When University of Maryland linebacker and former Gilman standout Melvin Keihn and his mother, Satta, saw each other in Kakata, Liberia, July 1 for the first time since Keihn left his war-torn home country 14 years ago, surreal elation overcame them.
“I literally just froze,” Keihn said. “I was in my own world where everything was silent. They were calling me, and I just froze when I saw her walking out. Like 30 to 45 seconds later, I came to myself, and then I got out of the car. She saw me, she started sprinting towards me and I ran to her and gave her a hug. Crazy emotions just came over both of us. It was honestly the best feeling of my life.”
Satta revealed to Melvin’s father, Bainda — who wasn’t on the trip and lives in the United States — that there was a touch of hesitation on her end, as well, especially considering she didn’t know Melvin was coming to see her. Melvin arrived to his uncle’s Kakata home in a van, the likes with which Satta wasn’t familiar. Foreigners popped out of the van — unbeknownst to Satta, not only would she be seeing her son, but a crew from ESPN would be documenting it.
“Then when Melvin got off the car, she didn’t recognize him at first sight because he left … when he was a little kid and now he’s coming back so huge and big,” Bainda recalled from talking with Satta. “She stood up from her chair to look, and when she recognized that it was Melvin, she just flew from where she was sitting and grabbed him … and she started crying, both of them crying. The excitement, it was something that, he could not explain what was going through his mind because he has waited for this for a long period of time and now it’s becoming a reality.”
Melvin left Liberia with his step-mother, Pauline, when he was 8 years old to escape a civil war-ravaged Liberia and start a new life in the U.S. with Bainda and Pauline. Ever since he left, Melvin had longed to see his mother, and he got that opportunity this summer with help from his university and football program.
Satta owns and lives on a farm outside the city of Kakata. Satta is “always on the farm growing rice and corn, bunch of different things,” to provide for her family, according to Melvin. Melvin also has a brother, two sisters and nieces and nephews living in Liberia.
But Melvin also noted Satta sometimes doesn’t have enough food for her and her family to eat dinner; hunger isn’t uncommon in Liberia. Satta has been to the hospital “a lot” since Melvin departed for the States more than a decade ago, but Melvin said her health is “OK” now despite back issues from working on her farm.
“One thing she told me is how hard it is for her to live,” Melvin said. “Also, she told me that [when] she’s sick, she goes to the hospital, but she’s got to keep working because she’s got to make money to take care of herself and to take care of her family. That’s just one thing she told me that stuck with me, because obviously I told her before, I don’t want her working. Honestly, I don’t.
“I don’t want her doing anything, just so she can relax, but she’s a hard-working woman. She really is. But she feels like she has to do that in order to provide.”
Melvin was able to rekindle the joy he had when he was around his mom as a child — “wherever she went, I wanted to go,” he said of his younger days — during his nine-day stay in his home country. Satta spent four nights with Melvin at his hotel in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
“Hearing stories about how she’s been living and what’s been going on and also her telling me stories when I was younger as a kid, all that I had to catch up on,” said Melvin, who that his mother struggled a bit to understand his “Americanized” English. “[Our bond] just never changed. It just shows how much my mother means to me and I mean to her. We just loved being around each other. It’s just the best part about it.”
In addition to catching up, Melvin and his mother visited a new Liberian soccer academy, which houses 49 kids. He played soccer with the kids for more than an hour, a flashback to Melvin’s days of playing the sport as a young boy. Then they went to a radio show, where Melvin discussed his life story and the importance of investing in the country’s youth, whether it’s through education or simply building the proper athletic fields for kids.
“I was happy that I was there to see her smiling again and be very happy and not so stressed, because she always worried about me,” Melvin said. “She said that there’s not a day that goes by that she doesn’t think about me and crying and hoping that I would come back. When I was there, it was just a lovely feeling to be around her to see her telling me how proud she is and that she loved me and she’s going to keep praying that God keeps blessing me.”
Bainda said one of the most jarring aspects of the trip for his son was “the reality and what he had seen for himself” in terms of his mother’s impoverished living situation. Bainda indicated his son’s goal is to eventually settle his mother in the States. For now, Melvin will visit his family more often. He’d like to go back during Maryland’s winter or spring break — with even bigger goals in the future.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter how I become successful. I just want to be able to help her,” Melvin said. “If that’s me going to the NFL, that would be amazing; or if that’s me just finishing school and then finding a career somewhere where I’d be able to take care of her so she can’t be working on the farm but she can just relax. … That’s motivation for me that I’m happy that I got the opportunity to see her and get more fire in me to come back and just work hard to be able to help my family out.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox