SALT LAKE CITY — If you have surgery at St. Mark’s Hospital, you won’t notice the person standing near the surgeon, handing him or her the instruments needed to perform the work, retracting an incision, suctioning blood and perhaps closing the wound.
That’s the nature of surgery, which often requires the patient to be unconscious.
And so you won’t learn anything about that person’s background, which is a shame. He might be Eumbo Kasongo.
If so, you won’t know how his journey to your side in the operating room included being kidnapped at the age of 9 by rebel soldiers in the Congo and forced into military training. When I ask him whether he ever killed anybody, he shrugs his shoulders. “I think I did, but I don’t know.”
His lack of memory is genuine. His captors often kept him and the boys with him drugged so they would be less likely to feel any human emotions. Those emotions already had been strained by seeing his father and one of his brothers shot to death, and of being separated from his mother and other siblings in the confusion of trying to escape.
His journey included five years of this unique type of hell, followed by escape, weeks of walking aimlessly, capture by Zambian authorities and assignment to a refugee camp.
Five more years passed, during which U.N. aid workers miraculously reunited him with his mother and some of his siblings. Then came the day when these aid workers told him they would be resettled to the United States.
They showed him films of life here. He saw images of houses, cars, computers, smartphones and white people. Until then, Eumbo never once thought about the United States. He had no idea what he was looking at or what any of the gadgets were.
Listen to Eumbo tell his story in his own words:
By this time he was 19, had never spent a day of his life in school, spent each day trying to survive and to avoid the diseases that came from digging makeshift toilets and drinking dirty water. He had no knowledge of a world beyond the one that had treated him with immense cruelty.
That was his condition when, a short while later, he, his mother and five of his original 12 siblings found themselves huddled together at Salt Lake City International Airport, their meager belongings in their hands, frightened, colder than they ever thought possible, and listening to Catholic Community Services workers speak to them in words they couldn’t understand.
The next day, they awoke in the fully furnished apartment provided for them and heard their mother say, “Let’s go fetch water.” They had no idea they could turn a faucet and get all they wanted — not until patient volunteers showed them.
The 10 years between now and then has been, for Eumbo, the quintessential American story, from rags to what most of the world would consider riches.
Eumbo has a hard time explaining how hard he had to work. First came the English classes, then a job at an animal hospital, where he practiced the language by talking to dogs.
His mother got sick, and he saw all that went on in a human hospital and decided that was a place he would like to work.
But first he needed a GED degree. Then came college and confusion about financial aid.
“Everything’s hard for me, even now,” he said. “I try hard. I think I cannot give up. If I’m still alive, I want to prove myself, how much I can do. To me, it’s a big opportunity in this country.”
But Eumbo’s story also is the perfect Thanksgiving story. He looks at 9-year-olds here, then thinks of himself at that age. If anything drives him crazy, it is that people born here don’t realize what they have.
“If I think (about it) I go crazy,” he said. “How did I survive being in that place to where I am today? I see a big gap. I see a big difference, like I see I was in the world, and then here I am in heaven, in a paradise. To me, I think this is a paradise.
“You should be thankful that this country is blessed, and you are blessed because you were brought up in a good country,” he said. “You should appreciate every little thing that you have, even water. I mean, we drink dirty water (in the Congo). Here, even water, you should appreciate what you have. Everything is just so beautiful.”
Eumbo isn’t done. He isn’t satisfied. He wants to become a physician’s assistant, at least, and maybe something more. He has started a foundation, johnkasongofoundation.org, which he uses to collect supplies he takes to his village in the Congo once a year.
He is, of course, aware of the politics swirling around refugees, which might consider former boy soldiers a risk to national security. He finds a little irony there, considering how the American demand for diamonds fuels the inhumane cruelty in the Congo that creates refugees.
But strip away the politics and it’s hard to look at this 29-year-old surgical technician and wonder how many others around the world would be eager to try their hand at the American experiment, if given a chance.