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Airmen support refugees within local community

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
He left behind a wife and unborn daughter for the opportunity to live in America, with the dream of making a better life for his family.

Airman 1st Class Messan Atayi, 22nd Logistics Readiness Squadron mobility Airman, was born and raised in the African country of Togo. He immigrated to the United States in 2013 and joined the Air Force, with the hope of one day bringing his family here to join him.

When Atayi arrived at McConnell Air Force Base and went through the First Term Airman’s Center program, he ran into a few problems navigating services on base. Noticing that Atayi seemed frustrated, Senior Master Sgt. David Smith, 22nd Force Support Squadron career assistance advisor, quickly jumped in to help sort out the complications. Since FTAC, the two have kept in touch, and Smith has taken Atayi under his wing.

“He’s my mentor, he inspires me a lot,” said Atayi. “He told me, ‘Don’t see all [this] rank on my shoulder. One day I will be retired and I will be the same person. I want to be the same person in and out of the uniform.’ I think he was being really honest and I really appreciate it and want [to be] like that.”

A few months down the road, Smith ran into a problem himself. He met a young boy while recruiting players for a soccer team. When he pulled up to the Kamoune family’s home, which was located in a rough portion of Wichita, he soon realized this was going to be about something more than just soccer.

“It broke my heart,” said Smith. “Seeing the way they lived, seeing how little they had; they had no hope. There was nobody who was going to help them.”

The Kamoune family arrived in the United States in January 2016, as refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The family of seven, including five young boys whose ages range from 5-18 years old, didn’t speak English well, were unfamiliar with U.S. customs and didn’t know anybody in the community.

Language barriers prevented Smith from communicating well with the family. Faced with this obstacle, Smith knew just who to call for help. Atayi, who speaks four languages, showed up to diffuse the situation.

“They were scared because they thought we might do something bad,” said Atayi. “In Africa most people don’t like military, because dictators or totalitarian regimes use the military to do bad things to the population. I wanted to change that. I didn’t want them to be disappointed about their American dream. ”

Speaking French, Atayi translated and relayed information back to Smith, who had the connections and senior NCO experience to find resources to help the Kamoune family. Smith connected the Kamounes with organizations such as Convoy of Hope, which was able to provide groceries, basic medical and dental care, haircuts and job search services free of charge.

“[The family] always says, ‘thank you’ for trying to help them out,” said Atayi. “They are grateful. You can see it in their eyes.”

The help didn’t stop there. Smith reached out to fellow senior NCOs on base that offered the family venison, which provided meals for them for weeks at a time. Atayi supplied the family with car rides to and from events, and helped coordinate getting the boys involved in school sports.

Atayi helped the boys fill out their paperwork and Smith was able to get them free sports physicals so they were eligible to play soccer in the community.

Concerned that the boys lived in a bad area and may resort to undesirable behavior, Atayi passed along the mentoring he’s taken from Smith to help direct the young boys along a better path.

“I tried talking to the kids, especially the teenagers, [and tell them] to try to be good men and not get involved in all that gang stuff,” said Atayi.

“If nothing else, they’ll remember that there’s good people here,” said Smith. “Maybe the [boys] don’t get into drugs or get into the wrong crew in school because they found passion in soccer.”

Immediately after meeting the Kamoune family, more and more refugee families here in Wichita have surfaced in need of help. Atayi and Smith have helped as many families as they can, turning them towards organizations that can provide them with helpful resources.

In order to help even more refugee families, Smith is currently kicking around the idea of starting a non-profit organization.

“There’s not a day I don’t think about [the refugees here],” said Smith. “I’m not from Wichita, I’m not from Kansas; with that being said, this is my community. There’s people that care about you, and we wear a uniform.”