At 12-years old, Alex Ngaba ’24, his mother, and younger siblings fled the Central African Republic amid civil war. For two weeks, they hiked through the woods with broken sandals and only the clothes on their backs as they crossed the border into Cameroon.
“There were tense shootings. We just left. We escaped—just look forward, go. We would run, walk, rest, run, walk, rest,” Ngaba says.
He recalls people crying and dying on the pathway and having to search for “random stuff” in the woods to eat to stay alive. He learned to survive on eating only two or three times a week.
“If I don’t see any food around, I just keep drinking water. Water is the source of life,” he recalls. “It can keep me alive.”
Months later the family was reunited with his father. For years they lived in a refugee camp. Ngaba attended school and his dad picked up odd jobs to make money. Visits to food pantries and food supplied every few months from the UN kept them fed.
“Cameroon was a refuge place for me but I didn’t call it home,” says Ngaba. “A lot of people bullied me at school because of where I was from so I didn’t put that in my head that it was my home. I was trying my best not to fight or get in trouble because if I got in trouble, I would get expelled and that’d be it for me.”
Eventually, the UN offered to relocate the family to either Canada or the U.S.
“My dad said anything that is better,” Ngaba says. “We just go.”
They were put on a waitlist for the U.S. for five months.
“We thought they forgot about us. But they called back and said, ‘OK, you have been approved to go. Get your stuff ready,’” Ngaba says. “We had to sign lots of papers, get vaccinations, and learn the American culture.”
He recalls learning to count U.S. currency, watching a video about how to use a washing machine, and learning various phrases in English like, “I need help,” and “Where should I go?”
“They taught us how to stay in a hotel and that when American people see you, they smile, and you have to smile back,” says Ngaba. “My family hadn’t smiled in a long time.”
They left Africa on November 13, 2016, and arrived in the U.S. on November 15.
“I couldn’t believe I was stepping on an airplane. I never thought I would step on an airplane in my life,” he says. “For me and my family it was just miracles, every day new things happening. Miracles, miracles everywhere, miracles.”
Among the first people Ngaba and his family met when they reached their final destination of Indianapolis were Cathy and John Bridge ’72, who along with Exodus Refugee Immigration and Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, have established a local support system for the family.
“We were happy to help,” Bridge says. “I was with the group that met Alex and his family when they came off the plane. We set them up in an apartment. Many people from the church have stayed close with the family. Alex has got charisma plus. He’s in high gear all the time.”
Ngaba started school at the first opportunity and sped through the Indianapolis Public Schools Newcomer Program for students learning English. What was supposed to take him a year, he completed in one semester then transferred to Arsenal Tech and then George Washington High School where he graduated at the top of his class in 2020.
He was interested in computer technology and told Bridge he was thinking about attending community college.
“He is way too talented for that,” Bridge says. “I encouraged him to look at Wabash.”
Ngaba received a generous financial aid package, but there was still a large sum to make up.
“Some people said, ‘Well, it’s just not going to be possible for him to go there,’” Bridge says. “I told them, ‘I will prove to you the power of the Wabash brotherhood.’ I contacted a number of friends of mine and within three days, we had made up the difference.”
The art major and French minor continues to have an interest in computer science, but looked to his Wabash experience as an opportunity to grow.
“College is about challenging yourself,” Ngaba says. “I needed to find something that I had never done that I started in college, which is art.”
He admits he was pretty reserved and didn’t get involved much his first three semesters but pushed himself to do “something good” before he graduated.
Now, Ngaba is the house manager at Tau Kappa Epsilon, on the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee, treasurer of the African Student Association, a new inductee in the Sphinx Club, and a supervisor in the Fine Arts Center. He also became a U.S. citizen in November.
“Involvement is important,” he says. “When you get more involved, people can help you out and I can also help them. I came here without knowing people. I am learning the language and the culture. Someone can teach me about public politics—I voted for the first time. I asked somebody in my house, he showed me how to do it.
“I’m open to talk to anyone,” he continues. “I have met a lot of people from different countries. You get a lot out of that person and that person can also get a lot out of you—like learning the culture and things you never knew before.”
While he admits he still has struggles, he tries to keep it all in perspective.
“I always keep my smile up. When I smile and I see someone smile from my smile, it just makes me happy. As a little boy, I saw people dying in front of me, their heads cut off. It was awful. I know that every place is not perfect, even the U.S. isn’t that perfect. But if I can eat and wake up in the morning and do what is best for me, smile, that’s a perfect place for me. I’m just thankful.”
And if he needs an extra reminder, Ngaba still has the clothes he wore everyday for four months as a refugee.
“They do have holes. When I came to the U.S., I put them away just to remember how far I’ve come. It’s good to remember where you come from, to never forget.”