Darlington sat back in his school chair and put his hands on the desk, hoping for this day to be different. Stuck in a Liberian refugee camp on the Ivory Coast, he was used to attending the makeshift school structure each morning and leaving at the end of the day without gaining much new insight, such was the norm.
On this day, the sun was shining strong outside, and he and his fellow classmates were just barely staying awake. At the front of the class stood Darlington’s teacher, an older Liberian man with sweat pouring down his brow. “S T U D E N T,” he spelled out, “Repeat after me. Stooo-dent. Student.” Darlington and his classmates murmured some noises, which were vaguely similar to the word ‘student.’ English lessons were a bore. There was no practical use for them, especially considering French was the language used for commerce.
America, the land of opportunity, seemed to be such a far away place, reserved for the rich and the lucky few who made it out of West Africa. Today, the teacher was exerting much effort to get through to the students. “Repeat after me. I…am…a…student.” The children all repeated, again exerting little effort. However, this time’s repetition sounded different. Background noise was overshadowing their voices, and it was growing louder.
The teacher shushed all of his students and opened the burlap flap meant to keep the dust out of the classroom. A cacophony flooded into the tent, nearly knocking students out of their seats. “Chouk…chouk…chouk…chouk.” Gunshots. For a few seconds, which seemed like enternity, the teacher froze. Only after the “chouk…chouk…chouk…chouk” got louder and echoed in more rapid successions did the teacher begin moving again. He tore back down the burlap flap, ran to his desk, gathered his belongings and stuffed them into his briefcase. Without saying a word, he hurried into his office and shut the door. Darlington heard him unzipping the outer flap to his office and shuffle out the door. The students sat there for a few minutes and finally realized that the teacher wasn’t coming back. Darlington joined a procession of students leaving the classroom, only to see black smoke filling the horizon and hear the sound of gunshots ringing in his ears. This was 2002, the beginning of civil war in Ivory Coast.
Fast forward 12 years later, Darlington relaxes on a chair in Cro’s Nest. He has come a long way from that fateful day, and although he has traversed much of his journey without his nuclear family, Darlington is still quick to chime in, “Family is everything.” He will graduate this May, so before leaving Connecticut College, his story needs to be told for all current students to read in The College Voice and for all future students to look back through the archives and admire. Darlington considers his opportunity to come to Connecticut College a blessing. Living in America helped him get to this point. Americans quick to ridicule the United States for lack of opportunities would be prudent to read about Darlington’s journey.
Born in 1992 in Liberia, Darlington was welcomed into the world by both a large and close-knit extended family. As the son of a mineral mine supervisor, Darlington spent the early years of his life in a relatively comfortable setting. Although a civil war was raging in Liberia, Darlington was fortunate enough to have the means to live in a stable family unit. His father had already raised two older boys, Darlington’s half brothers, and had also fathered Darlington’s sister, three years his elder. Life seemed manageable for his family.
Everything changed in 1997, when Darlington’s family was forced to flee from civil war in Liberia. At this time, President of Liberia Charles Taylor, now sitting in jail on charges from the International Criminal Court, was wreaking havoc with his revolutionary forces in the country. Darlington recalled endless walking, about 40 kilometers. “We walked and walked. So much walking. Finally we arrived in Ivory Coast.” He, his mom and some of his other relatives traveled on foot from Liberia to neighboring Ivory Coast. His extended family unit fractured. “We had to separate. My dad and brothers fled to another part of Liberia. My sister stayed behind in another part. Some of us went to Ivory Coast. If we stayed together, we risked our whole family bloodline being killed off.”
In Ivory Coast, Darlington attended school in the refugee camp, while his mother and aunt tried to make ends meet. Darlington’s mother met and eventually married a photographer, who became Darlington’s main role model. His own father was largely absent growing up, and especially as they became separated, Darlington’s love for his father waned. His stepfather helped his family stabilize itself. Darlington fondly recalls his stepfather’s passion, “He took pictures of families and other people. He taught me how to use a camera. I thank him for that.”
