“Far From Liberia’s Killing Fields: Student’s Future Began in Teaneck”

       In a booming voice, Saah Hali cheerfully greets a visitor to Caldwell College, proclaiming, "My campus is your campus!"

Hali is all smiles, and that's the norm. In fact, the Teaneck resident and Teaneck High School graduate said people often ask how he can be so happy all of the time.

"You've got to be grateful for every single day you wake up," said Hali, who graduates from Caldwell College today with a degree in social studies education.

Hali, 23, has reason to be thankful. He came to America 12 years ago after fleeing war-torn Liberia with younger and older brothers, both named Tamba.

When they arrived in Teaneck, where their father had fled years earlier, Hali and his younger brother could neither write nor read English and had not attended school for five years.

"There's always going to be problems in life," Hali said. "I'm able to see that when tough times come, it's not as big as the storm I have already overcome."

Hali plans to begin his teaching career this fall. He is a resident assistant in his dormitory, a youth minister involved in campus ministry at the Emmaus Mission Church in Closter and a member of the soccer team. Hali also played soccer at Teaneck High.

He said he wants to help students reach their potential, just as his family, teachers and coaches supported him. Hali's father, Henry, is a chemistry teacher at Teaneck High School.

"As a teacher, you're planting seeds," Hali said. "You might not be able to reap the fruit of the seed that you are planting, but eventually someone is going to reap the seed that you have planted.

"I have the chance to have an impact on people."

Among those Hali credits with inspiring him is his Benjamin Franklin Middle School reading teacher, Gail Dunn.

"She's an amazing lady," Hali said. "She was very patient with my brother and myself. We couldn't read, and it was difficult."

Dunn said Hali was a driven and magnanimous student who she knew had a bright future.

"I used to say to him all the time, 'Someday you're going to be the mayor of Teaneck,' " Dunn said. "He can talk to and be comfortable with anybody. He and his brother were great kids."

Jamie Nash, Hali's soccer coach at Caldwell College, said his gregarious nature is well-known on campus. "The thing about Saah is, you usually hear him before you see him," Nash said. "Hopefully we can get him back next year to be a volunteer assistant."

Hali speaks openly about his experience in Liberia. He had a normal childhood until Christmas Eve 1989, when the rumble of machine gun fire changed everything.

A group of rebels led by Charles Taylor, a former Liberian government official and future Liberian president and warlord, had invaded from neighboring Ivory Coast, sparking a seven-year civil war that killed at least 150,000 people. Taylor is now awaiting trial for war crimes.

As he speaks about the war, Hali holds in his hands a gold pendant of his home continent that hangs from his neck.

"I love America, I pledge allegiance to the flag," he said. "But I feel like Africa is in my heart. That's why I wear this [pendant] and keep it close to my heart.

Hali recalled walking past killing fields. He said the images of the dead bodies are ingrained in his memory. He said he was scared living in a war zone but his self-preservation instincts kicked in quickly.

"After a while, you just become more aware of protecting yourself," Hali said. "If you hear planes, you know they're going to drop bombs, so you take cover. After a while, what can fear do to you?"

Hali lived with his younger brother and grandfather after the war began. His older brother, known as Big Tamba, was forced to work for Taylor.

The younger Tamba Hali is also a Teaneck High alumnus and a standout athlete. Tamba, 22, graduated from Penn State University this month and will play professional football for the Kansas City Chiefs this fall.

Big Tamba, who is a decade older than his brothers, lives in Teaneck and is a business manager.

Hali said he will be as excited for his father and older brother as for himself when he receives his diploma today.

"He fought so hard for us to come over here," Hali said of his father. "My dad and brother believed so much in Tamba and I and worked so hard for us to be where we are."

It was Big Tamba who orchestrated the brothers' escape from the war zone. Hali remembers the day vividly. "We woke up and caught a taxi to the border early in the morning," he said.

Big Tamba told a border guard that he wanted to take his younger brothers into neighboring Ivory Coast, and that he would return immediately. The guards knew Big Tamba because they, too, worked for Taylor, but were hesitant.

"There was a long conversation," Hali said. "The guards were trying to make a phone call to the city to make sure my brother asked for leave. Luckily they couldn't get through."

Hali said his brother had not told him of his plan, and Hali was afraid he and his younger brother would be abandoned on the other side of the border.

"I actually told my older brother, 'You can't do that. You've got to come with us,' " Hali said. "He didn't pay us any mind. We had no clue what was going on."

Finally the guards let the three cross the border. They immediately hopped on a pickup truck, leaving Liberia behind.

Hali's mother lives in Canada. Tamba and Big Tamba's mother is still in Liberia. The family is trying to clear her passage to America.

Hali has not returned to Africa, but hopes to go back to Liberia in the future.

"I feel my life will not be fulfilled knowing that I struggled to get out and there are still people back there struggling," Hali said. "I want to go back and help out."

Source Citation:Aberback, Brian. "Far from Liberia's killing fields; Student's future began in Teaneck." The Record (Bergen County, NJ) (May 21, 2006): L01. Custom Newspapers. Gale. Bergen County Cooperative Library Sys. 27 Dec. 2008 

The Record’s Spotlight
Name: Saah Hali 

Graduates from Caldwell College today. Fled Liberia for Teaneck in the midst of a civil war in 1994. Arrived in Teaneck not knowing how to read or write English. 

Hometown: Teaneck 

Occupation: Plans to be a teacher 

Age: 23 

Education: Bachelor's degree in social studies education 
Family: Younger brother Tamba graduated from Penn State University this month and was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League. Older brother, also named Tamba, lives in Teaneck and works in business. Father, Henry, is a Teaneck High School chemistry teacher