Home and Back Again—A Student’s Journey to Liberia

Sam LankahHe wasn’t sure exactly why, but Trinity senior Samuel Lankah ’13 knew in his heart it was time to go back home.

Born in Liberia, Sam was a baby when his family fled the country in 1990 to escape the grip of one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars, a war that would last until 2003, displace millions, and take the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians.

Although the country was still in turmoil years later, the Lankahs returned to live in their village. When the Lankahs once again left Liberia for the Ivory Coast in 1995, Sam took with him a few years of memories of planting rice and being surrounded by family. He and his mother and eight siblings said goodbye again not only to grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, but also to Sam’s father who left for America.

“I have been an immigrant for more years than I spent in my homeland,” said Sam, who moved to the States with this mother, five brothers, and a sister in 2001, finally reuniting with Sam’s father and starting another new life. “You learn to rely on family a lot. They are all you have.” Along with a strong faith.

“Through it all, it was evident that God was still there,” said Sam. “In every situation, we counted on him, as well as on our church, for support.”

View PhotogalleryAs he acclimated to life in America, first in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, then in Warrenville, Sam said he always felt the need to return to Liberia someday—to connect, to help. So during high school, he began to collect schools supplies, visiting churches to share the need of children in Liberia. That effort continued even as he entered Trinity.

He said he hadn’t considered Trinity as an option until he met Jose Dominguez ’03, men’s soccer coach and recruiter. “Coach Dominguez had a similar story, because he’d come from Mexico,” said Sam. “We connected, and I wanted to know more.”

After a chance to play some soccer, Sam said he fell in love with Trinity’s campus. He also had the opportunity to meet a fellow Liberian, Koyah Bleah ’12. “When I heard his name,” Sam recalled, “I realized I knew his family. His father was the principal at the first school I ever attended in Liberia.”

Sam decided Trinity would be his next new “home.” He applied with plans to major in exercise science and was offered the Greater Chicago Christian Leadership Scholarship, a four-year renewable grant that covers tuition costs for students from underrepresented populations who have demonstrated academic excellence, leadership, and Christian commitment.

He has spent the past three years heavily involved on and off campus, playing soccer for two years, serving as Student Association president (2011-12) and as a teaching assistant in the College’s Bridge program, participating in Interim and spring break service projects, working in Admissions, volunteering at a local animal shelter, and interning at a physical therapy facility.

“I am inspired by this community and what it does in terms of service,” Sam said.

But the ministry he said God laid on his heart never waned, and when Sam returned to Monrovia, Liberia, this spring after 16 years, he was “greeted” by the school supplies he had collected over the years, generously shipped by United Liberia Inland Church Associates and Friends, an organization started by Liberian refugees in the States, including Sam’s father and Koyah’s father.

Sam visited six orphanages, three schools, and one two-year college, speaking to classes and handing out school supplies. “I wanted to do something small,” he said. That “small” effort provided notebooks, pencils, erasers, and even Troll stickers, to more than 300 students and faculty. “I hoped that the school supply ministry would encourage the children to keep up with their studies. The civil wars devastated families, and like my experience, set the students back in their education.”

Sam also spent his seven weeks reconnecting with his two sisters, who had returned to Liberia years prior, and with his grandmother and his grandfather, who is 105. “My grandfather told me stories for hours and was so happy that he danced around the house for days.

He visited aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the village where his father came from. “It was like the prodigal son returning,” said Sam. “The people were so hospitable.”

But Sam was also blessed to have the opportunity to make another visit, though a difficult one. While he was in Liberia, he learned of the untimely death of Koyah’s mother. Koyah was unable to return home, but Sam visited the family, hoping to bring comfort to Koyah’s father and sister. “I look up to Koyah,” said Sam. “We have stayed friends since my first visit to Trinity, and he is an inspiration to me.”

Sam said he’ll go back home again someday. “I have a heart to serve God. If I could take just one thing from Trinity, it would be a service mentality,” he said. He prays that through his recent trip, God will open doors for his school supply ministry to grow and that others who hear his story will be inspired to “stay close to family” and to “go back home.”