AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar --
“I always knew I was going to come to the U.S.”
Born in Liberia, Senior Airman Ajay Vogar, 379th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron commander support staff security manager, grew up in the capital city of Monrovia during a turbulent and violent time in the country’s history.
At just two years old, Vogar’s parents, Charles and Annie, separated. His father decided to take Vogar and his younger sister to Gbangaye Town. There they lived with his grand-aunt, Klador “Ma Mary'' Siow, and her husband, Maj. Moses GB Siow, who Vogar endearingly refers to as his grandmother and grandfather.
As a pilot with the Liberian Army Air Reconnaissance Unit in the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Moses was an inspiration to Vogar.
“Growing up, I always wanted to be a pilot like my grandfather; it was my dream,” Vogar recounted. “He was such a good man, and very intelligent. He was very knowledgeable on current events and always listening to BBC Radio.”
Vogar recalls many fond childhood memories with his grandfather.
“I would sit on his knee and he would teach me the alphabet,” he said. “We would listen to the news together. He took me to the airfield where he worked and one time the president [Samuel Doe] came through and I got to shake his hand.”
However, he also recalls memories that weren’t so fond; ones that were shaped by the civil war that broke out in late 1989. People of Krahn ethnicity, who supported Doe, began actively searching for others who were not of the same ethnic background.
“At one point, my grandfather’s house was surrounded by AFL soldiers who were looking for him because he was not Krahn,” Vogar recalled. “I remember that very vividly.”
Fortunately, Moses had already left the area and found a safe haven. After this event, Vogar and his sister moved further out of Monrovia with their mother to an area called Fendell, unsure of the fate that might befall his grandparents.
“We were there for months,” he said. “It was not easy. My mom had to go into the bush to look for food for us to eat.”
During this time the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) pushed members of the AFL still loyal to president Doe further out of Monrovia into the surrounding countryside as they seized the capital and executed Doe. Vogar’s family heard a rumor that his grandfather had again made another narrow escape.
“The [INPFL] rebels were going to kill him because they knew he was a pilot in the military,” Vogar said. “But apparently before they could, someone recognized him and convinced them he would be a good asset.”
The INPFL enlisted Moses as a military advisor, and upon learning he was still alive, Vogar’s family moved back to his grandmother’s. However, she had been internally displaced to a historically impoverished area called West Point, which was under INPFL control. Meanwhile, Moses was held at the INPFL base in Caldwell, northeast of Monrovia, and allowed only to leave on weekends to see his family. This is how life went for a while.
“Growing up during that time was really difficult,” Vogar said. “We didn’t really have a childhood.”
“Things started to return to normal but nothing was normal,” Vogar recalled. “Everything changed. During that time when we were moving around, we didn’t go to school, we didn’t have normal social interactions. It was an unfortunate situation for us to grow up in.”
In 1991, after numerous peacemaking conferences, an interim government was introduced and Vogar’s family moved back to Gbangaye Town, but Monrovia was torn apart. Roughly 200,000 Liberians would die by the end of the war in 1997 and nearly a million more would be displaced into neighboring countries.
Despite the situation in the country, Vogar’s grandmother and parents were determined to see him move on to better things.
“My grandmother was always the structured one, the disciplinarian,” Vogar explained. “She wanted us to be independent. But because of the situation in the country, it was difficult to go to school. Fighting would flare up in one area and we would have to move again. We were moving constantly between my mother’s house and my grandmother’s house.”
During that time, Vogar’s father immigrated to the United States to help support his family in Liberia. While Vogar was finishing high school, fallout from the first civil war led to a second in 1999, which lasted until 2003. More unrest ensued.
Nevertheless, Vogar was able to finish high school in 2000 and that same year went to Ghana in an attempt to migrate to the U.S. through a resettlement program, but was denied. Vogar returned to Liberia and felt a strong sense of obligation to better himself. With the help of his parents, he started attending college in 2001.
“Because of everything that happened in the country, I could not become a pilot like I wanted when I was younger,” Vogar said. “So, I went to school instead. I saw how hard my dad and stepmom worked; they were working two or three jobs just to pay for me to go to school and I thought it was right for me to make myself better. I utilized whatever opportunity they gave me.”
Vogar and his parents made sure he did not take the opportunity for granted.
“My parents would send me things to sell,” Vogar explained. “That’s how I would make money to pay for my classes.”
After finishing his bachelors in business management in 2006, Vogar began working as a teller at a branch of the West African Bank and eventually found a job with the Ministry of Justice. There he worked as a financial manager on a project sponsored by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) that aids victims of sexual- and gender-based violence.
