QUITTY PAY never met the man. I never had the chance to look him in the eye, hear his story in his own words, or even thank him. To his life. For a chance in the United States, where Quiti became an immigrant, then a citizen; a football player, then a very good football player; a star defensive lineman at the University of Michigan, then a first-round NFL prospect.
But he knows he owes this man, Cyrus, his mother’s cousin. Agnes and Cyrus grew up together in the same village in Liberia; they left together when the country abandoned them – when civil war turned their home into an ugly, twisted place. Cyrus did odd jobs in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone, where they lived – existed, survived – for seven years, then left his earnings in safekeeping with Agnes. But he was far away on the other side of the camp when the soldiers attacked their makeshift house. Agnes had no time to find him, she ran away and used her savings to buy a seat in the army truck that took her to Guinea. It was another foreign land, a land that was not hers, but she was lucky.
The soldiers grabbed his cousin and hit him on the head with a machete, leaving a gaping wound and a pool of blood on his forehead, then tied a splint around his body to burn him alive. They would have accomplished their terrible mission, were it not for a soldier who recognized him and considered him a friend. He was a good man, Cyrus, he became something of a favourite son in the camp, and that reputation was his salvation. He mentioned the soldier’s name. Help me! A soldier ran to him and pleaded with the other soldiers. I know this man. He’s like a son to me. The soldier spared Kier and then threw him to the Red Cross. Quiti remembers it now, always. How a simple act of kindness saved Cyrus’ life. How could Quiti’s simple act of kindness still change him.
Make sure you are always treated with respect; make sure you always give your best, Kwiti said, reciting the mantra Agnes had given him. You never know how that person can help.
Kwiti was not alive the day his mother fled a refugee camp in Sierra Leone with his father and older brother – he was born more than a year later in another refugee camp, this time in Guinea. But what if Agnes didn’t have that money? What if she couldn’t escape? Maybe she’ll be found by a soldier’s bullet. Maybe he will never come to Guinea, so he will never come to the United States, so he will never give Quiti this new life and these new opportunities.
Kwiti was too young – a child when Agnes brought him to America with his older brother Komothei – to remember the war in which he was born. But the atrocities her mother has seen and endured are also her burden. This is his legacy.
Defensive end Quiti Peay began his NFL journey in a refugee camp in Guinea. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
THE FIRST TIME Quiti realized he was different and his family was different, he was 8 years old. Before he was a standout Big Ten player, before he was the best defensive lineman in the 2021 NFL Draft, he was a kid from Rhode Island trying to get into junior pee wee football.
They told him he had to show a birth certificate to identify himself. He didn’t have one, his mother said, so Agnes gave him his green card.
I thought everyone should have such a card to prove their age, Quiti said. And as soon as I got there, everyone asked me: What is it? Why would you do that? Where’s your birth certificate? And I am: That’s it.
Their green cards were funny things, thought Quiti’s older brother, Komotai Coffey. A bit creepy, with faces looking straight into the camera and an unreadable digital code coming from one side.
Like a police photo, Komotei said. It was like we were prisoners.
Kwiti was nine months old when Agnes left Guinea. She wanted her family to flee from something, not just from the rebels in Liberia who wanted her dead, or the countrymen in Sierra Leone who also wanted her dead. So they fled to Rhode Island, where Grandma Agnes was able to support their arrival in the United States. Quiti’s life began in a refugee camp in West Africa, but Providence was the only city he knew; his two-story apartment on the city’s South Side was the only place he called home.
Of course, there were smells of Quiti’s otherness. Her mother went to church and did not dress like other mothers who went to church, she wore a traditional headdress, she wore summer dresses and heels. She also spoke in a peculiar way, and Titi imitated her mother’s accent in English, and incorporated her mannerisms into her speech, while the boy learned the language.
He too has learned how words can cut. Children in the neighborhood whose mother dresses a certain way and speaks without an accent become violent and call her names.
They will laugh at us, Quiti said. Say it: You’re an African scrapper. I thought so: What do they mean?
Kwiti found it all a bit confusing. Kids who look like him still make fun of him because he smells like fufu, a West African main dish – but fufu is just pasta, he thinks. There wasn’t even a smell. And he didn’t hear his mother’s accent. To him, she looked like anyone else who spoke English.
But here is Quiti’s green card, the tangible proof that he is different, a flaming scarlet O.
