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Family reunites after four years apart

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Erin McClellan
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kansas – When asked what he would be willing to sacrifice for the good of his family. Airman 1st Class Messan Atayi can say four years. That’s how long it took him to reunite with his wife, and a daughter who he had never met.

Atayi, an Individual Equipment journeyman with the 22nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, moved to the United States from the Togolese Republic, Africa, in 2013 in hopes of building a better future. Earlier this year, he was finally able to reunite with his family at McConnell AFB.

Atayi said he had hoped to see his daughter just once before he departed for an uncertain future in America, but after postponing his flight twice, he finally had to leave.

“I waited forever to see my baby be born, but she never came,” he said. “I moved to the states finally because I postponed my ticket two times, and they already charged me, and then when I left she was born three days later. I just missed it.”

Atayi moved to the United States after being selected for a government program that allowed him to receive a green card and, ultimately, a U.S. citizenship. Using his master’s degree in geography, he lived and worked in Illinois for two years before deciding to join the Air Force.

“I think it’s really great to be serving in the Air Force and to learn from it,” said Atayi. “I didn’t join because of education — I already have my education — and I didn’t want a really good paycheck. I was paid more where I used to work, but I quit. I want to do what I’m doing now. I put on my uniform every day knowing that I am going to put my best foot forward and give 110 percent because there is someone, somewhere counting on me.”

The fact that he only got a handful of vacation days at his previous job and the chaos of joining the military meant Atayi wasn’t able to return to Togo to visit his family. Once he arrived at McConnell in April 2016, he started the process that would bring them to the United States. He didn’t realize it would still be more than a year until he would see them.

One of the most significant roadblocks was that U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services denied the application, claiming Atayi didn’t have sufficient income to support his family. He worked with his leadership and the base career assistance advisor to correct the issue, but it ultimately extended the amount of time the visa process took.

Being apart from his family made it very difficult to bond with his daughter, Aina.

“It was kind of tough, especially with my baby, because I wasn’t there to watch her first steps in life,” he said. “The only time I could see how she looked was when I got some pictures or during [video calls], and I couldn’t even talk to her because she couldn’t talk. We never had that physical contact.”

Atayi met his family at the airport after they traveled for nearly 24 hours to get to Wichita. As a way to celebrate, he brought ice cream to share.

“I had really intense feelings to finally see my daughter, grab her and share my ice cream with her,” he said. “It felt like an accomplishment because the whole process was so tough.”

Now they’re finally together, and he’s realized it’s going to be tough for all of them to adapt to the new lifestyle.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out now,” he explained. “I’ve been with her for a week, and she prefers her mom over me. She used to see me on the screen and that’s all, but now I can see her, I can touch her, I can play with her and I can hang out with her. I know it will take time for her to get used to me and for me to be that good dad she can go to.”

The family may face challenges along the way, but they are finally able to really begin their life together.

“My wife does not speak much English, but she is very excited to bring our family together, find a job and become an American Citizen,” said Atayi. “I hope I will be a good dad and husband.”

Airmen and leadership in Atayi’s squadron were there for him during his fight to bring his family here, supporting him by offering support and help whenever he needed it. Senior Master Sgt. Vinetta Paige, 22nd LRS superintendent, accompanied him to the airport when they arrived.

"I was honored to witness Atayi's reunion with his wife, not to mention his initial meeting with his beautiful daughter,” said Paige. “I know he has enjoyed his time here at McConnell, but now that his family arrived, it will feel more like home.”