2016 Michigan Tech Magazine: Issue 1

Family Takes Flight

By Jennifer Donovan

Imagine starting sixth grade, like Alex Mulbah—or third grade, like his little brother, Sumo—and a few weeks into the semester, watching your world turn lethal. That was Alex and Sumo Mulbah’s life in 1990, when the civil war that broke out in their native Liberia in 1989 reached their town, and they had to flee for their lives.

From the small city of Kakata, a half-hour's drive from the Liberian capital of Monrovia, the boys fled on foot through the rubble and devastation of numerous cities and villages, finally crossing the border to Guinea with their two sisters, an aunt and uncle, and four cousins. From Guinea they moved on to neighboring Ivory Coast.

Alex, Sumo, and their extended family fled civil war in tehri native Liberia in 1990.
Alex, Sumo, and their extended family fled civil war in tehri native Liberia in 1990.

They had to leave their mother behind in Liberia and lost track of her after they got to Ivory Coast. Luckily for the brothers, their father, Larwuson Mulbah was already in the US, teaching math at Davis Aerospace Technical High School in Detroit. But reuniting with his children proved a challenge and a half. He had to upgrade his green card status to full US citizenship. Then he had to prove to the US Immigration Service and the State Department that Alex, Sumo, and their sisters were his biological children. Since the family had lost contact with their mother, proof of the children's parenthood or citizenship was that much harder.

State Department officials wanted to interview the Mulbah children before granting them visas. Ghana agreed to host the interviews, then recanted because the youngsters had never lived in Ghana. Ivory Coast said they could be interviewed at the US Embassy there, but by then the State Department had issued all the documents to conduct the interviews in Ghana.

After the State Department prepared new documents for Ivory Coast, their father ran into yet another barrier. Ivory Coast is a French-speaking country. Liberians speak English. "We had to carry a translator from ministry to ministry to get all the right signatures," the elder Mulbah recalls.

After all that, the visas were granted. Then their father had to purchase new plane tickets—a costly business with two boys and their two sisters flying—because the process had taken so long that the first set of tickets he purchased had expired.

A 12 year old Liberian soldier.
Alex and Sumo's father, Larwuson, ensured his sons wouldn't become young soldiers in the First Liberian Civil War.

"I was very determined to bring them to save their lives and education," says Larwuson. "It was necessary to bring them here to safeguard their lives from a senseless civil war in a war-ravished country. Secondly, to provide them the fatherly guidance and leadership they needed, and thirdly, to share my love with them and enjoy the pleasure of watching them grow as young men and women."

So the brothers and their two sisters came to Detroit and returned to school. Although they spoke English, their accents made it hard for their classmates to understand them, and they endured more than their share of teasing. "The accent was ammo for students at school and the community to poke fun at me, which was very unpleasant," Sumo recalls. Alex agrees. "At times I wished I wasn't in school because of the bullying, both in school and on the school bus."

Clothes became another issue. In Liberia, the boys wore uniforms to school. "In Michigan, kids would always tease me because I didn't have the latest fashions," Alex remembers.

The schoolwork was also challenging. "I had not been in a classroom for four years, so there was a lot of catching up for me," Alex explains. "I did well with my sciences, but I struggled with my grammar and reading." The boys' father and their uncle, a professor at the University of Toledo, worked with them to prepare them to succeed in their Detroit classrooms. "My father gave us math problems to solve, and my uncle had us reading newspaper articles and summarizing them to him," Alex recalls.

Both boys wound up in a math, science, and applied technology program in high school that hooked them on engineering."Michigan Tech wasn't even on my radar initially," Alex notes. Then he found out that one of his uncles had gone to Tech, and he began researching the school. "I learned that it is one of the top engineering schools," he says. "I also found out that it is well known in many large companies because of the great work many alumni before me have accomplished." When it came time for Sumo to go to college, he followed his brother's example, majoring in electrical engineering at Michigan Tech.

Their father, Larwuson Mulbah was already in the US, teaching math at Davis Aerospace Technical High School in Detroit.
Their father, Larwuson Mulbah was already in the US, teaching math at Davis Aerospace Technical High School in Detroit.

They knew that Tech was 500 miles from Detroit, but they didn't know how far that could seem in the cold and snow of a UP winter. "My brother and I had our adventures traveling from Houghton to Detroit during the winter and having our car break down several times," Alex recalls. "That was not fun at all."

But he also remembers "how helpful my peers, instructors, and TAs were."

They graduated—Alex in 2003 with a mechanical engineering degree and Sumo in 2005 with a degree in electrical engineering—and landed jobs with the Boeing Company and Caterpillar Inc. Alex, who lives in Renton, Washington, is now a lead engineer in flight test engineering instrumentation operations for Boeing. Sumo is an electrical engineer in control systems design for engines and generator sets in the Large Power System Division at Caterpillar. He lives in McDonough, Georgia, near Atlanta.

Diego Bernal, who works with Alex at Boeing, thinks the world of his colleague. "Working with Alex is like working with a brother that you can count on all the time," says Bernal. "He is not only responsible and dedicated, but also he is funny and with a good spirit: he can make you get a good laugh. Something that I appreciate about him is his integrity. You know what to expect from him."

Both Alex and Sumo have hopes for the future of their native land. "I hope for a government that would care for its people," says Sumo. "I hope Liberia's vast natural resources can be used for the prosperity of its people." Alex adds, "My hope for Liberia and the Liberian people is that we always love one another and be united again—never to let what happened during 14 years of civil war happen again.

The Mulbah brothers left Liberia for Guinea and on to the Ivory Coast before arriving in America.
The Mulbah brothers left Liberia for Guinea and on to the Ivory Coast before arriving in America.

Sumo sums it up: "I hope the beautiful people of Liberia can rise and smile again."

From a war-torn childhood to an engineering education at Michigan Tech to successful careers with international corporations, Alex and Sumo Mulbah have turned unimaginable obstacles into Michigan Tech success stories.

Their father knows how far they have come. "It is very difficult to describe my joy and the gratitude I owe to God when I realize that these children came from a country where thousands died and millions were displaced, received guidance from me, their father, as a single parent, and their uncle, followed such guidance against all odds and succeeded where many would have failed," he says.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science, engineering and technology; forestry; business and economics; health professions; humanities; mathematics; and social sciences.