Quiti Pei and her brother, Komotai Coffey, were often bullied as children, but soccer helped them find their place in Providence, Rhode Island. Polite Agnes pays
Quiti, who has Komotai, and Komotai, who has Quiti, helped. So, at the end of the day, there will be football. Agnes was not so happy when she signed her sons up for a soccer game at the Boys and Girls Club. She heard the thud of bodies hitting the ground, bodies colliding, and she flinched at the brutality of it all. But there was Quiti, in his first youth game, a runaway train.
He ran and lifted the ball above his head. The coach also runs forward, without taking his eyes off Quiti and yells at him to keep the ball close to his chest. It doesn’t matter. Even when Quiti held up the football… Safety on the ball, damn it… he wasn’t caught.
From then on, Quiti approached the game with a monk-like seriousness. He got up early on game days and begged his mother to let him out of church on football Sundays so that the service wouldn’t make him late for the game. This eagerness made sense, for Quiti was their serious boy. He was the son who always painted within the lines, while Komotai offered chaos to Jackson Pollock. Kwiti was a peacemaker who was so serene as a baby in Guinea that Agnes remembers the people who lived next door to her in the refugee camp being surprised that there was even a child in the camp. He is a caregiver who carefully and almost apologetically skirts around questions about his mother’s past, because he knows that asking her to talk about her trauma in Liberia is tantamount to making her relive it.
But there was this green card, a green card that told the story he needed to know.
Why are they different from ours? He asked.
Why were they here?
What has she been through? What is it that still haunts her?
Agnes Pay and her eldest son Komotai fled a refugee camp in Sierra Leone when soldiers turned against Liberians. Polite Agnes pays
ООЖЕТ СТИЛЬ слышать, какричит мужчина.
There’s no place for them now, they have to go. I think that this is what we should do, and we should try to find a way to make the most of the opportunities offered by the Schengen Agreement.
We are talking about a great deal of money, but we are also talking about a great deal of money, and we are trying to build a bridge between the two sides of the sea, and we are trying to build a bridge between the two sides of the sea. There is no reason not to, and there isn’t. There’s no reason not to. There’s no reason not to. ООн был старше Агнес. Может, 20 ? 22 years, there was no change. They accused him of being a Liberian rebel, and he tried to convince them that he wasn’t, that he was just a Liberian, period, trying to survive. He traveled for several days with these Liberians and…
Shut up, they told him.
He started begging for his life and…
Tell us the truth, they shouted. How far away are the other rebels?
They wanted him to confess to what he couldn’t do. The man was screaming for his life and everyone was standing around and watching. Agnes knew he was telling the truth. But how can she speak or cry when her cries are answered with bullets?
The soldiers shot and killed a man. Agnes and her men scattered in the explosion.
Sometimes I feel like I should say: No! He speaks the truth! He was among us! Agnes said. They wouldn’t listen to us because they thought we were all the same. No one could say anything.
This man, who Agnes did not know and could not save, was one of more than 700,000 refugees fleeing the country after Liberia’s two civil wars. It is estimated that a total of 250,000 people died between 1989 and 2003.
A warlord named Samuel Doe took over the country in 1980 and was cruel and ruthless – to everyone but his people, Crane. This deep-seated abuse would create a deep-seated and festering anger. In 1990, Doe was captured and executed, after which Charles Taylor, leader of the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, launched his own campaign of terror, this time targeting the Krahn ethnic group. Krahns, like Agnes; Krahns, like her father, whom they killed, whose house they set on fire. The human race is gone.
The neighbor turned on her neighbor, Agnes said. The family turned against the family. We had to leave our peaceful home. Our beautiful home.
Agnes Pei had several jobs to support her sons in the United States. Polite Agnes pays
Agnes grew up on the edge of the country, near the Cavalla River that separates Liberia from Ivory Coast to the east. As a child, she would have spent all day in this river. It was her favorite place in the world, and her father had to beg her to get out of the water and go home.
Agnes’ father sent her to her aunt just before the rebels attacked her village. He wanted her brought up; he sent her away, not knowing that it was the last time they would see each other. Agnes turns on the radio and listens to the news, which is getting more and more gruesome.
Today they burned down the village.
They killed thousands of people.
They’re coming together.
They’re watching you: Oh, you’re Crane? Agnes said. And boom, boom, boom. Shots fired, more lives stolen.
So they dispersed as the radio broadcasts grew darker, her parents in Ivory Coast and Agnes in Sierra Leone with her aunt, her two cousins and the children of her two cousins, both sides assuming the other was dead. Why hold on to hope? Hope belonged to the old days, to a world where her village had not burned to the ground.
