Coming to America: Refugee becomes Airman

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Breanna Carter
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs

Nineteen years and about 6, 000 miles ago, a 9-yr old girl and her mother, speaking only French and broken English, fled a small village in Liberia, in the midst of a tumultuous civil war and trekked to the United States. With no documents, not even a birth certificate, the two left behind a life of sleeping in mud huts and getting their water from rivers in pursuit of something better, in a place they considered closer to heaven…America.

“During the war, people were rioting and destroying things and it was a scary time because I was young and didn’t really know what was going on,” said Airman 1st Class Ruth Thomas, 90th Civil Engineer Squadron emergency management technician. “I vividly remember a group of rebels burning down a school and seeing men who were just trying to get to work get beaten in the street, it was a lot to handle.”

Thomas and her mother were approved to immigrate to the United States on refugee status with help from the International Rescue Committee. The two were set up on a flight to New York, but it wasn’t an easy ride.

“As we were flying across the Atlantic Ocean, my mom had a seizure right next to me and she was taken to the back of the plane and then to the hospital when we landed,” said Thomas. “I had to travel the rest of the way with the other refugees.”

After a lengthy, life-changing trip, Thomas was reunited with her mother and they settled in Arizona.

“Everything was a huge adjustment for us and I remember trying to build a fire in the parking lot of our apartment complex so I could cook lunch and the neighbors thought I was crazy,” Thomas recalls.

This was just one small moment of many that Thomas experienced while trying to acclimate in the states, but none of these barriers deterred her from her biggest pursuit—education.

“Learning English was hard, but I hated being made fun of and called dumb, however that motivated me to do really well in school,” Thomas said. “I started getting straight A’s and eventually started working as a tutor for math and English.”

The obstacles kept coming as Ruth became homeless, while in high school, however she received help from a youth homeless organization and got accepted to the University of Arizona. She worked two jobs to keep up with costs.

“Work wasn’t enough so I decided to take out loans for school, but I started to get behind on payments and eventually had to take breaks between classes,” said Thomas. “I needed a change, I could barely keep my head above water.”

After making a move to San Antonio with her boyfriend, who would end up becoming her husband, she realized she needed a better option to pay for school. She decided the Air Force would be her best bet because of the educational benefits, and after two years in the delayed entry program she joined and became an emergency management technician.

Eugene Duran, 90th Civil Engineer Squadron unit deployment manager, said Thomas has a great spirit.

“She is always willing and wanting to learn," Eugene said. “And she actually takes what she’s learned and puts it to use.”

Thomas said joining the Air Force is one of the best decisions she’s ever made and she appreciates the opportunity.

“It’s crazy how good I have it in the Air Force,” Thomas declared. “I get paid to live, eat and go to school. I just have to go to work and do my best.”

Thomas has come a long way and that same drive that helped her leave war-torn Liberia and overcome language barriers still pushes her to do her best in the world’s greatest Air Force and continue school in pursuit of a degree in forensic sciences.

“I think people take opportunities for granted sometimes, but I want to be the best version of myself and I’ll do my best every day to keep my head high and not let anyone or anything dull my shine.”