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Twenty Years in America: Inside the Story of Hillside’s Samuel Alier (02/15/21)

Feb. 15, 2021

If you’ve ever walked through the hallways of Hillside Elementary, chances are you were immediately greeted by Samuel Alier’s kind-hearted presence and warm embrace. It seems as though every interaction he’s shared with a fellow WDMCS employee, student, or family leaves a lasting impression, with beaming, bright smiles hiding behind face masks. 

Alier, the head custodian of the school, has worked for the West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) since 2013.

“One of the people that makes Hillside so great is you,” Principal Graham Jones, Ed.D., told Alier during a sit-down interview for this feature. “We appreciate you so much, and I just want to say ‘thank you.’ I love listening to your story and what you can add to Hillside and our school district.

“You just are a mentor and a good friend to so many people here.”

Fleeing From War To Resettling In America

Originally from South Sudan, Alier was removed from his home country in 1987. He sought refuge in Ethiopia and later in Kenya amid the decades-long Second Sudanese Civil War, which lasted from 1983 to 2005. 

Roughly 2 million people died during the war, and another 4 million were left displaced.

“The refugee camp is not a life that is really, you know, good. There were a lot of difficulties there too, but because of good people and nations that always support the refugees, we survived,” Alier said. “We as young people were taken away from the country to shield us from the war. It was a movement formed by southerners to fight against the corruption and the unfairness with northern Sudan.

“They knew that the war was going to be long. They needed people in the future. So they decided it was a good idea to take kids out of this war and go to a place where they can go to school, survive, and they will be the future of the country.”

Because of an agreement formed between the United Nations and the United States, Alier said, he was able to resettle in America. This process started in 1998. 

“They called us ‘The Lost Boys of South Sudan,’” he explained. “I was part of the program that was offered by the U.N. in connection with the United States government. It was a lengthy process—the United States is a place where everybody wanted to come. You have to go through interviews and be somebody who has walked along all of the routes living in South Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya.” 

Some of the primary questions raised during interviews, which Alier noted went up to about four rounds, revolved around knowing where your family is located, what school you’ve attended, and what group you’re in while at refuge.

“There were a lot of people who were denied, not because they’re not ‘the one’, but just because there were inconsistencies with their own history,” he said.

Alier made it through, and three years later arrived in Des Moines in 2001. Because of the agreement’s stipulations for resettling in the U.S., though, Alier said he had had just three months to establish residency and secure a  job.

“The agreement when you came to the United States, the main thing was that you come here to be independent,” he explained. “Human Services and other agencies helped refugees find accommodations, rent a place, help take you to the doctor, or give you a ride if you’re going to school.”

Alier worked in a variety of roles before joining Hillside Elementary, where he currently serves as the school’s head custodian during the day. He also works at Drake University at night, noting how he must provide for his wife and six children.

“This is not unique to the people who want to live a better life. It’s always about work,” Alier said. “You always have to work hard in order to provide for your family.”

‘This Month Is A Month Of Peace’

February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of the achievements of Black Americans and a time to recognize their critical role in the history of the United States. Black History Month is every day to Alier, commemorating all of the things Black Americans have done to positively impact the lives of future generations to come.

“I would have not come to America if it were not for other people of the same color that I am, to make it where people of different colors live together in harmony,” he said. “It is our time right now to do things that a new generation coming after us have to pick up. It is Black History Month today. It is Black History Month tomorrow. It will be Black History Month the day after. 

“Black History Month is on the table of every Black family every single day by telling your kids they have made it,” Alier continued. “If you work hard—it doesn’t matter what color you are—it is always ideal to work hard and reach for that potential.”

Minutes later, Alier thumbed through a handful of special photos he brought with him highlighting his journey to America. He showed a picture of himself with two other men during his earlier years in refuge. Behind them: A wall with hand-written phrases of “Give Peace A Chance” and “Come Together” etched on it.

“This month is a month of peace,” Alier said, referencing Black History Month. “It’s a month where people have to celebrate the good things other people have done in life. This picture represents that.”

20 Years in the United States

Sunday, Feb. 14, marked Alier’s 20th year living in the United States. Hillside staff celebrated his milestone that previous Friday morning, surprising Alier with a snack basket loaded with goodies and gift cards. His office door was also decorated with red, white, and blue stars and streamers.

A prideful Alier said Hillside’s school community has “been a really good family for me.”

“You cannot underestimate teachers at this school,” he said. “There are so many kids I see here every day who come from different backgrounds, and they love it here because of the teachers. Led by Dr. Jones, they’re all good and they all love their kids.” 

“This country is really a good country,” Alier continued. “We have to be part of it, and that’s what we’ve been doing as people who’ve come from other countries. We know that this country and the people are awesome. It is not difficult to find good people around here.

“Come out here and I’ll show you if you don’t know any of them.”

And if you asked us, we know exactly who we would introduce you to first…

Samuel Alier.

Black History Month 2021: An Ongoing Celebration

Black History Month is an annual celebration of the achievements of Black Americans and a time to recognize their critical role in the history of the United States. Watch for posts each week that highlight and honor the history of Black Americans and our own Black community members. 

Black History Month is not meant to be the only time we celebrate the accomplishments of Black people in the U.S. WDMCS invites you to join us in making the celebration and reflection associated with this month ongoing.