FORT HOOD, Texas — Over 6,500 miles from Fort Hood, Texas between Ghana and Benin sits the small country of Togo. In the modest village of Togoville, young children can be seen chasing each other through dirt streets as chickens and goats scurry away.
Fourteen years ago, Staff Sgt. Kokou Vimenyoh took a monumental leap of faith to chase the dream he shared with many of his neighbors in Togoville; to immigrate to the United States, on a quest to find “El Dorado.”
Vimenyoh, now a Geospatial Intelligence Imagery Analyst with the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, came from a lower middle-class family; his father, a construction worker of small projects, and his stepmother a peddler of crafts in the city marketplace. Nevertheless, he said his parents did their best to provide for him and his sisters.
“We had a good childhood,” said Vimenyoh. “We spent our days swimming in the Lake of Togo or playing soccer. I had a happy childhood.”
“But, where I come from, it is not unusual for people to go without food,” he explained. “If you don’t have any food you can go to a neighbor’s house to eat. We lean on each other to survive. We are very close in Togoville.”
“I lived in Togoville for 25 years and then left to attend college at the University of Lomé to study sociology,” Vimenyoh said. “In my third year of college I learned about the U.S. visa lottery. I played and thank God I won.”
Even though he won, he still needed to pull together the money to finish the process.
“The paperwork cost a good amount of money. My dad dug deep and my grandfather on my mom’s side helped me financially to afford the paperwork to get the plane ticket.”
Together with his family’s help, he was able to finalize everything and move to America. His first impressions of America came as a complete shock.
“I was amazed, such tall buildings and so many people! I’d never seen such things,” Vimenyoh said.
Compared with Togoville, New York City came across as unfriendly, Vimenyoh recalled.
“Nobody looked at each other or gave some sort of greeting. Everyone just passed me on the streets without making eye contact. But I know now it is just like this in big cities.”
Vimenyoh was able to live with his uncle in his apartment in the Bronx for the first few months as he looked for work and finished up receiving his official U.S. citizen documentation. After a few weeks in the U.S., he went out to look for work.
“I did not know the first word of English. A man hired me to stock beverages in a gas station cooler and clean the store. I did that for a few months for $7 an hour,” Vimenyoh remembered.
This was not enough to survive in a place like New York City. He kept looking for more work and eventually landed a job in an Italian supermarket in Manhattan.
“I met a girl there who came to the U.S. the same year and month as I did. She was also from Togo, but we did not know each other.” Her father was already living in New York City for years before bringing her over. Fast forward 14 years — they are now happily married with one daughter and another one on the way.
He spent more than two years working both jobs and barely making ends meet. The long hours and little pay took a toll.
“I was living by myself and sending money back home to help support my family,” Vimenyoh continued. “At the end of the day, I had been working hard and had nothing in my savings. I was thinking 'what kind of life is this?'”
He knew the opportunities were there; he just needed to find them. The people of Togoville had always referred to the United States as “El Dorado; where all the good stuff is.” Vimenyoh accepted that if he was going to survive, he needed to make another change.
“Sitting around waiting for something good to happen is not the way,” he said.
“When I was a little kid, the only movies my dad watched were of the American Army. Growing up, when I thought of American Soldiers, I felt that's the best you can be in the world. Since I was a kid, this was a dream for me.”
It was then he knew what he had to do and promptly enlisted.
“The Army has been very good for me. I am so thankful to be an American Soldier,” Vimenyoh beamed.
“The stress I felt when I first arrived [to America] was harsh,” he said. “I was working so hard and everything I made was going to rent. I was just surviving. Every day since I joined the Army I have been thriving. I wouldn’t have made it in the U.S. without it.”
“Look at my life; I joined the Army. I met my wife here. I have one kid and one on the way. I have a house! I have a car! I am living well! The stability of now verses where I started in this country is unbelievable,” Vimenyoh said with obvious gratitude.
For Vimenyoh, the American Dream is real and has paid off for him and his family.
“I do believe in the American dream. Had I not come to the U.S., I would probably be working something small or maybe unemployed,” he continued. “It is tough to get a job in Togo and many of my childhood friends are without work. I thank God every day for letting me win the visa lottery. America is El Dorado to me.”
Vimenyoh has used his good fortune to help others back home, a sign of thanks for the help he received.
“I have been so blessed in my life. So, if someone back home asks me for help, if I can, I do. For them $70 is a month’s earnings,” he said. “Sending home $50 is a game changer for my family. They can eat for two weeks. It is a huge privilege for me to help them.”
Recently Vimenyoh was selected to become a defense attaché non-commissioned officer. In only 14 short years, he has become a U.S. Army diplomat.
“If there was a book about my life, the title would be ‘A Dream Come True.’ There are a lot of people in the world dreaming of doing what I am doing. It motivates me every day knowing there are so many people in the world wishing they were in my shoes. I feel amazing for making this progress in my life.”
But for Vimenyoh the journey is only getting started. “I am not done yet,” he said.