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Fleeing war in Ghana, serving the U.S. army in Afghanistan, to becoming a Phoenix police officer, Germain Dosseh has led a unique and inspiring life.
Thomas Hawthorne, The Republic | azcentral.com

Hired as Phoenix police lifted a recession-era freeze, Germain Dosseh now wonders how else he can contribute to a country that just admitted its lowest number of refugees in decades.

Germain Dosseh just got home from school when he found out the guns were coming. 

It was a sultry evening in the early 1990s when Dosseh’s family learned their relative refused to carry out an order while serving unwillingly as a soldier for the oppressive government in the African country of Togo. 

The soldier’s punishment was execution.

And his family was next on the list. 

Neither Dosseh nor his loved ones had a car or even a bicycle. They knew they’d have to avoid the roads where the government would be searching, so they scrabbled their way through the brambles bordering Ghana some 150 miles away. Dosseh had just entered his teenage years when they ran, and he remembered climbing through a barbed-wire fence that delineated the boundary. His school uniform snagged on the shard of metal as he turned the page into a new chapter of his young life.

In the weeks that followed, Dosseh and his family found safety — or some semblance of it — at a refugee camp near the Gulf of Guinea in Ghana. It was a life he came to know exceedingly well in the 15 years that followed. 

He didn’t know his journey from the camp would include a job at a slaughterhouse in Des Moines and, ultimately, a police precinct post in Phoenix as one of the department’s few multilingual patrol cops. 

Back then, he didn’t even know what America was. 

“We all thought we got forgotten,” Dosseh said of his family’s decade and a half waiting for resettlement. “But one day, the list came back. Our name was on it.” 

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Refugees in the U.S. 

Last month, U.S. officials vowed to rein in the number of people it would resettle to 30,000. That’s down from the 45,000 refugee cap set last year, which was already the lowest since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980. Data from the U.S. State Department indicate the administration admitted 22,541 refugees in the most recent fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

Arizona took in 1,000 refugees, the sixth most of any state between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, data show. That’s down from 2,250 the previous fiscal year. 

It’s difficult to know how many refugees currently live in Phoenix, where four separate agencies resettle people from around the world in cities across Arizona. The largest of the four local groups, the International Rescue Committee, has resettled approximately 15,000 refugees hailing primarily from countries in Africa and across the Middle East in the past 24 years.

Given rhetoric surrounding immigration, 38-year-old Dosseh wonders what more he can do to ease some people’s stigma.

Cautious with his words and with a cop’s trepidation, Dosseh said he doesn’t blame those who cast judgment on refugees. He doesn’t fault the system, one that has allowed him to find so much success.

Blaming people doesn’t help anyone, he said. 

“They don’t know,” Dosseh said of those who stereotype and speak in generalities about people like him. “They have no idea. Maybe if they know, they would have thought different.”

MORE: Trump administration’s lower limit on refugees delays a reunion for one family

‘They don’t come during the day’

Dosseh remembers being a boy and seeing clouds of smoke as people burned tires to block the road from government forces. There were gunshots from time to time.

A country of roughly 7 million people on Africa’s west coast, Togo is sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. The country gained independence from France in 1960, but in the decades since it has been marred by economic and political instability. 

The former president held control for 38 years, until 2005. It was a time marked by concentrated governmental power, at-times oppressive leadership, intermittent coups and violence that forced an estimated 40,000 Togolese to flee to neighboring countries. 

The men on the radio talked about what was going on in the early ’90s. Dosseh — then a boy who once considered becoming a teacher — didn’t want to know. 

The death of his relative was the last straw.

“We couldn’t stay for them to come for us,” Dosseh said. “The thing was that, they don’t come during the day. They come during the night when they know that you guys are asleep. They kick the door in on you, and they just destroy. They beat people. They take people. They kill you right then and there.” 

Existing in an ’empty land’

After a days-long journey by land into Ghana, Dosseh and his family arrived at a refugee camp in Klikor — a place they called home for the next five years. 

“It was a trip that you can never think possible,” Dosseh said. “But because you are desperate for saving your life, anything that comes to your mind just to save your life, you do.”

He was 13 years old, and the memories are few and far between, Dosseh said.

There was soccer, lots of soccer — usually with kids and grown-ups who also fled violence and oppression. More than that, there was a lot of waiting and wondering as wars raged nearby. 

Five years later, officials moved Dosseh and others from the camp on the border of Togo to a settlement 300 miles to the west in Sanzule. He was older then, and he remembers camp officials gave them large tents and told them to hunker down for the long haul — something easier said than done when the temporary structures disintegrate in the heat and wind. 

“It was like an empty land,” Dosseh said.

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Fleeing war in Ghana, serving the U.S. army in Afghanistan, to becoming a Phoenix police officer, Germain Dosseh has led a unique and inspiring life.
Thomas Hawthorne, The Republic | azcentral.com

Meager rations of rice, beans, oil and sugar that were supposed to last weeks disappeared in days. To make ends meet, Dosseh went to a nearby village to help people load groceries into their cars, earning a pittance from more affluent patrons. 

In the mid-2000s, people from U.S. and Canadian immigration groups arrived at the camp. Buses followed to resettle refugees displaced by a long-brewing civil war in Sudan — a group of people that came to be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.

With the buses coming and going, Dosseh turned to a friend with a question. 

“What’s America?” he asked.

Workers with the U.S. government and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees went to work seeking out candidates whose backgrounds and basic characteristics — from medical clearances to security reviews — checked all of the boxes.

It was work riddled with starts and stops. And it felt like an eternity of waiting. 

Then, one day, a voice on the other end of a telephone: “Your name is up.” 

“It was one of the best phone calls I ever got,” Dosseh said. “It was amazing feeling.”

