By Michael Katz WyoSports |
LARAMIE – Though he didn’t play in his team’s 38-17 Arizona Bowl win over Georgia State on New Year’s Eve, University of Wyoming sophomore running back Titus Swen got himself the greatest gift of all last December.
The Fort Worth, Texas, product was on pace for a memorable freshman season in Laramie before a knee injury suffered midseason against San Diego State derailed his promising opening campaign. Titus ran for 337 yards and a touchdown in just six games, including a 136-yard effort against UNLV. He was available for the Cowboys in the bowl game, per coach Craig Bohl, but did not play.
While it was admittedly disappointing to watch the action from the sidelines, there is always a silver lining to be found. Swen said he is now feeling “110%” and spent much of his offseason working on his speed and explosiveness.
“That’s always tough, but if you look at it, we’re a team,” Titus said. “If I see my brothers eat, I’m excited for them.”
In addition to being fully healthy, Titus can now add another notch to his résumé: American citizen.
Titus spent part of last December back home in Texas, where he finally took his American citizenship test. While Swen mostly grew up in the United States, his parents fled war-torn Liberia when he was a child and lived in Sierra Leone for several years as refugees before eventually arriving in the United States in October 2004, just before Titus turned 5.
Titus doesn’t remember living in Africa, but he does remember the earliest moments of living in America: Section 8 housing, poverty and, above all else, hope.
“We had to walk to Walmart and get our groceries before we had enough money to get a car,” Swen said. “(My parents) wanted to get us out of the place we were at so bad. … I appreciate everything that they do.”
But Swen’s parents, Christopher and Felicia, knew the struggles they underwent in a new country were nothing compared to what they had been through nearly 6,000 miles away.
In America, there was opportunity for something better, and the Swens were going to stop at nothing to make sure their three children had the best lives possible. Their oldest son, Al, works in Houston while Carolyn (Columbia University) and Titus are currently in college.
“It was a plan between my wife and myself. We were united, we had one goal,” Christopher Swen said. “We made a vow, that we have to make sure we send our kids to school, make sure they get good grades in school, and in five years’ time, we would have a house.”
Swen’s parents became American citizens almost seven years ago to the day, on Aug. 6, 2013. The family was under the impression you had to be 18 years old to become an American citizen, which is why Titus and his older brother and sister all waited until then.
Christopher jokes about Titus thinking he was born in the United States. After all, he left Africa as a toddler. But while Titus was able to enjoy many of the liberties of an American growing up in Texas, he still longed for citizenship, particularly the ability to vote. That’s why he rushed back and forth from Texas to UW football practices last winter as the Cowboys prepared for Georgia State.
Swen’s family worked far too hard to get to this point. He owed it to everyone, including himself, to capture his family’s dream.
“I’m a part of this great nation,” Titus said. “In the midst of all the action, I can still look up and call myself an American.”
To understand why becoming a citizen was so important for the Swens, one must understand the circumstances surrounding Liberia. Civil war in the country started in 1989 and lasted almost consecutively through 2003, killing approximately 250,000 people in the process, per the BBC.
The civil wars began when Charles Taylor, the leader of a revolutionary group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, waged war on the current government, later leading to the assassination of Liberia’s then-president. Taylor eventually became Liberia’s president in 1997.
A new rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, rose up against Taylor in 1999, as did another group called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia. War ensued for another four years. According to History.com, Taylor’s rebels “were known to amputate limbs, rape women, enslave survivors of their attacks and force boys into child armies.”
The wars lasted until 2003, when a peace agreement, spearheaded by The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, was signed, and Taylor stepped down. Taylor was found guilty of war crimes in 2012 and is serving a 50-year prison sentence in the United Kingdom.
Christopher remembers having to keep his family indoors nearly all hours of the day, the only exception being to get food.
“It was very scary. It was a war zone. You couldn’t come out. They were killing men, raping women,” he said. “It was only the grace of God that saved our lives. It wasn’t because we were smart enough … it was the grace of God.”
The Swen family fled Liberia for Sierre Leone under a refugee program, though Sierra Leone was war-torn in its own right. In 2001, Christopher and Felicia each applied for refugee status in Canada and the United States, respectively, under the United Nations’ refugee program.
Christopher’s application to Canada was accepted, but the family waited to see if Felicia’s was, as well. The application for the United States was accepted, and they canceled a scheduled move to Canada.
Plans for their American dream were put on hold for three years, though, as after Sept. 11, 2001, the refugee program was shut down. The Swen family stayed in Sierra Leone for another three years, until Oct. 15, 2004, when they arrived in Abilene, Texas.
“I was thinking, ‘We should have accepted Canada,’” Christopher said with a chuckle. “But we just kept our faith.”