those three weeks, we thought he had abandoned us,” Banks said.

Across the border 

The group endured one more night in life-threatening danger, literally within sight of the safety of another country, before finally crossing into the Ivory Coast and to Danane, where a refugee settlement was forming.

Although it was their first time in one established location after 90 days of wandering and hiding in the woods of Liberia, there was little reason to relax.

“The Ivory Coast wasn’t following the U.N. guidance for the aid and assistance for the goods they provided us. Most of the aid intended for Liberian refugees was captured by the local government and sold back to us at increased costs, even the goods still in the original packages bearing the U.S. and U.N. symbols and the word ‘Gift’ printed on them,” Banks said.

Under the assumption that most Liberian refugees had wealthy American relatives who funded their escape, local Ivory Coast merchants also charged increased rates for merchandise, according to Banks.

“Liberia was founded by English-speaking people, and the Ivory Coast by the French. When we arrived unable to speak French they would charge us $5 for something they charged a local 25 cents for,” Banks said.

The country’s government was also causing troubles for the refugees, refusing to even grant them official refugee status and instead labeling them as “guests.”

Banks and the other Liberians quickly found themselves being charged large amounts for the “rent” of their camps and other costs associated with their stay in the country. With a need to find some sort of paying work, Banks and other members of his group started working for a Catholic compound that hired as many refugees as it could afford to clean, farm and kill snakes.

“That was the first time I ever saw a two-headed snake!” Banks said.

The Ivory Coast was also where Banks would see constant shipments of illegal artillery move into Liberia by night. These weapons were just part of the illegally purchased munitions flowing into the war-torn nation he once called home. For the next three years, he spent his time there with other members of his family, paying for their stay, learning French and teaching at a high school. It was also where his first son, Baldwin Banks died at only 18 months from the poor conditions.

“There were some very … hard times,” Banks said, still bearing the emotions of the loss.

But after three long, hard years in a Liberian refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, Banks and his family were eventually able to leave Africa and come to the United States.

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program and Catholic Social Services worked together to help Liberians who met the program’s specifications come to the United States. Banks’ family arrived in America nearly three years after their ordeal in Liberia began.

Banks recalled in vivid detail a dream he had that not only predicted the announcement of his impending departure, but deeply reaffirmed his faith.

“It was a dream, one of those that leaves you questioning if it was real or just a dream or not. I woke up and told my mother that in my dream the list of approved immigrants had been released and that our names were written on it in ink. Something about it stood out in my mind that I couldn’t forget. Later that day, chaos erupted in the camp when the list actually was released and there on the bottom under all of the other names that were typed, there was our names – hand written and in ink,” Banks said with a smile. “All of God’s work happens for a reason.”

However, not all of the people in Banks’ family were able to make the trip. Due to the wording of the laws that governed the resettlement program, Banks had to leave his fiancée and second 1-month-old son, Samuel David Banks, in the refugee camp for an additional three years while he worked in the United States. He regularly sent her money and provided for them as he looked for a legal way to reunite his family.

“It was hard because many times the money I sent was stolen before they could get it. It would just get stolen somewhere along the way and my wife would have to call me and tell me ‘No, we didn’t get the money you sent,’” Banks said.

A family reunited 

During his stay in America, Banks worked as an airport security officer in Charlotte, N.C., and as a baker. He also joined the National Guard, which eventually led to active-duty Army.

Banks was able to travel back to the refugee camp as a Soldier on leave and married his fiancée in 1995. The following year, his wife and child were officially reunited with him when he was stationed in Germany.

There were some issues when his wife began her travel from Africa to Europe. Customs and control agents at her point of origin didn’t want to let her leave the country, but her U.S. military orders authorizing her to accompany her husband immediately opened doors. They were escorted from gate to gate at every stop, until they finally reached their new duty assignment together: Soldier, wife and child.

“I’m just glad they got there,” Banks said. “My luggage was lost when I was assigned to Germany and I never got it back. I arrived with only what I had on my back — again,” Banks said with a chuckle.

While the Army has provided much to Banks and his family, he admits military service wasn’t his first choice, especially considering the war and violence he had escaped. However, he has done everything he can to give back to the country that embraced him and his loved ones, and his tireless commitment to excellence doesn’t go unnoticed.

Tim Leigh, the equipment reset officer with USARAK G-4 who shares the office with Banks, speaks highly of him.

“(Banks) appreciates every day,” Leigh said. “If you went through half of the things he did, you would too.”

In addition to the hardships he mentioned before, Banks also recalled several close calls with Liberian rebels and even the heartbreaking loss of his wife’s father, whose body they were unable to recover due to the chaos of their forced displacement.

“During those times, my father-in-law was killed and they left his body in the street, where the dogs ate him. Later, the rebels would come in and kill and eat the dogs. It was madness,” Banks said in a rare moment of sorrow. “But you know what? God does what is best, and I have helped so many people since I arrived here by just being positive despite my past. I’m happy for that and very thankful.”

Banks often tells others that he is no different than anyone else. He firmly believes that prayer works, adding that he is living, breathing proof of that.

When asked if there was anything else that he would like people to learn from his experience, he smiled and said, “Even disappointment is a blessing.”

Sometimes, the blessings come at just the right time with no sorrow attached. Within the last few weeks, the Banks family was happy to welcome another member of their family back into the fold.

Kula Deddeh Roberts, his mother-in-law, whom he hadn’t seen since 1995, finally arrived in the United States and will live with them here in Alaska. This comes at a particularly good time, as Banks is preparing for a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.

“It has taken us many years to get my mother-in-law here with us, but she made it and we are very happy she is here with us,” Banks said, smiling warmly at his wife and mother in law. “And just in time, so I can go to Afghanistan knowing everything is good here.”

With his mother-in-law now home and his eldest son, Samuel, eyeing college options, Banks happily tells people that even now, standing at the beginning of a deployment, he has found many reasons to smile.

  • Isiah Johnson

    I don’t know what brought me to this page but I’m happy I open it. I’m a black man that live in the south until I join the Army in 1967.

    I’m proud of your accomplishment, I wish that our people that are throwing their life away follow your foot steps and be all they can. I trust in God always and know that if you trust in him he will see you through, it happen to me.

    God bless you and family always,

    Isiah Johnson

  • Juan R. Rodriguez

    This once again continues to show the transforming power for good of our beloved USA and our Army!
    I am also a naturalized American Citizen who joined the Army at 16 and the service to my new country also transformed my life from the misery of communism to freedom, security, peace and prosperity.

    GOD BLESS AMERICA AND OUR ARMY INDEED!

  • winona Ogunlana

    Wonderful Story, it touched my heart.

  • Denise Lee

    God works in ways unknown to man! I’m so glad I found this story. Continuous blessings to you, your family, and the United States Army!

  • Mahasin Beyah

    Brother,

    I dont know how, but I was guided to this page and read this story. May God continue to bless you and your family…. I was deaply moved by your will and faith to keep moving forward……from the heart…stay blessed. I am pround to serve with you my brother. The Army does not realize how many truly blessed men and women that serve.

  • Austin L. Coy

    I’m not sure what to say other than wow the sacrifice and the hardships endured to escape the violence and get to America. I’m 18 years old and planning to join after I graduate and I am glad to have you on my side I don’t think I’ll get the honor of meeting you but I thank you for what you have done the sacrifices you have made.