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Senegalese Airman perseveres through barriers for a better life

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  • By Senior Airman Breanna Christopher Volkmar

Standing in the Senegal airport alongside five of his younger siblings, nine-year-old Aaron Aliou said goodbye to his mother for what would unknowingly be the last time until their reunion more than a decade later.

As was common Senegalese custom in 2001, young Aliou’s mother refrained from sharing travel plans with anyone until the day of her departure for the United States. She planned to build a better life for her family, which started with the heart-wrenching decision to temporarily leave her young children behind in a country more than 5,000 miles away.

“I cried the day my mom left,” said Aliou. “I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to see her again.”

Just one year prior, the Congolese native moved to Senegal with his family to seek refuge from the ongoing Second Congo War. He was required then to adapt to new languages and navigate unfamiliar customs, and now he was relied upon to become his siblings’ stand-in parental figure.

“Me and my siblings were close,” said Aliou. “I was responsible for making sure they ate, showered, dressed properly, don’t stay outside too long or at a certain time and doing their homework.”

Though his family remained connected through occasional phone calls, Aliou shouldered the heavy burden of growing up without his mother in arm’s reach to comfort and protect him. For the 16 years his mother remained away, Aliou described being overwhelmed with feeling like he always had to be strong for his siblings because of how they counted on him.

“Honestly, I don’t know how I was able to do it,” Aliou said. “I always had a feeling that we one day would reunite again and have a better life in the United States.”

Finally, after years of determined planning, Aliou’s mother was ready to help her children prepare for their own journey to the United States.

By 2017, everything was in place for a western immigration. Aliou recounted how he, his brothers and sisters waited to share the news with their community until one week prior to departing.

“[Everyone] was shocked that we were leaving,” said Aliou. Following an exhausting 10-hour day of traveling, and despite being separated for nearly all of his childhood, Aliou stated that seeing his mother again was one of the happiest moments of his life.

“Deep down I was scared that I would not recognize her face after all those years,” Aliou mentioned. “When I saw her coming out of the airport, I immediately recognized her face and shape, ran to her and hugged her.”

Now that the whole family was together again, they did their best to resume life in the face of varying personalities and chaotic new routines. Their lives bloomed into a colorful mosaic, and Aliou described the conscious effort they made to embrace and understand each other.

“My mother has her [Congolese] culture, my siblings and I have our [Senegalese] culture, and my little brother has his own culture because he was born and raised [in the Unted States],” said Aliou.

Having arrived in the United States with few possessions and grappling with yet another language barrier, he quickly resumed a familiar journey of adaptation. The pursuit of employment proved difficult for the French speaking 25-year-old, with rejection echoing at every turn due to his Senegalese accent and rudimentary English vocabulary. Undeterred, Aliou pressed forward, demonstrating a steadfast resolve to carve out a better future for himself and his family.

Instead of making excuses, he began taking English classes to improve his odds at finding a job.

“If you want something, you’ve got to work hard for it,” he said. “Then, when you get the experience, work smart.”

Through tenacity and resilience, Aliou found his footing at a restaurant in Manhattan, New York, harnessing skills born in Senegal to work his way up from dishwasher to chef. Shortly after though, COVID-19 made work availability scarce and his ambitions transcended culinary pursuits.

“I always wanted to do something with a lot of responsibility, since life already challenged me with taking care of other people,” said Aliou.

His desire for a path of discipline and responsibility is what soon led him to the U.S. Air Force.

Aliou enlisted in March of 2022 as an aerospace medical technician, and he was hurled into the next marathon fraught with challenges, starting with the trials of Basic Military Training and technical training.

While completing BMT at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, he struggled with dietary inadequacies due to lack of Halal food options to support his faith.

In an effort to improve quality of life, he spoke with his military training instructor, suggesting the food served at the dining facility include more options for Muslim Airmen. His candor inspired change and enhanced the support of religious freedom for hundreds of thousands of future trainees.

Once he graduated BMT and began his technical training, it became clear that language barriers would continue compounding his struggles, as he needed to make extra effort to translate and comprehend course materials.

“I failed the easiest test two times, and it was open book,” said Aliou, explaining that testing required him to first translate the questions to French to understand the complexity, then translate his answer back to English.

“I didn’t give up,” he said. “I took the test again, passed, and never failed a test again after that.”

Aliou graduated technical training on schedule with his classmates, and officially began his military career in the spring of 2023.

“I really like taking care of people and hope I’ll get to a larger scope of practice to help more people because I am passionate about medicine,” Aliou said.

Today, stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, the journey of Airman 1st Class Aaron Aliou continues, fueled by his unwavering dedication to service and a resolute determination to inspire change. As he sets his sights on commissioning, Aliou’s story serves as a testament to the transformative power of perseverance, diversity and the indomitable human spirt.