HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – In 1998, Ernest Amankwaah found himself at a crossroads.
He had grown up in Ghana as the oldest of eight siblings. After his mother passed away, he became the sole caregiver to three brothers and four sisters. He had to find a way to provide for them.
Then, unexpectedly, he received a large envelope in the mail. It was a notification from the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program; he had been selected to obtain permanent residency in the United States.
“It was like winning the Powerball,” said Amankwaah, a 66th Force Support Squadron Military Personnel Flight customer service technician. “From that moment on, everything changed.”
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Diversity Immigration Visa Program makes up to 50,000 immigrant visas available annually to individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Individuals are selected randomly from nearly 6 million annual applicants.
In August of 1999, Amankwaah boarded a plane for New York City before going on to Boston.
“The whole flight felt like a dream I was going to wake up from,” he said. “It was a very big deal for someone from my background to come to America, and it took a long time for me to realize it was really happening to me.”
Amankwaah stayed in Lowell, Massachusetts, with his uncle, who showed him around. He remembers the first time he felt the summer air turn cool at night, something he had never experienced in West Africa.
A few months later, Amankwaah received his green card and Social Security number. He started working as a technologist intern to send money back to his siblings in Ghana, and had plans to earn a degree in engineering,
Everything was happening according to plan until September 2001.
“After 9/11, the company I was working for shut down, and I got laid off,” he said. “That’s when the struggle really started. I quickly started losing hope, and money. I could barely pay my rent, but my siblings back home were depending on me.”
Desperate for stability but unsure where to turn, his answer came to him through a television commercial: “Go Army.”
He left for basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in January 2004. From there, he attended Advance Individual Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and was assigned as a human resource specialist at Fort Drum, New York.
“The military wants to make you tough, but I had already been through so much in my life, I was ready for it,” he said.
After joining, Amankwaah said everything changed again for him. Only this time, for the better.
He had a stable job and could afford to support his siblings at home. He promoted quickly through the ranks as a noncommissioned officer, and he loved his work. His high school sweetheart, Naomi, was able to join him from Ghana and they started their life together.
“I remember coming home to family and looking around at my house, and it was just pure happiness,” he said. “All because I was lucky enough to come to the United States where I made the best decision of my life, joining the military.”
Amankwaah eventually retired from the Army, but he continued to work as a civilian at Fort Drum until a position opened at the 66 FSS Military Personnel Flight here.
“I always knew I wanted to come back to Massachusetts,” he said. “This is my home.”
Now at Hanscom, Amankwaah continues to develop his passion for Human Resources, and says his professional joy comes from helping people.
“Ernest yearns for knowledge, and he wants to share what he’s learned throughout his career with us to make our whole team better,” said Joey Malone, 66 FSS customer support chief.
Amankwaah was able to support his siblings into adulthood and into professional careers. Now, he has six children of his own. His oldest son is a collegiate track athlete, and his school-age children are excelling in athletics and academics.
“It may not look like much to some people, but this life I have here is more than I would have dreamed of,” said Amankwaah, who still remembers the day he received a large envelope in the mail. “Take advantage of every opportunity you can. You never know how it will change your life.”