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It's official: Foreigners serving in the U.S. military have a fast-track route to citizenship. On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security formalized its post-Sept. 11 policy, expediting citizenship for foreign-born service members by speeding up naturalization and streamlining the application process.
Kofi Law didn't need the help. He preferred to do it backwards.
Law, 28, had dreamed of becoming a U.S. citizen since he was a boy. He moved to Minneapolis in January 2003 from Togo (where the average daily temperature is 80 degrees), taught himself English, graduated from Dunwoody College of Technology and gathered the required paperwork to become a new American.
A few days after a joyful citizenship celebration at Bethel University in Arden Hills in August, Law headed to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for premobilization training.
I caught up with him this week, via cell phone, at his post with the U.S. Army Reserve's 372nd Engineer Brigade in Afghanistan. "I love America," he said. "America has changed my life."
"I can't believe how much he's accomplished in such a short time, including making the move from Togo to the U.S. at age 22 -- alone," added Sgt. Maj. Janet M. Jones, also deployed with the 372nd. "It is his wonderful ethics that took him in this direction."
Law, the third of six children, grew up in Togo, a French-speaking African country of 5 million bordered by Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso and the Atlantic Ocean. His father worked, but most families struggled to make ends meet, selling farm products and ocean-caught fish in the local market.
That wasn't the only hardship. Togo is a dictatorship, and Law said that his family was "under pressure all the time. They could raid your house, take you from your family, kill you if they thought you would do something against the military."
After graduating from high school, he entered a two-year mechanics school, supporting himself by repairing cars for a local merchant who brought in used cars from Europe. He never lost sight of his dream. Because a cousin lived in Minneapolis, he decided to begin here -- even in January.
"So cold, so cold," Law said. "I've never been in cold weather like that."
He took ESL classes for about six months, then enrolled in Dunwoody's Gateway Program for nontraditional students in the winter of 2005.
Molly Malone Docken, student services adviser at Dunwoody, calls him "the nicest guy in the whole world," and a model student to boot. "He would come early and stay late," she said. "Whenever he had questions, he would ask. When he got nervous, he'd seek tutoring. Deadlines looming? He never missed one. Then he would follow up. We would love to clone him."
He appreciated her equally, buying what has become Malone Docken's most cherished (albeit kitschy) gift.
"My husband's a big pheasant hunter, so Kofi bought him a pheasant statue with a holder where we keep our remotes," she said. "I tell my kids, 'You can't play with it. You can't break it. It's from Kofi.'"
Law graduated in June 2008 with a degree in auto service technology, the first member of his family to receive higher education. "My family is so proud of me," he said.
Sadly, before he had enough money to visit his family in Togo, his father died, followed a year later by his mother.
After a year of studying and completing paperwork, he became a U.S. citizen on Aug. 27. Jones was there to document the day, on which he legally changed his family name from Ahonsou to Law, the latter being his father's nickname. He then called friends, shouting with glee into the phone. "I was so happy!" he said. "They were so proud of me." The friends celebrated with dinner in downtown Minneapolis.
Off to war
Two weeks later, Law and Jones, who met in July at Fort Snelling, headed to Fort McCoy, then deployed to Afghanistan on Nov. 1 with 70 members of their unit.
In Afghanistan, Law works 14- to 16-hour days as a supply specialist, doling out pens, printers, ammunition, sleeping bags, cold-weather gear, tents, trenching tools, "just about anything you can imagine you'd need to survive in the wild," Jones said. "We have very broad needs here. They don't travel with many extras."
Jones said Law's fellow soldiers are always happy to see him. "He's friendly, knowledgeable, kind and very handsome," Jones said. (Law could be heard laughing in the background as she spoke.) "It took him no time at all to make friends in this group."
When Law returns to Minneapolis in the fall, he'll begin working to help his three sisters and brother come to the United States, along with his fiancée, whom he hasn't seen in six years. "She knows I am a hard worker, and she is waiting for me," he said. He also hopes to find full-time work with the Army Reserves.
It was after 8 p.m. in Afghanistan (which is 10 1/2 hours ahead of the Twin Cities) when we said goodbye. Law had already put in a very long day. Still, he planned to head out to do a few American-sounding things: exercise, check his e-mails and go to bed.
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org