African immigrant finds family and possibilities as an Army civilian

By Denise CaskeyJune 28, 2023

Mombo receives Master's degree
Naulin Mombo receives his Master of Business Administration certificate May 13 during a graduation ceremony at American University in Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, VA. — When he boarded a plane bound for the United States in 2016, Naulin Mombo spoke four languages, but English wasn’t one of them. He left Africa with $100 in his pocket and a vision of the American Dream dancing in his head.

It all started with a conversation he had with a friend during the 1994 World Cup.

“One of my friend talk about the green card, the lottery green card,” Mombo said. “He said, ‘If you play the lottery, if you win, you can have the right to study, to go to America and do your life over there.’”

The green card lottery, also known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, is a program that awards 55,000 U.S. permanent resident cards to recipients annually and is administered by the State Department under the Immigration Act of 1990.

Mombo, a native of Gabon in Central Africa, was a student in Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) when he entered the lottery.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

The day Mombo found out he won, he said he was cleaning his room at school and he had a vision of himself in America getting married and having children.

“When I look at my e-mail, I see the word ‘congratulations.’ Mombo said. “I knew what the word ‘congratulations’ means, but with the content of the e-mail, because I was French speaking, I didn't know exactly what the e-mail said.”

He said he asked a Nigerian man to read the email for him.

“He gave me a hug and say, ‘Oh, you go to America! You go to America!’” Mombo said. “He was saying, ‘OK. Take that letter, go to the embassy and ask them.’ He told me, ‘Do you know how many times I play? I play five times. I never win.’”

Once the embassy confirmed Mombo had won, they gave him the paperwork to fill out with the recommendation that he hire a lawyer to help.

“They asked me for $1,200 or something like that,” Mombo said. “I didn't have that money. I was a student. I said, ‘No, I'm going to do that by myself,’ because they send me everything. I asked a friend who had better English than me how to complete the form. I complete everything.”

Entering the lottery is free; however, winners are expected to pay a fee when they arrive at their embassy or consulate. There are other criteria as well – have at least a high school diploma, pass a health exam and background check – that winners must meet to receive a green card.

Mombo, who was working on a master’s degree in Cote d’Ivoire, met all the necessary requirements, but when it came to the required fee, Mombo hit a snag. He said, being a student and from a poor family, he didn’t have $1,000, so he went to his church, explained his situation, and the church paid the fee for him.

After he received his green card, Mombo faced a new challenge: getting the money for a plane ticket to America. Once again, Mombo said, he turned to his church. They took up a collection to get Mombo the money for his plane ticket, and after the ticket was purchased, Mombo had $100 left in his pocket.

With his ticket in his hand, Mombo said he had two choices. He could tell his family and friends that he was going to America knowing that they wouldn’t believe him, or he could simply pack up, get on the plane and follow the path laid out by God.

“When God said to Abraham, ‘Leave your house. I will show you where to go,’ I just take that word personal,” Mombo said. “I said, ‘God, I don't know English. I don't. I never speak English, but I will follow you. I will believe in your word. You never lie.’ I just follow my faith.”

Welcome to America

Mombo flew into JFK Airport in New York and said he’ll never forget the day he landed in America.

“Oh, my God! I will never forget when the plane start to land and then I see the houses,” Mombo said. “I see the kind of house I used to see on the TV. I said, ‘Oh, I'm really now in America.’ It was amazing!”

Before leaving Africa, Mombo arranged to meet a friend of someone at his church, but when he arrived at JFK, there was nobody there to greet him.

An African taxi driver happened to see Mombo waiting and asked who he was waiting for. Mombo replied that he was waiting for a friend. Rather than leave Mombo to continue waiting alone, the taxi driver waited with him.

Mombo said after two hours the driver offered to call the person who was supposed to pick him up, but he was unsuccessful in reaching them. Mombo explained to the driver that he had just arrived in America and he had nowhere to go.