Darlington reflected on memories of his stepfather, and one particular memory stood out. “When I was smaller in the refugee camp, this one bully would always beat my ass. He would see me, and just whoop me. One day as I was saying bye to my stepdad, he saw me and pointed me out for a fight. I ran back to my house and tried to get protection from my stepdad.” Darlington’s stepdad then went on to tell him that if he ran away from this fight, then he would kick Darlington’s ass himself. Darlington listened to his stepdad’s words. A fight ensued and Darlington walked away, bruised and beaten, on the losing side. But after that, he and the bully fought again, and again, and again, until soon enough, Darlington was winning the fights. He gleaned a valuable lesson from his stepdad’s orders: stand up for yourself. Don’t give in to a bully. Compete and even if you lose, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
In 2002, the Ivory Coast civil war took Darlington and his classmates by surprise. Darlington’s papers had recently passed through the UN refugee resettlement commission and were being validated in the United States. However, the escalating violence in Ivory Coast stalled his plans to travel to America. Again, Darlington was forced to migrate from one home to another. He walked 50 kilometers on foot from Ivory Coast to neighboring Guinea. This time he traveled with his aunt, who had offered to take him as her “son” to America to connect with their extended relatives.
A year passed in Guinea, until finally Darlington and his aunt were validated to travel to America in 2003. They settled in Providence, and Darlington began another chapter of his life. He quickly enrolled in a public middle school, which he refers to as “the worst middle school in Providence.” His ESL class was filled with “bad kids,” pre-teens with rough home lives. These “bad kids” exerted limited effort in the classroom and were often more interested in the next pair of Jordans or the upcoming 50 Cent album. Darlington believes many of them actually aspired to live life like 50 Cent. Darlington himself was more focused on his studies. He considered himself one of the lucky few from his family to make it out of war-torn West Africa and into America. Each day after school, he would go back home to his grandma, who conveniently lived next door, and study for the next day. In school, Darlington tested behind in English. The school staff predicted he would need 7 years of ESL classes. Darlington finished in a year and a half.
At “the worst middle school in Providence,” teachers and administrators viewed his drive and intelligence as extraordinary in relation to his schoolmates. Other lucky breaks came in the seventh grade, when Darlington joined a club soccer team, and in eighth grade, during which he was accepted into Providence Country Day School for high school. Unfortunately for Darlington, the offer from PCDS did not include a tuition stipend. Darlington called the headmaster of PCDS to thank her for the opportunity to apply and for his acceptance. He told her that he was unable to accept the offer due to monetary constraints. No one told him to make this call. The headmaster was so moved by Darlington’s respect and initiative that she offered him a scholarship that only required his family to pay $2,000 per year. Luckily his tutor, Ms. Ingrid, told him that she would foot the bill for all four years.
At PCDS, Darlington continued to excel in the classroom and became a star soccer player. During his senior year, he settled on going to a school like Providence College or URI and hoped to continue his soccer career at the D-I level. Serendipitously, Darlington’s club soccer coach was offered the head coach position at Connecticut College and guided Darlington to apply. Long story short, Darlington was accepted to Connecticut College and continued his promising academic and athletic career in the NESCAC.
Today, Darlington takes pride in his plight and believes that it made him who he is today. Growing up on the move, Darlington became clever and adaptable. He has spent much of his life with different guardians, so he has become strongly independent. Additionally, his competitiveness shines through on so many different levels, manifesting itself in the classroom, in the workforce and on the Green for soccer games. He was only able to achieve these feats by coming to America, the place he considers the “land of great equality.” While he admits that America “does have flaws,” he added that, “people from the Global South, myself included, view it as a place filled with great opportunities.” Many Americans quick to criticize the United States just for the sake of being polemical would be wise to listen to Darlington’s telling words.
Finally, in the spring of 2013, Darlington made a triumphant return back to Africa when he studied abroad in Durban, South Africa. For his independent study project, he interviewed refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was back in Africa interviewing people experiencing the same plight that he went through.
Also during his time in South Africa, Darlington had the opportunity to visit Robben Island, the infamous place in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years. In one of his Facebook profile pictures, Darlington admires a mural of Nelson Mandela. Even after being freed from prison, Mandela refused to be bitter about life. He was born and died with same ear-to-ear grin. Darlington, too, lives life without bitterness and full of smiles