Fulfilling a dream in Valencia County


From all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, a young West African man has come to the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus to fulfill his dream of becoming a registered nurse.

In a twist of fate, Ghana native Nuhu Alhassan (pronounced Noo-hoo Al-hah-sahn) met Los Lunas native Paul Sanchez at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: West African visitor Nuhu Alhassan is living in Peralta in an apartment renovated by Paul Sanchez, who is sponsoring Alhassan’s education in the United States.

Sanchez had retired from the National Education Association in New Mexico and was serving a four-year term as the executive director of the American Embassy Association.

Nuhu was among 18 Ghanaians who worked for him at the U.S. Embassy and its commissary, and Nuhu won Sanchez’s heart. Now, Sanchez is helping Nuhu make his lifelong ambition into a reality.

“He’s an amazing young man with so much love and joy in his heart,” Sanchez said. “Ghanaians are just amazing people.”

Ghana won their independence from Britain in the 1950s, and it is one of the only English-speaking African nations, the other is Nigeria, said Sanchez.

It is a tropical region, and because it is a developing country, most people are extremely poor, Sanchez said.

Infrastructure is virtually nonexistent, and waste water has contaminated the water so clean drinking water must be bought. Medical service is scarce in West Africa and it is very difficult to find trained health professionals. Many people die daily, Sanchez said.

“If we took ill there, we were medevac’d to London, South Africa, or the U.S.,” Sanchez said of the foreign diplomats stationed in Ghana.

It is Alhassan’s dream to help his people by becoming a professional nurse and develop health clinics in the local villages.

In melodic King’s English, similar to the voice of Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu, Alhassan explains the circumstances of his country.

“Ghana is a pretty place, very nice place you know,” he says with his thick Twi accent.

“It’s a country that has gone through a lot — from colonial rule to independence — independence to coup d’état — coup d’état to traditional rule.

“Now, Ghana is actually known in Africa as the island of peace,” Alhassan says.

It is the first African country President Obama visited after he was elected, and Alhassan is very proud of that fact.

Alhassan comes from a large family, five siblings on his mother’s side and 16 step-brothers and sisters on his father’s side.

His father, Alhassan Alidu, is a crop farmer, and farmed to feed the family. (A little side note on names. Alhassan’s father’s last name is the grandfather’s first name, and Alhassan’s last name is his father’s first name.)

Sending children to school is a challenge for most Ghanaian families because there isn’t any public education. Parents must pay to send their children to school from kindergarten through college, so most Ghanaian children cannot go to school.

But education is very important to Alhassan’s hopes and dreams, and after graduating middle school, he told his father he wanted to go to high school.

“I have two brothers who are also going to school. I told my dad I want to go to high school … my dad said, ‘Why don’t you just stay, because your brothers are going to school and I can’t afford to pay.’ I told my dad, ‘No, no, I will work. I will work and get the money to go to school.’”

It took three years for him to find a job, but Alhassan worked as a house boy for an American diplomat family to put himself through high school.

During high school, Alhassan served as treasurer for the Red Cross Society Youth Organization. He was elected to serve as the president and run their affairs at the school, he said.

“It’s service to mankind, service to God, helping the school, keeping people clean and educating people on how to live in a clean environment,” Alhassan said.

The Red Cross Society is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization working with people in crisis.

The Red Cross Youth Organization provides young people with leadership training, exercises, sports activities and community service, Alhassan said.

As a senior, Alhassan was elected as his school’s Health Prefect. In that leadership role, he would take sick students and get them medical attention, pick them up afterward and write reports to submit to the health master.

The way the schools are run, older students are elected to offices to run the affairs of the school.

After graduating high school, Alhassan taught for a year, and then he got a job as a guard at the U.S. Embassy.

Since he was a little boy, he always wanted to help his community, but how to do so was his dilemma.

“I kept asking myself, ‘What do I want to do that would help my community?’” Alhassan said. “And what I can do is go to school and become a teacher, or maybe a nurse or a doctor, to help people and make something for other people.”

But for someone like Alhassan, getting a higher-education degree is nearly impossible without some sort of sponsor and, even then, there are a lot of hoops to jump through, Sanchez said.

“The only place people in Ghana can get a decent education is either to come to the U.S. or go to the U.K.,” he said. “It’s only rich people that can afford to do that, and in Ghana, 3 percent of the population have money and the rest don’t. It’s a very difficult country to live in.”

Sanchez and his friend Ted Webber, the senior advisory for the U.S. Treasury who helped Sanchez get the position at the Embassy, are paying Alhassan’s education and living expenses while he goes to school.

“Living in Ghana, experiencing that − for me it is so important to pay it forward,” Sanchez said.

And to that end, he is committed to helping Alhassan fulfill his ambition.

“He’s so appreciative to be here and for this opportunity,” Sanchez said. “He’s overly grateful, and he’s always praying for me and my family. He prays for everyone.”

Sanchez’s parents, long-time Valencia County residents Emiliano and Patricia Sanchez, are providing housing for Alhassan on their Peralta property.

When Sanchez’s mother came to visit him in Ghana, she too was immediately taken with the young West African.

“Nuhu touched her heart,” Sanchez said.

He helped serve Sanchez’s birthday dinner during her visit and she immediately noticed how eager Alhassan was to please.

“Nuhu doesn’t go to bed until everything is in its place,” Patricia said with a chuckle. “And he decided to mop the floors that night before everybody went to bed. I told him, ‘You know, I’m going to take you home.’”

“He’s been good to all of us,” said Emiliano. “He takes the work out of your hands.”

Both Patricia and Emeliano graduated from Los Lunas High School in the early 1950s, and are very involved in Valencia County and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Peralta.

“The people in Ghana are just so good and they’re so poor,” Patricia said. “It’s a completely different atmosphere there than here, and 70 percent of the people there go to church. That impressed me a lot.

“Every Sunday, you see the women all dressed up going to church and the men also. They all (walk) to church together and then when they get to their churches, they all walk off. They support each other in their religions. There is no bitterness. (To them) religion is all one.”

Alhassan is here on a student visa that the family helped secure for him.

Just recently, he learned to drive.

“Nuhu has a license, thanks to (Los Lunas Municipal) Judge Avilio Chavez, who taught him to drive,” Sanchez said. “He can now drive himself to and from school. Before that, he took the bus and my mother collected him after school.”

Alhassan arrived last summer and has just finished his second semester at UNM-VC. He has two more years here and then he will finish his final year at the main campus.

“I’m just part of their family now,” says Nuhu with a broad smile. “They are good people.”

He misses his family in Africa, but they are able to Skype on the computer and talk on the phone.

“His brothers and sisters call him on the phone and we talk to them, too,” Patricia said. “They call us Grandma and Grandpa, too.”

-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.