“He asked me, ‘Do you have money?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ For me $100 was big money,” Mombo said. “Then he start to laugh. He said, ‘OK. Let's go to the Bronx.’ He showed me a small space for $500 and said, ‘You're going to start to pay. Give me the $100.’”

Finding his way

Mombo took classes to learn English while working his first job in America as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Manhattan.

He was in America for three months before he got a phone and could call his mother.

“My mama was crying,” Mombo said. “She told me, ‘You want to kill me? Are you crazy? Why you do that to me? Why? Why?’ I said, ‘No, mom. If I tell you, you never believe.’”

Mombo said New York City turned out to be very expensive and destructive for him, so he decided to try his luck in Atlanta, Georgia. However, without a car, finding a job in Atlanta was almost impossible.

He moved to the National Capitol Region, where he worked as a custodian at the Capital until he got a job as an emergency actions controller for the Directorate of Operations at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in 2020.

While working at the Capital, Mombo started the process to get his degree transferred to a school in the U.S., because he was eager to continue his education. He applied for and was accepted into the MBA program at American University.

“My mama always told me that your first girlfriend is school,” Mombo said.

He graduated in May 2023 and said he plans on starting work on his PhD in September.

Education is power, Mombo said. His mother is a teacher in Africa, and two of his six siblings received scholarships to study in France.

“I was very proud that I take after my mom,” Mombo said. “My mentor is my mom. My mom, she can do everything. I'm very proud of her because she has a job back home. She went to school. She graduate. She worked for the government, as a teacher. I'm very proud of her. She means everything for me.”

Mombo said he’s grateful for his job as a custodian at the Capital because it got his foot in the door as a government employee. With his degree, he wants to continue working for the government, but he wants to do something in economics or finance.

Discovering an extended family

Mombo is very close to his family in Africa, but he said working at JBM-HH is like being among family.

Colonel David Bowling, joint base commander, congratulates Naulin Mombo on receiving his Master of Business Administration from American University during a luncheon May 15 at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. (Photo Credit: Denise Caskey) VIEW ORIGINAL

He points to Col. David Bowling, JBM-HH commander, as one of a handful of people who make the community on the installation feel like a family.

“I think we have a good commander,” he said. “I will tell you I never feel in a family like that. Every time that the commander does the (Operations and Intel meeting), the way he talk to people – even in alibis… You remember we have someone who committed suicide in November last year? The speech that the commander said touch my spirit. Because I don't have any mom here, I don't have any dad. I don't have any girlfriend yet. I feel my family over here.”

Mombo with K9 and Troy outside school
Naulin Mombo, center, stands with colleagues Noudehou Koutangni, left, and Troy Dennison, right, May 13 outside the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington D.C., where Mombo completed his Master of Business Administration degree. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

Mombo also credits his supervisor, Troy Dennison, chief of operations, for helping him feel like he belonged. He said before Dennison came along, he was ready to quit, but Dennison helped him feel more confident and capable.

“I have a desire to do my PhD because of him,” Mombo said. “I was about to give up, to quit the job downstairs last year because someone was treating me badly. Troy intervened. He said, ‘No, you cannot treat someone like that. You cannot treat someone unfair. That's not good.’ I'm so glad I meet Troy. I'm so happy.”

Persevering through hardships

Mombo became a U.S. citizen two years ago. Even though his misses his family in Africa – his mother comes to America every six months and is planning to move here permanently after she retires – he said America has more opportunities than Africa.

“Here we have more liberty,” he said. “Immigrant can become somebody here.”

Mombo’s life in America hasn’t been without struggle, but he has persevered because he didn’t give up. He knew what he wanted and he found a way to get it. He said he would tell other people not to give up as well.

“Life is not easy,” he said. “I would tell them to remember where they come from, where they are exactly now, and where they want to go. Life has a process. Trust the process. Many people fail because they don't follow the process; they don't follow the steps. Persevere. Learn. Invest in yourself. Invest in your education.”