COMING HOME

COMING HOME

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Published on September 29, 2016

Long before Melvin Keihn donned a red and black uniform as a Maryland football defensive end, he sat on an airplane in Liberia, waiting for his mother, Satta, to board.

The two had just finished a conversation about why Keihn needed to move to the United States. The civil unrest and war climate in Liberia was too violent. She wanted her 8-year-old son to live with his dad, Bainda, in America for the chance at a better education and lifestyle.

They had the same discussion about 10 days earlier, but Keihn ran from the airport gate when he realized he’d be moving without her and missed his flight. This time, his mother said, she’d come with him.

That’s why the possibility of separating for more than a few minutes in the boarding line didn’t cross Keihn’s mind, even when they hugged and said goodbye.

He went first and watched as people filed on with no sight of his mom. More people, still no mom.

She’s going to come, Keihn thought. She’s going to come.

Then he looked out the window and saw the scenery moving. The plane was taking off. His mom wasn’t on it.

“Honestly,” Keihn said, “the worst feeling ever.”

Keihn hasn’t seen his mom in 13 years. He’s grown up in that span, transforming from a troublesome boy who struggled speaking English to a burgeoning Division I athlete with a singular goal in mind.

He wants his mother to make the plane ride, too.

‘A LITTLE RELIEF’

Note: Keihn played AAU basketball for the majority of his childhood, but after he started football during middle school, private high school coaches started recruiting him for their programs. He chose Gilman, where he fostered the skills he now uses as a Terps defensive end. (Marquise McKine / The Diamondback

Keihn’s mind raced as he realized he’d been tricked. He thought back to a recent exchange with his mother when discussing his move to America.

“Don’t forget me,” she pled.

“I’ll never forget you,” he responded. “Doesn’t matter what.”

As soon as he landed for an overnight layover, he hated America. It was the middle of winter in 2004. He had only known Liberia’s heat.

He stayed with his stepmom in a hotel that night. Keihn had been living with her in Monrovia for about three years before leaving, his dad’s request after he sought political asylum in the U.S. in 1999.

Bainda Keihn worked in America to earn money to help his wife and Melvin move. But he wasn’t related to or ever married to Keihn’s mom, so she didn’t have immigration rights.

At one point while living in Monrovia, Keihn and his stepmom went into hiding at a friend’s house, which had a metal door to keep intruders out. They never opened it when people knocked because Keihn “didn’t know who was the good guy and who was the bad guy on the outside.”

One night, though, Keihn awoke to soldiers standing in the house, demanding everyone evacuate. He still doesn’t understand how they broke in. They lined up the women outside and drew their guns.

“It was pretty terrifying,” Keihn said, “to stand there and watch that.”

Almost as harrowing was the morning Keihn woke up in the American hotel and sobbed while looking at the one picture he had of his mom. She would visit while Keihn lived with his stepmom in Liberia, but now he didn’t know when he’d see her next.

He soon arrived in Maryland and lived with his dad, stepmom and another family of Liberian immigrants in a two-bedroom apartment. Keihn slept on a comforter on the floor, often dreaming of soldiers chasing him or experiencing flashbacks to the terror he witnessed in Liberia.

When his dad went to work or nursing school early each morning, he’d leave the room with a stinging heart, seeing his son lay uncovered on the bare floor after rolling off the blanket.

Keihn didn’t mind.

“I’m glad I can wake up in the morning knowing I’m safe,” he said. “It was just like a little relief.”

Still, the instincts he developed in his volatile homeland took time to disappear.

‘NOT LIKE BACK HOME’

Note: Keihn’s dad visited Liberia last semester and sent his son an email with this picture attached. Keihn cherished the first glimpse of his mom so much he posted it as his head Twitter photo and his phone’s lock-screen background. (Photo courtesy of Bainda Keihn)

One day at recess in second grade, Keihn was playing on the swings when a boy came over and mocked the way he spoke.

Keihn’s English hadn’t yet developed to match that of his classmates’, and the accent from his African dialect caused him to mispronounce words. Kids didn’t understand and often ridiculed him.

Teachers had informed his father that kids told Keihn he was “from the jungle.” They laughed when he tried to speak English but stumbled.