Even with this relative success, in a war-ravaged country, the appeal of the U.S. kept growing.
“Every time I talked to my stepmom and dad on the phone, I thought, ‘I need to get out of here’,” Vogar said.
He began looking at options to move and found the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program which is administered by the U.S. Department of State. The program makes up to 50,000 immigrant visas available to random applicants, annually.
“It’s like a lottery,” Vogar explained. “It’s free to play but you aren’t guaranteed to win. The first time I played, I did not win.”
Despite this setback, his parents kept trying to get him across the Atlantic through various other programs, but to no avail.
“I was upset about not getting it but I still felt there was something greater for me on the other side of this,” said Vogar. “I’m always positive in my life. I thought ‘OK, if I can’t go to the U.S., I'll see what I can do to make myself better in this country’.”
He kept working and even started a master’s program, but moving to the U.S. was an itch that had to be scratched. His girlfriend at the time encouraged him to try the Diversity Visa Program again.
“She called me one day on the way to work and said that my name was in the newspaper,” Vogar said. “I thought, ‘why is my name in the paper, what did I do?’. To be honest, by that time I forgot about it. She wouldn’t tell me what it was about until I got home and she showed me the newspaper. I won!”
The official results dropped in October of 2008 and one year later his parents helped pay for a plane ticket to Minnesota.
“I was a grown man sleeping on the floor of my parents' one bedroom apartment,” Vogar laughed. “I had to find a job, quick.”
Immediately, he started looking for work, but it proved to be difficult.
“In my mind, I came over with a business degree and plenty of financial experience but I kept getting denied,” Vogar said. “My stepmom kept telling me to lower my expectations but I didn’t want to believe that.”
Finally, a friend was able to help him find work with a temp agency that focused on healthcare.
“I would work as an assistant nurse with the elderly or as an assistant teacher to children with Autism,” Vogar said. “Sometimes they would send me places that were two hours away but the more I did it, the more I started to consider healthcare as a career.”
Around this time, Vogar and his girlfriend moved in together and had a daughter. Vogar entered a healthcare administration master’s program at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota while also working numerous jobs.
“It was very stressful,” Vogar recalled. “The relationship I had didn’t last because of how stressful it was during that time, and on top of all of that, I had to go back to Liberia to bury my grandma.”
After returning to Minnesota following the funeral, Vogar graduated with his MBA in 2016, and started a new job at a Meridian Group Home. Around this time Vogar began talking to Garmai, now his wife, and seven months later, they began paperwork for her to come to the U.S. and get married.
“After that, she had to go back to Liberia one last time,” Vogar explained. “As I was dropping her off at the airport, a man heard me talking to her on the phone and approached me. We started talking and he asked where I was from and he said that he works for FEMA and just got back from Africa. He mentioned the Minnesota National Guard was looking to recruit people familiar with Liberia, who could help with a recent Ebola outbreak and he gave me a recruiter’s number.”
To pay for Garmai and her children to come to the U.S., Vogar took up better paying jobs and kept the ANG recruiter’s number in his back pocket. Finally, when Garmai and their children were under one roof, he decided to make the call.
“I called the recruiter and we set up a meeting,” Vogar said. “But because I was working two jobs, I had no time. I thought, ‘you know what, it’s a one-time thing and I’ve got to do it’. So, I called in sick to Meridian and met with the recruiter.”
After speaking with the recruiter, Vogar realized joining at 37 years old might not allow him the opportunity to follow his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, but he still wanted to serve.
“Because I still loved the military and because I still wanted to be a part of something more special to me, I did not hesitate,” said Vogar. “What I wanted, since I was kid, was becoming a reality.”
In August of 2018, Vogar was off to U.S. Air Force Basic Military Training. After basic training, he began working for Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, a non-profit organization that provides a number of aid services to veterans, as he kept considering ways to serve others.
“The ability for me to help someone who needs help, that keeps me going,” Vogar said. “I feel like I have achieved something.”
Less than two years later, Vogar volunteered to assist with COVID-19 relief in Minnesota for nine months and then volunteered for his first deployment to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
“It has been completely worth it,” Vogar said. “It’s exposed my weaknesses and it’s shown me my strengths and given me amazing opportunities. Just by raising my hand, I am doing extraordinary things.”
Despite everything he’s been through, Vogar has stayed resilient and doesn’t plan on slowing down.
“I’m always moving forward. Even though my dream of being a pilot is no longer there, I still feel fulfilled.” Vogar said. “I hope by sharing my story, it helps someone else to keep going.”