Standing Tall

Humans of Chaffey

Portrait of Emmanuel “Manu” Kehasson Oulai. Photo by Emmanuel Vargas.

Portrait of Emmanuel “Manu” Kehasson Oulai. Photo by Emmanuel Vargas.

The story of Emmanuel “Manu” Kehasson Oulai's journey to this country is a story of political turmoil, extreme violence, personal determination, athletic ability, faith and, indeed, a good amount of luck. Manu stands 6 feet 8 inches tall, speaks four languages, is a straight A student and plays forward for the men’s Chaffey College basketball team. This, despite the fact that Oulai has only lived in the United States and spoken English for around two years.

Manu is from the Ivory Coast and is here in the U.S. at Chaffey College on a student visa. The extraordinary circumstances in his home country have forced him to apply for asylum in the U.S.

Like so many kids throughout Africa and much of the world, Manu’s first sport was soccer. He is relatively new to basketball having first played at around age 16. Many of the skills Manu developed playing soccer his whole life have transferred into his basketball game. Having advanced footwork at 6 feet 8 inches is indeed a rare skill—a skill that Manu attributes to having played soccer his whole life.

Manu is naturally left-handed, but as a child growing up in the Ivory Coast, he was forced to become right-handed, a common practice in many African countries.

"I had to write and do everything right handed," Manu said when describing what he experienced as a child.

This experience is one that has given him the ability to use both hands more effectively than most, a skill that is invaluable for any basketball player.

From the beginning of Manu’s basketball life he has received top-notch instruction. He trained with the national team back home when he was just 16 and 17. Now at, age 22, Manu is developing under the tutelage of Chaffey’s coach Jeff Klein.

Manu is averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds a game and shooting close to 60% from the field. When asked what his best asset on the court is, without hesitation Manu answered:

“My energy!"

He is confident that even on an off night he can still get 10 points and 10 rebounds just on energy and effort alone. When asked what part of his game he would most like to improve he said:

“My jump-shot.”

As a self-determined young man, Manu is working to improve his jump shot every single day. The NBA player Manu tries to model his game after is Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, who is a proficient rebounder and defender. He eventually would like to model his game after Paul George who as he said has a “legit shot”.When asked if Manu will receive a scholarship to a division one college, with no hesitation, Coach Klein said:

“No question.”

Manu's life back in the Ivory Coast was much different than his life now. Although he is happy to be here, he is thousands of miles away from his family (whom he hasn’t seen in years) and is in a new country, and speaking a new language. Before Manu came to the U.S. his family worked inside the administration of the president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo.

His father and uncles worked for the minister’s office and his mother worked for a government agency that focused on the rights of women and children. Despite the fact that there are 60 different ethnic groups and a variety of religions in the Ivory Coast, according to Manu, for the most part:

"People in the country got along."

That is until a disputed presidential election in 2010 saw Alassane Ouattara assume power and Gbagbo get arrested. This threw the country into violent turmoil. Violent clashes between rival political factions erupted throughout the country.

“Somebody was using religion, ethnicity, and political opinion to divide us,” Manu contested that the French were backing the Ouattara’s mostly Islamic government over the Gbagbo’s Christian regime. According to Manu, this is simply because:

“Gbagbo would not deal with the French the way other leaders would."

Manu also explained that the Ouattara government had promised more favorable deals to France for the extraction and exportation of the Ivory Coast’s natural resources. Violent militias from the northern part of the country, who supported the new Ouattara regime, sent direct threats to Manu’s home city at the time, Yopougon. This was where Gbagbo received much of his support.

Manu made clear that he had many friends from the north before the country was divided by politics. These events gave many in the country a stiff realization that, as Manu puts it:

“The world has no rules.”

Rather than risk his life and wait for the opposition forces to arrive in his city, Manu decided to get out. He and two friends began to walk. As they walked they began to see the dead strewn out on the side of the road, victims of the violent ethnic, religious and political clashes. The three friends realized they must destroy their I.D.’s. If opposition militias were to discover their identity and where they were from, the three young men feared they would be killed.

Along the way, Manu and his friends were lucky enough to meet a woman who was of the same ethnicity as the forces now taking over the country. She happened to be walking the same way as the boys. When the four of them approached a checkpoint set up by militias friendly to the new Ouattara government, the soldiers demanded to see their identification.

When the young men could not produce their I.D.’s the soldiers pointed to a collection of dead bodies. The bodies were of the same ethnicity as Manu and his two friends, the soldier explained. They had been killed simply for being from the wrong area or the wrong ethnicity.

The woman the boys had just met began to cry and plead with the soldiers. She told the soldiers that these young men were with her and were from her town. Because of this woman’s pleas, the three young men were allowed to pass unharmed. The women proceeded to then escort the boys through three more checkpoints. Manu says this woman is the only reason he is alive today.

"It's because of her that I'm able to talk to you today," says Manu.

After this ordeal, Manu used his basketball skills to get out of the country. He was constantly on the move from country to country, playing basketball: Togo, Ghana, Benin, Tunisia, U.A.E., and South Africa. Then in 2017, a friend of his father living in Rancho Cucamonga suggested that, rather than moving from country to country, Manu should apply for a student visa in the United States.

Manu applied and was granted his student visa. Manu now has three to four years left on his student visa and is currently seeking asylum in the United States. With just a student visa he says he cannot return home to see his family, including his mother, his father and his four siblings. Even with asylum from the United States, he says he would only be able to, at best, meet his family in a country that borders the Ivory Coast.

Manu says many of his friends and family back home “basically lost everything.” Many had their bank accounts frozen, their assets taken, their jobs terminated, and their basic government services denied, based simply on their ethnicity, religion, and political affiliations. When asked if his family’s situation has worsened or improved since he left he responded:

“We have our ups and our downs.”

Manu is now majoring in political science at Chaffey College and is a straight “A” student. He says he would love to return to the Ivory Coast with his degree in hopes of effecting positive political change there. When asked what would be the biggest change he’d like to see happen in his country, he explained that his and many other African countries must be left to manage their own affairs without foreign influence. He says:

“We have to be independent."

Life in the U.S. is a very different experience for Manu. He considers himself lucky to be in a “more developed” country with good schools and does not take his right to free expression here for granted. At the same time he does miss the sense of community that exists back in the Ivory Coast. He also misses his family as well as the food of his home country (particularly a palm oil sauce he can't find here).

If Manu is denied asylum in the United States, he is determined to still finish his education in politics here before searching for a different country in which to receive protection. As he explained:

“After practice, my teammates go to their homes. Where do I go? All I need is someplace to call home. That's all I need."