Keihn had retaliated before, but the boys’ incessant taunts on the playground continued.

Keihn snapped.

He hopped off the swing, and the next thing he remembers was the boy, bloody from either Keihn’s kick or punch — perhaps both — running to the teacher. Keihn later had a stern talk with his dad about his past experiences. In Liberia, Keihn remembers walking home from school and sometimes hearing loud booms. Within seconds, people would be sprinting up the hill, screaming.

He said soldiers, “would just shoot pretty much anyone they see, like they didn’t care at all.” His mom was once held up at gunpoint, and Keihn laughed because he was too young to understand the significance.

So after disciplining his son for the altercation, his dad pled for Keihn to adjust.

“Look, this country is not like back home where there’s no laws,” Bainda Keihn said. “If you fight somebody, I’ll be in trouble, and you’ll be in trouble.”

Keihn heeded the words. Soon after the incident, the family moved to Baltimore and Keihn started at Edmondson Heights Elementary School. As he walked to school one morning, he saw a boy, James Wood, waiting to cross the street.

Keihn introduced himself, learned Wood liked video games and brought his friend home to play FIFA that afternoon. They spent almost every day together for the rest of elementary school.

Aside from video games, they’d watch TV. Keihn improved his English while watching Mickey Mouse Club House, The Wiggles and Dora the Explorer. They also loved Disney Channel — Even Stevens, Kim Possible and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody were favorites — and followed Full House and Friends.

Before they could have fun, though, Bainda Keihn insisted the two did homework. Wood helped Keihn pronounce words in their readings and correct misspellings in book reports.

Keihn also started to understand the importance of schooling, which his mother tried to instill in him years before. He’d ask his teachers questions after school and spent some recess periods in their classrooms for extra help in English and reading.

‘BETTER THAN LEGAL’

Note: Keihn finished with five tackles in his Maryland debut against Howard on Sept. 3. After the game, he couldn’t stop smiling as he spoke about his honor and excitement to play for his hometown program under Durkin’s staff. (Courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

During one recess that year, Sean Mayberry, who played for the local AAU basketball team, had a question for Melvin, the tallest kid in the grade.

“You’re huge,” Mayberry said. “Have you ever played basketball?”

Keihn hadn’t. He played soccer in Takoma Park but couldn’t find a league in Baltimore. He didn’t know what basketball was.

Mayberry invited Keihn to his house, a less-than-two-minute walk up the hill, and “next thing I know,” Keihn said, “I’m going to basketball practice with Sean.” Keihn didn’t know the rules — he would pick up the ball and walk around the court — but the coaches taught him basics.

He went home and told his dad, who took Keihn to Walmart to buy his own ball. Keihn spent the next eight years playing in the AAU circuit, first with Team Future and then on Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs’ Team Sizzle. He traveled everywhere from Nevada to Rhode Island to Texas.

His prowess on the court caught the attention of the Calvert Hall High School football coaches, and they convinced his dad, who at first assumed they meant soccer, to enroll Keihn.

When Keihn moved to the U.S. at 8 years old, this was the only picture he had of his mom. He woke up after his first night in America and sobbed looking at the photo, unsure of when he would see his mother again. (Courtesy of Bainda Keihn)

In eighth grade, private high school brochures flooded Keihn’s mailbox. Coaches called the house each night and gave Bainda Keihn presentations to pitch their programs.

Biff Poggi, who coached at the Gilman School, was also impressed with Keihn’s prowess on the field, as he played everything from quarterback to running back to defensive end.

But when the coach approached him to talk afterward, Poggi thought Keihn was arrogant. He didn’t say much. He just smiled and nodded.

Poggi then learned about Keihn’s Liberian roots, tumultuous childhood and separation from his mother. He offered Bainda Keihn an opportunity his son couldn’t decline.

Poggi knew Keihn couldn’t balance school and practice with finding someone to drive him 30 minutes to and from Gilman each day. Plus, with younger siblings at home, Keihn often assumed childcare responsibilities while his dad and stepmom worked.

Moving in with the Poggis, the coach hoped, would eliminate the outside distractions.

Bainda Keihn didn’t want his son to leave but remembered the promise he made about better opportunities with Keihn’s mother.