MORE: Refugee numbers are plummeting in U.S., Arizona under Trump

Settling in America

On Jan. 8, 2008, Dosseh’s plane touched down in New York City. 

He was one of 74,654 refugees who arrived that year, data show. But just 14 people brought here that year hailed from Dosseh’s home country of Togo. 

At 27 years old, Dosseh experienced the East Coast winter cold for the first time, and it remains etched in his mind. From there, he boarded a bus and traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, where his sister lived and refugee officials decided he could settle down. 

Volunteers with the local chapter of Lutheran Social Services helped him strengthen his English, and he found work at a slaughterhouse making $12 an hour.

“I felt like a king,” he said, a grin wide across his face. 

Dosseh was able to save a couple thousand dollars. As time went on, he grew tired of relying on others for transportation, so he put his money into a beat-up Mitsubishi Galant. 

Then he set his eyes on Phoenix, where a friend of his was living and the winters were more forgiving than those in his new Iowa home. 

A year after setting foot in the U.S., Dosseh began school to become a pharmacy technician — a career that, just years earlier, was completely unknown to him.

He worked a security gig on the side patrolling parking lots in the Valley, and eventually landed a job at a Tempe pharmacy. 

He was happy. 

But then he saw the ads for the U.S. Army.

A test of will

Inspired at the prospects of returning to school, Dosseh met with a military recruiter. He was sold in an instant, submitted his two weeks’ notice at the pharmacy, and a few weeks later, on March 20, 2010, shipped out to basic training. 

“I was the only African,” he said. “I was proud.”

The first few weeks were especially rough, he remembered. Boot camp usually is. 

But the verbal beat-down from his instructor was especially punishing. 

“‘I’m going to make sure you go back to Africa, wherever you came from,'” he remembered the instructor shouting early in his training. 

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Dosseh tried not to let it bother him. He set out to prove his drill sergeant wrong. 

Years in the camps playing soccer helped him excel athletically. The time spent in pharmacy school sharpened his mind. There was one limitation that he had to overcome: shooting.

Dosseh had never held a gun before they handed him a rifle during training and told him what it would take to earn his marksmanship badge. In the days that followed, he kept falling short and nearly failed out of basic. 

“‘You can run like a deer, but you can’t shoot,'” he remembered the instructor saying. “‘You are not a soldier.'” 

The stress weighed on him. At times, it was heavier than the unease he felt in the refugee camps that, just two years prior, had been home. But he said he started thinking of that previous life and the hurdles he’d already overcome to get this far. 

Finally, he hit his mark. 

“I remember he (the drill sergeant) shook my hand and said, ‘We are proud to have you in the Army.’ ”

Dosseh served as an automated logistical specialist in the U.S. Army from June 2010 to June 2014 and spent nine months in Afghanistan, an Army spokesman confirmed. He was in charge of base defense operations, and among his assignments was distributing equipment for soldiers to guard the towers while also keeping tabs on surveillance cameras. 

“I have to leave my past,” he said. “I have to leave my being a refugee, going through war. I have to leave all of that and concentrate on what is ahead of me.”

Dosseh served with the Arizona National Guard from when he returned to Phoenix in 2014 until this past March. Uncertain about longer-term plans, he did what some do when they’re trying to figure out what’s next: Dosseh logged onto Indeed.com. 

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Fleeing war in Ghana, serving the U.S. army in Afghanistan, to becoming a Phoenix police officer, Germain Dosseh has led a unique and inspiring life.
Thomas Hawthorne, The Republic | azcentral.com

‘Thank you for letting me be here’

The Phoenix Police Department in 2015 resumed hiring new officers after a recession-era freeze to cut costs. Brass was looking to bring the number of police officers up to 3,125 — a goal that continues three years later — and the department was especially interested in people with recent military service. 

Dosseh fit the bill, so he put in an application.

The callback came almost immediately. He sailed through the physical fitness challenge and aced the polygraph. In the cab of his patrol car during training, Dosseh grew increasingly comfortable in the sprawling desert city he was finally calling home. 

Now a patrol cop based in the Maryvale precinct, he still reminisces about driving off the lot as a full-time, solo police officer, weighing his past while thinking of the future.

“I think about it every day. Why? I think about it to give me guidance so that I don’t forget where I came from,” he said. “So that I don’t forget what I’ve been through.” 

Phoenix Sgt. Ben Catalano was Dosseh’s police supervisor for about 18 months. The inside joke in the Maryvale precinct was Dosseh being known for his running speed: He’s still deer-like from his Army training days and has never lost a suspect in a foot chase, Catalano quipped. 

More impressive is his ability to communicate.

Dosseh is among the 4 percent of African-American officers in a department where approximately three in four officers are white. He speaks about seven languages, including French, Creole and native dialects from parts of Africa, and is sometimes called to help translate for other officers working calls with non-English speakers in Phoenix — the majority of the department’s translators know only Spanish, with a few others including Hindi, Vietnamese and Hungarian. 

He would be a great fit on an advisory board working with refugees and minority communities in Phoenix, Catalano thought, so he volunteered to help him build up his professional resume.  

Then he learned something about his co-worker. 

Dosseh was speaking with congregations at churches and groups of community members on his days off, educating refugees about his story and encouraging them to write their own. 

“It’s very difficult for officers to be humble, but I think that’s his strongest point,” Catalano said. “I think his experiences have shaped him into that person.”

Dosseh said he volunteers and signed up for a career in law enforcement because he wants to pay back the American society that gave him the opportunity to thrive.

He wanted to do something to thank them. 

“I don’t have any money,” Dosseh said. “I don’t have anything materialistic. So I want to serve them to kind of say thank you for letting me be here.”

Reach the reporter at 602-444-8515, jpohl@azcentral.com or on Twitter: @pohl_jason. 

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