Featured Employee: Sam Kolleh

Sam Kolleh and wife

Sam Kolleh, production supervisor in Johnson City, is pursuing the “American Dream,” thanks to his drive and A. O. Smith.

Get to know Sam…

Where are you from?

I am from Liberia in West Africa. When I was 10, unrest and turmoil started happening in the outskirts of the country. One day when I was 14 years old, I awoke to the sound, “boom!” That same sound of bombs exploding continued for 33 hours. Everything I owned was on fire except what I had on my back. I was able to escape onto a boat that was headed towards Guinea, a country just north of Liberia, by making a deal with the chef; I worked for him for the three-day journey in trade for food scraps. Shortly after finding myself in Guinea, I was taken to a refugee camp in Ghana.

What was it like settling in Ghana at the refugee camp?

It was bitter sweet. It was peaceful, but it was not home. In efforts to help develop the country more, the Ghana government sent the 15,000 to 20,000 refugees to the swampy area. In a sense, we traded bombing and war for a tent-shelter with snakes and mud. It was worth it; this is where my journey truly began.

What kept you going in the refugee camp?

My faith helped me stay hopeful. I would also run and recite my mother’s phone number. She was in America and that was my only connection to her at the time.  Due to lack of telephone service, we went four years without contact once. When I finally did get a hold of her, she just cried – she was so happy.

How and when did you make it to the United States?

My parents were already in the United States and helped sponsor me. After a series of interviews, I had the opportunity to come to America as a resettled refugee, and I landed in Chicago in September 2001. My mom was in Philadelphia, so I went to see her. While it was great to see my mom, I didn’t feel at home in the city.

How did you end up in Johnson City?

Much of my family and friends from back home were already settled here, and they invited me to visit them. When I visited some cousins living in Johnson City, I felt at home. The town was quiet enough that I could hear myself think. I decided to stay.

How did you start working for A. O. Smith?

My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was still at the refugee camp. I wanted to help her come here too, so I enrolled with a temporary employment agency, which placed me at A. O. Smith.

When did you first think that you were living the “American Dream?”

I had been working at A. O. Smith for about three months, when I managed to buy a car. It was beat up and old, but it was mine. I was so excited.

When did you get your university degree?

Going to university was a top priority of mine, but I knew I could not afford it. One day I heard about A. O. Smith’s tuition reimbursement program. I talked to my supervisor and several people in the human resources department. Thanks to their help, I earned my associate’s degree in applied science and my bachelor’s degree in human resources in 2009.

How has earning your degree helped you?

I get goosebumps just thinking about how far I have come. I arrived in the United States with only a backpack. I started at A. O. Smith as a temporary employee. Now, I am a college graduate and a production supervisor. A. O. Smith has been instrumental in helping me advance and grow.

You said you always wanted to be an American citizen. Have you been naturalized yet?

Yes. I was naturalized in 2009, the same year I graduated college. At my swearing in ceremony, I cried tears of joy and excitement. This is the land of opportunity and being an American citizen is better than I ever imagined.

Did you ever experience any culture shock?

Yes – all the time. Yet, I did not let it distract me. We have this saying in Africa, “If you want to hang with the bats, you have to hang like a bat.” Integrating here was hard, but it has been well worth it.

I also learned here that many Americans do not know that much about Africa. I have been asked if there are airports where I am from and how I speak such good English – even though English is the main language in Liberia. Instead of letting these comments and questions bother me, I take them as an opportunity to educate people.

What is one lasting life lesson you have learned so far?

I’ve learned a lot. If I have to name one, I would say do not give up. If you stumble, you get up and keep going. Be persistent.