Born in Kenya but fighting for America

Turns out you don’t pack much for boot camp. When I asked Belindah Mumelo if I could hang out with her while she prepared to head off for basic training this week, I imagined huge duffel bags stuffed with gear. Instead, she showed me a backpack the size of a school bag, full of white athletic socks.

But gear doesn’t matter. The most important thing Belindah is taking with her when she boards the plane and the series of buses that will deliver her to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., is her sister Barbrah’s advice: "Don’t eat the candy."

"Seriously, that first day, in the mess hall, they’ll put out all kinds of cakes and candies and cookies, but it’s a trick," warns Barbrah in a heavy Kenyan, almost British-sounding accent. "They’ll make you do push-ups if you eat them."

Three Mumelo siblings have signed up to join the Army this year. Belindah’s twin brother, Benson, is currently in basic training in Missouri.

It’s remarkable for so many kids in one family to serve, and maybe even more remarkable when you learn that none of them is a U.S. citizen.

Belindah, 24, and Barbrah, 22, were born in western Kenya, raised in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and arrived in the Pacific Northwest — specifically an apartment they share with two other siblings and their parents in Bellevue — just over three years ago. All the Mumelo siblings are legal, permanent residents with green cards. They can’t apply for citizenship for another couple of years.

In 2008, immigrants — defined either as legal, permanent residents like the Mumelos or foreign-born people who have become citizens — made up 6.3 percent of the Washingtonians in the U.S. armed forces. That’s higher than the 5 percent national average, mostly likely because of our state’s military bases and large immigrant and refugee population.

Belindah and Barbrah make for impressive recruits already. They run to downtown Bellevue and back (a little under six miles) every morning at 4 a.m., boast they can each do 20 push-ups and are passionate about the concept of service in all its forms. Barbrah works in a retirement home and Belindah works with developmentally disabled kids.

They’re also aware of the unique perspective they bring to the military.

"If we protect this country, we’re also protecting our country [Kenya]," says Barbrah, who is now part of the Army Reserves and will do two years of active duty after she finishes school.

She and Belindah were teenagers in Nairobi when the 2007 presidential election resulted in countrywide violence. They say they saw Americans come to help and it made an impression.

Both sisters switch easily between referring to America and to Kenya as "our country," an intriguingly flexible identity within a military institution known for traditional patriotism.

Barbrah says she met lots of immigrants during her basic training, including another Kenyan woman to whom her fellow soldiers eagerly introduced her so they could hear them speak Swahili together.

And that’s just fine with the Army, which, like postelection Republicans, seems aware that its successful future depends on recruiting beyond the usual demographics. A quick Google search of "recruitment of non-citizens in US military" reveals memos and studies on the topic of how to get more immigrants into the service.

"The Army as a whole is looking for more diversity: ethnic, language and cultural," says Army Lt. Col. Somport Jongwatana, a native of Thailand who is a naturalized citizen but joined the forces as a legal, permanent resident decades ago. "The more ethnicities we have the better."

Belindah, who also will join the Army Reserves and do two years of active duty, says she and her sister embody that diversity, and they’re proud of challenging the stereotypes people have of African women both here and back in Kenya.

"Whatever a guy can do is what a girl can do," Belindah says. "In African culture they’re used to women doing what they’re told, but that’s changing."

It was Veterans Day weekend when I visited the Mumelos. Barbrah was planning to celebrate the holiday by wearing her dog tags to work and calling up friends at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Belindah was excitedly packing and repacking that small boot-camp backpack and plying her sister for last-minute advice. "You’ll have to get used to all the yelling," Barbrah warned.

But through the frenzy of preparations, the sisters already were thinking about a future in which both of their countries benefit from their service. The Army will help them pay for school. Barbrah aims to go into law enforcement, while Belindah hopes to eventually open an orphanage back in Kenya.

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