Violence she saw in her native Liberia remains in childhood memories. Abi Sanvee said a defining moment in that war-torn country led her mother to seek asylum in the United States when Sanvee was six.
Sanvee had malaria and her mother was taking her by chartered bus to the hospital. “The bus got hijacked by rebels,” Sanvee said. “They came on and told all of us to get off the bus.” Sanvee was behind her mother, Ropo, getting off. “He (hijacker) took the gun, and he shot the bus driver right in front of me.”
Sanvee, her mother and other passengers ran from the bus with the hijackers firing shots behind them. “They were chasing after, shooting after us. After that incident, my mom was like, ‘OK, we have to get out of here,’” said Sanvee, now a UT Martin freshman, who received a soccer scholarship and is a nursing major.
After her mother decided to leave Liberia and seek asylum in the United States, Sanvee recalls standing in long lines at the American embassy. “Every day you have to stand outside the embassy in line and wait and wait. As a kid, it seemed like forever. I just wanted to get it over with,” she said. They would return day after day and repeat the process until their names were called for an interview. “There was no guarantee,” she said. “You may not even get your visa if they don’t think it’s a good enough reason for you to leave.” They were eventually granted asylum.
Sanvee’s mother worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a colleague helped them get to New York City, where they had relatives. They lived there a year until her mother decided she wanted a slower pace for her daughter, and they moved to Memphis, where they also had relatives. Sanvee was in second grade.
“It was a complete culture shock for me,” she said. “Everything was different.” Even though the official language of Liberia is English, Sanvee said it is spoken in Africa with a type of slang. “The teacher couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand the teacher’s lessons. I struggled.” After she got acclimated and lost her dialect and accent, she said she was like any other second grader.
In Liberia women have careers, but their free time is spent taking care of their households. They do not participate in organized sports, although Sanvee enjoyed watching soccer matches and following teams. When she settled in Bartlett, her mom wanted her to be active. In fourth grade, she began swimming, then ran track and played recreational soccer and basketball.
She was the 2009 TSWA Division II all-state forward for the Cordova Evangelical Christian School soccer team. She claimed other prep awards, and during her senior season, helped the Lady Eagles earn a state runner-up finish. She also played point guard on the basketball team and earned all-region honors .
She was choosing between two other colleges when the UT Martin soccer coach saw her at a tournament and followed up. “I didn’t want to go to a big school and get lost,” she said. “After I left here (following the initial visit), I was like ‘OK, this is where I want to go.’”
Becoming a medical doctor was Ropo’s initial career plan after college. She attended medical school for a year before her program was shut down during wartime. She turned to an administrative/accounting position with the Red Cross. In Bartlett, it was the influence of an aunt, who was in nursing school, which led Sanvee, while in high school, to consider nursing as a career. “She would talk to me about her job a lot and everything she did on a day-to-day basis. It got me more interested. I like to help people.” She added, “It’s really challenging, and you have to work really hard. I can’t wait to learn more as I go on.”
After graduation, she wants to work in a missionary nursing setting – possibly making trips to Africa and other countries to help the residents. She especially enjoys working with children and teens.
Sanvee said if she were still in Liberia, she likely would be in accounting like her mom. “America just gives you a bigger opportunity,” she said. One of those opportunities Sanvee took advantage of in September – becoming a naturalized citizen. “Since I didn’t fully grow up in Africa, … I am going to stay here, I thought I might as well.”
Sanvee said the experiences of her early life helped her mature quicker. “I see things differently than most people my age. I just value the little things, and I don’t get caught up in the things that some people my age get caught up in.”
As for now, she’s happy as a student-athlete. “ I love soccer. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t playing.”
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