‘Lost boy’ gives back to U.S., joins 109th AW
By Master Sgt. Catharine Schmidt, 109th AW Public Affairs
/ Published May 19, 2017
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Airman 1st Class Frances Andrew is assigned to the 109th Airlift Wing's Command Support Staff here. Andrew first arrived in the United States in 2001 at the age of 21. He grew up in a refugee camp from the age of 7 and is known as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. William Gizara/Released)
STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. --
Thirty years ago and 6,000 miles away, Airman 1st Class Francis Andrew was a 7-year-old “Lost Boy.”
Andrew was one of about 20,000 Sundanese children who lost their families during the country's civil war between ethnic groups and regions which began in 1983 and lasted until 2005.
These “Lost Boys,” as refugee workers called them, traveled by foot from Sudan to Ethiopia and then to Kenya in search of safety. In 2001, Andrew - then 21 years old - was one of those who made it to the United States and safety.
Since then he's gotten a college degree, has a wife and an 11-year old son, along with a good job with Delhaize Group, the company which operates Hannaford and Food Lion supermarkets.
And in 2016, at the age of 36, he joined the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing so he could give back to his adopted country.
"There are only a few places in the world that can give you opportunities to thrive, and I am lucky to be in this country," Andrew said. "I see that as an opportunity to give back."
Andrew took his first step on U.S. soil only a few weeks after 9/11. He and a group of others were en route to a life they had only dreamed of when the events of 9/11 took place.
Andrew said many of the boys were scared wondering why they could not escape war. As one of the older refugees, he tried to comfort them and tell them to stay strong. The group was grounded in Holland for a couple weeks before finally making it to the United States.
Andrew got settled in Ohio, arriving with just a change of clothes. He soon found a job and also obtained his GED diploma. While in Ohio, Andrew met his wife, Lekeya, who was going to college there but was from the Albany area.
A year later, Andrew moved back to the Albany area with Lekeya where they have been since. He started going to Hudson Valley Community College and obtained his associate’s degree – another goal he never thought he’d have the opportunity to accomplish. He also talks to his mother, who still lives in South Sudan, frequently.
“I worked hard, had a family and bought a house,” he said. “Things I never thought I would have. When I was in the camp, we just lived day by day. If you made it out today, you hoped for tomorrow and then to make it out tomorrow.”
Because of all the opportunities Andrew had once arriving to the United States, he said he wanted to do something to give back to the country that had done so much for him. He made the decision to join the military.
“I want to be able to sit down with my son and my grandkids and tell them stories of what I achieved and what I did to get there,” Andrew said. “I don’t like taking things for granted – I try working hard for the things I get.”
Andrew heard about the 109th Airlift Wing and the missions the unit takes to Greenland and Antarctica.
“I saw the mission that we do here, and it caught my attention,” he said. “Being able to go to Antarctica is something that I never would’ve imagined I could do growing up in a refugee camp, and then now seeing these missions I may be able to go on is another milestone for me.”
He also said the Air Force core values were values he held in his heart even before joining, so joining the Air Force was the perfect fit for him.
Andrew left for basic training in March 2016, and while there and then at technical school, took on a mentorship role for the younger Airmen he encountered.
“I wanted to help them out and motivate them,” he said. “I would support them – I tried to blend in but also tried to help them. I look at things differently – when I see younger Airmen who are upset, I always pull them aside. I don’t like to share my story with too many people, but when it gets to the point that my story can help someone else, I’m always open to sharing it with them.”
Andrew is now assigned to the 109th AW’s Command Support Staff. He started his assignment there over the April Unit Training Assembly, performing administrative duties for wing leadership.
Since joining the 109th AW, Andrew said it’s a great place to work. From the recruiter who helped him through the process of joining, Master Sgt. Shawn Keating, to the cadre in his student flight who prepared him for basic training, and to the wing leadership, Andrew is thankful to them for everything.
“It’s a good base - people really get along here,” he said. “Everyone is open, even the leadership. It’s the kind of leadership skills that I want to learn – to have that connection with people. I’m happy to be here, and I’m hoping that my story will help someone out.”