That’s why, after Keihn succeeded in his first season with Gilman, his fall stay with the Poggis turned into Keihn becoming the honorary sixth Poggi sibling for the rest of high school.

While emerging as a consensus top-15 recruit in the state, Keihn celebrated Christmas with the Poggis, opening the same number of gifts as the other kids.

When the family went on vacation to South Carolina each summer, Keihn went too, learning to swim in their pool. Poggi paid for tutors to come three times a week, helping Keihn write papers and keep up in history, political science and math classes.

Above Keihn’s bed, he hung the picture of his mom. But when Keihn had friends over to the house, he introduced the Poggis as his mom, dad, brothers and sisters, though they never formally adopted him.

“It’s better than legal because my wife and I and my five children love Melvin like he’s our very own child,” Poggi said. “There truly is no distinction.”

Keihn committed to Virginia Tech for his collegiate freshman year, appearing in 13 games, but never shook his homesickness.

He missed the Poggis. He longed for home-cooked African food. His dad, who worked almost every weekend, couldn’t make the five-hour trek to Blacksburg, Virginia, for his games.

So he transferred to Maryland as a sophomore, taking a redshirt year to comply with NCAA regulations. Keihn never complained about the season off.

He worked on the Terps’ scout team. He attended Gilman’s games and came home on the weekends the team traveled without him.

“When you’ve been through what Melvin’s been through,” Poggi said, reflecting on Keihn’s stories of bombs and killings in Liberia, “when you go through that, let me tell you, sitting out football games or coaches yelling at you or Cs on tests, that’s not frustrating.”

‘DO SOMETHING’

Note: During Keihn’s four years at the Gilman School, he lived with his coach, Biff Poggi. He became an honorary sixth Poggi sibling while emerging as a consensus top-15 recruiting prospect in the state. (Photo courtesy of Biff Poggi)

Keihn’s spirits, however, dipped during spring practice this season.

Last semester, Keihn’s dad was in Liberia for the first time since his asylum. He cried for more than 30 minutes upon seeing the lack of infrastructure and control in the country, but his presence made communicating easier for Keihn and his relatives.

It’s usually a lengthy process for Keihn to call his mother, who doesn’t have a cell phone or reception in her village. He first tells his dad he wants to call.

Then his dad contacts his uncle in Monrovia because the two set up a calling card to reduce long distance fees. The uncle goes to her village and brings her back to the city.

With his father in Liberia, Keihn had easier access and spoke to his brother for the first time in years. The conversation left him in tears, silence lingering on the line.

The message was clear.

He pled for Keihn to work hard. Keihn served as a symbol of hope for his mother’s chance at a better life. His relatives at home were all proud.

Their conditions were even clearer through the pictures and video Keihn’s dad emailed.

He had brought pictures of Keihn at prom and in his football uniform to show his mother, who bawled at the sight of her young boy turned young man. Keihn received a picture of his biological mother, brother and sister and a video of their mud walls leaking in the rain.

“I don’t want to say it made me mad, because I couldn’t have done much being there to help her,” Keihn said. “But it made me wish I could do something.”

Keihn bottled up his emotions and didn’t speak to his father for about a week. Coach DJ Durkin could sense his defensive end’s enthusiasm slip in practice and called him in for a meeting.

Keihn left their talk with a renewed purpose to one day support his mom in America.

He started by plastering the picture of her everywhere.

It’s his head photo on Twitter. It’s the lock-screen background on his phone. He had photocopied the original picture of his mom, which he keeps in his wallet, for years, and now he had another reminder of why he wants to be a therapist or psychologist and travel to war-torn countries to help children.

The drive continued in his Terps debut against Howard on Sept. 3 when he finished second on the team with five tackles, two for a loss, with his dad and Wood in the stands.

It was one of the two games he played before not traveling with the team to Central Florida for what Durkin called a “minor incident,” though Durkin said Keihn will return for homecoming against Purdue this weekend.

His mom won’t be there. She’s never seen Keihn play, but Keihn knows he’ll feel her presence on the field.

Like he did as his pregame ritual before facing the Bison — starting his new life with a new program — he’ll tuck a copy of his mom’s picture into his sock and lace up his cleats.

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