Haja Kalokoh’s acceptance to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore almost didn’t happen.
The Montgomery Blair High School senior, a refugee from Sierra Leone, said college was always in her plans. But she didn’t know how to get there until poverty landed her family in a place they never wanted to be. It turned out to be exactly what they needed.
The Stepping Stones Shelter in Rockville specializes in housing, feeding and counseling homeless families and teaching them how to be self-sufficient. Kalokoh arrived there with her mother, Ramatu Bangura, and her autistic younger brother, Alie, in September, after Bangura lost her hotel housekeeping jobs and the family was evicted from their apartment in Silver Spring.
“I was scared, disappointed and mad, because it was our lowest point,” said Kalokoh, 19. “We tried everything to avoid going to shelter.”
The family had made the arduous journey to the United States in the early 2000s after spending years in a refugee camp in Guinea. Kalokoh, whose memories of Africa center on the camp, rations and hunger, arrived in 2003 with her father and her middle brother, two years her junior. Bangura, who was pregnant with Alie, became separated from them during an attack on the refugee camp and did not return until 2006.
The marriage grew troubled, and Bangura eventually left her husband, working two jobs to pay bills for herself and the three children.
She depended on Kalokoh to help take care of Alie and take him to medical appointments. Their lives grew more complicated after Bangura’s middle son was arrested for stealing a cellphone and violated his probation by skipping school, fighting and not reporting to his parole officer. He is currently attending Silver Oak Academy, a year-round residential high school for at-risk youths.
After the family was evicted, they spent one month with relatives and another in a motel. Kalokoh’s job at a Fuddruckers restaurant generated some income. But by the fall, she, her mother and Alie were at Stepping Stones, located in a historic farmhouse a few blocks from downtown Rockville.
Staffers at the shelter wrapped themselves around the family like a village, helping Bangura apply for work, sign up for computer classes, and search for day care and tutoring for Alie. Kalokoh worked with shelter staffers on school assignments and navigating the college-application process, and she and her mother landed jobs at the Forever 21 clothing store at Westfield Montgomery Mall.
Counselors said they were struck by Kalokoh’s passion at nightly meetings of shelter residents, even after long days of school, work and helping with her brother. The conversation sometimes veered from responsibilities to “high school and random teenager stuff,” said case manager Evelyn Lopez. “It was the time when she was able to be herself.”
Resident Assistant Neeka Paire, who helped Kalakoh analyze an Alice Dunbar-Nelson poem for a school project, said that “it was inspiring to watch her blossom. . . . Many people come here focused on the temporary food or housing, but Haja wanted something more solid and sustainable. She developed her future here.”
Kalokoh also forged a special connection with Lopez and case manager Joycelyn Obeng-Boafo, both of whom were the first in their family to graduate from college. Obeng-Boafo is originally from Ghana, and Lopez is the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala.
They walked her through the process of identifying colleges who might accept her, applying for financial aid and weighing the pros and cons of in-state and out-of-state schools.
“We felt like rallying behind Haja and putting resources behind her,” said Obeng-Boafo. “She’s the first person in the shelter that we are assisting with college as much as we are.”
Shelter staffers say they hope to do this more in the future.
Although the family left Stepping Stones in February, moving into a subsidized townhouse in North Potomac, their relationship with the shelter continues.
Staffers helped Kalokoh choose a dress design and hairstylist for her senior prom, which will take place Saturday. They are helping the family find furniture for their townhouse and featured Kalokoh in their newsletter after she was accepted to college.
Executive Director Jaye Matthews said donors are standing by to pitch in financially once the young woman learns what financial aid will not cover and to buy dorm furnishings and other basics Kalokoh otherwise could not afford.
Last week, the shelter organized a banquet in Kalokoh’s honor. Those in attendance included Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton, members of the shelter’s board and several potential donors who wanted to meet her. Lopez, Paire, Matthews and others who had helped Kalokoh were there, too.
Bangura arrived late, after her shift at Forever 21. She told a visitor about some of the hardships she endured while escaping Sierra Leone: nearly dropping 8-month-old Haja while fleeing the capital on foot; a dangerous ferry-boat crossing to Guinea; gun battles on the streets; and leaving her children alone in a tent so she could collect firewood to sell in a makeshift market.
Kalokoh listened, her mouth agape. She had never heard these stories before.
“I didn’t want you to know how we suffered,” Bangura told her daughter. “I know now I did not do the sacrifice for nothing.”
A few minutes later, it was Kalokoh’s time to speak. She stood at the lectern without notes and told her own story — of her family’s eviction, how going to a shelter felt like failure, and how the staff there taught her and her mother to be strong.
“College is the breakthrough for my family,” she said. “I’m just so grateful.”