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10.07.2004 General News

Visiting Students Left Penniless By "Sponsor"

By The Westerly Sun
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WESTERLY,Rhode Island, USA - Originally, the trip was envisioned as an adventure, with 12 college students from the west coast of Africa spending the summer gaining international work experience and learning about life in America.

But the trip did not go according to plan when their "sponsor" allegedly took their money for their first two weeks of lodging and left them without any resources.

Now, five of the 12 college students from Ghana -- Felix Manford, Kwesi Konadu, Ellis Lampteui, Fred Asante and Jonathan Owusu -- are stuck in a small, two-room cabin on the outskirts of town. They share three bicycles as their only means of transportation to and from their jobs at Stop and Shop. The students pay $120 each a week for rent, which amounts to about half of the pay they are getting from Stop and Shop, where they are working for about $7 an hour.

"We're not so concerned about making money," said Fred Asante, "but we have to make ends meet."

The other seven students are living in Providence for about $100 a month each and taking the bus to the Narragansett Stop and Shop, the students said. The men said they would be more than willing to pay for accommodations, but that it is difficult to pay as much as they are now.

"We're just hoping somebody might come to our aid and help us with accommodations," said Felix Manford. "We were just stranded."

While they seem mostly upbeat, the students do not mince words when asked about their situation and how their trip has gone so far.

"Everything went wrong," said the lively, outgoing Kwesi Konadu. "The purpose of this program has been defeated."

Part of the Alliances Abroad Group, the five students -- who are all finishing college at the University of Ghana -- said they paid about $1,175 each, and that was supposed to cover their travel from New York City and their first two weeks of accommodations. The students say their sponsor, who was supposed to find them accommodations and jobs, "vanished," leaving them to fend for themselves. The students had to pay for their own transportation from New York City and arrived in Rhode Island with no food and little money. Representatives with Alliances Abroad did not return several calls from The Sun seeking information or comment regarding the students sponsor, or their allegations.

Almost penniless and without shelter, the five men went to the Westerly Stop and Shop, where their sponsor had said they would find work. There, they met store manager William McHaughton, whom they said was a tremendous help, lending them money for lodging and finding them all work.

"They took care of us," Kwesi said. "Stop and Shop did everything for us."

McNaughton said the men are good, smart workers and have adapted well after coming from another country.

"We do what we can," he said. "What would I do if I walked into Ghana and was in the same position?"

The men also met Westerly resident Bob O'Connor and his wife Barbara, whom the students said have helped them as well.

"He's been a father and his wife has been a mother to us," Kwesi said.

Bob O'Connor said he first met the men when he was going into Wal-Mart and they were leaving the store, carrying water and two 20-pound bags of rice. After greeting them on his way into the store, O'Connor said he finished shopping and was leaving when one of them approached him and asked him for a ride.

O'Connor agreed and said he was instantly impressed with how polite and smart the men were. Since meeting them, O'Connor has brought them food and even taken some of them to see the beach and fireworks.

The men said some people have been nice to them, but that a majority of people either ignore them or talk about them like they can't understand what is being said.

Americans have many misconceptions about Ghana, they said, and ask them ridiculous questions like whether they have supermarkets or automobiles in Ghana. Ghana, they say, is not that different from America. Almost everyone has cars. Televisions, computers and other amenities are common.

Even a short conversation with the men will reveal they all have a perfect grasp of English - which is the foremost language spoken in Ghana - and their knowledge of politics and current events would trump that of many American college students.

They remember the day they landed in America as the day of President Reagan's funeral. They know events, dates, names and political trends and the historical context to tie it all together. In Ghana, they say, they watch the BBC and CNN, when they're not studying for their sociology, psychology or political science degrees.

The men speak highly of United Nation Secretary General Kofi Annan - a fellow Ghanaian - and regard civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes. When they talk politics - be it Ghanaian or American -- they become passionate. The men even talk in great detail about Florida, the state's role in the last election and the traits of Al Gore, President Bush and Bill Bradley.

One of the men, political science student Ellis Lampteui, said "democracy was defeated" when the election was decided in the courts and not by a majority vote.

The war on terror is a subject that promotes some lively discussion amongst the men and their views on the United States role in the Arab world could be described as both optimistic and pessimistic. The men say that the average American, through tolerance and peace, could change the views of Muslims, but seemed pessimistic about whether that would happen.

Though they haven't known each other forever, they obviously share a common bond, finishing each other's sentences and laughing at each other's jokes. While they aren't entirely happy with their cramped confines or their situation, the students view this as another challenge.

"Every one of us knows where we are coming from and where we are going to. Maybe this is just a step," Kwesi said. "If you quit, you never win. When situations present themselves, you have to make the best of them."