Her parents survived the attack by crossing the Cavalla River – the same river in which Agnes played for hours – and reached Ivory Coast. But shortly after, his father returned. He was an old man. Farmer. He wanted to return to the only country he knew. When he returned, the rebels on the lookout attacked him.
My father, Agnes said. My father. My father was murdered. They killed my father.
They killed her father, but Agnes survived and walked for days along the border with Sierra Leone. They killed her father, but Agnes survived and managed to survive – her decade without roots. She ran through the bushes. She walked for days until the blisters on the soles of her feet burst. She ran for her life, with a child in her arms – a child that one of her cousins had left behind in the chaos of a rebel attack, because sometimes that’s what people have to do: leave their young and old behind. She spent a week in one of the Sierra Leonean villages until she learned that Liberian rebels were invading. She will stay longer at the airport, which was made available by the government of Sierra Leone at the request of the UN to house her and the displaced people. She has lived in Sierra Leone for over seven years and another two years in Guinea. She will have two sons, with a man who also fled Liberia, which means everything, because he knows what it is to have nothing. He lost his family in the war. Life begins and life ends, and Agnes has experienced both.
Sometimes I try not to think about my past because I had a bad life growing up, she says. I don’t deserve it. I didn’t choose this life.
At Bishop Hendricken, Quiti Pei regularly worked 12 and 13 hours a day and never complained. Thanks to Paul Danesi.
We started this journey to another country, it was Quiti who started it. He stopped, unable to continue. I’m sorry.
Four years ago, he was on stage in the school’s auditorium and apologized when his voice stopped. It lasted a few minutes, then he tried again. The day he signed his letter of intent to play football for Michigan, he wanted to thank his mother for the life she had chosen.
She came to this country not knowing what she was getting into, he said.
Because that’s exactly what she got into: When Agnes came to the United States, sponsored by her father’s mother, who was already living in the state, she traded one difficulty for another. In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, she had to fight not to die. In Rhode Island, she had to fight to survive.
She came to the school to learn English. Soon she had two young sons who went to school themselves. Who would help them with their homework if she couldn’t read the words? Who’s going to sign the permits if she can’t find her way? But Komotai and Quiti’s father could not come to America with them, and their family in Rhode Island would not care for the boys. Within a year of her arrival, she and her sons moved into a group home where she could attend school during the day, leave her children with the nursery and meet them in the evenings. They shared a room – Agnes on one bed, Kwiti and Komotai on the bunk next to her. They had to share a bathroom with other families; they also had to share a kitchen, but they were together, alive and safe.
Even as Agnes moved her family out of the group home and into her own apartment in Providence, the reality of financial constraints in a new and foreign country affected the security she could offer her children. Quiti and Komotai went to bed when they heard the shots across the street; they woke up when they saw the yellow ribbon.
Quiti remembers the moment he realized he wanted something better than what the neighborhood had to offer. He was in sixth grade and argued with Komotai and his cousins about who was the best football player. There was a field nearby, so they ran out to do something on their own. As they drove into the field, a dark car with tinted windows stopped, and Quiti heard his name. It was a boy he knew, a boy he had played football with, and he told Quiti to go back inside. He couldn’t have been outside, they would have started shooting, a senior told him. Quiti ran to the house and peered between the blinds. He heard the squeal of tires and the thunder of bullets. Later that night, he saw skid marks on the road.
It was the same in the neighborhood, he says. Either you went or you went.
Two years later, Quiti begged to leave the area completely.
In eighth grade, Kwiti took entrance exams for Rhode Island High School and placed twice: A classic, excellent academic school a little further down the street, and Bishop Hendricken, a Catholic academy with an equally impeccable academic reputation and a top-level football team – which was both far from the city of Providence, Warwick, and even further from Agnes’ financial reach. But one day, Quiti came home, his youth coach and Bishop Hendricken literally running, and asked his mother what the miracle was.
They couldn’t afford it, she assured him. The classic was at the end of the street, she reminded him, and for free too. Then Quiti stood up for his Ave Maria. Quiti, quiet, reserved and undramatic, made a great promise that, eight years later, has become a family legend, told again and again by those who knew and loved him best.
If you send me there, Mom, you won’t have to pay for college, Quiti told Agnes. He guaranteed his mother that he would get a college football scholarship if she could find a way to send him to Bishop Hendricken.
Quiti Pei promised her mother that she would not have to pay for college if she let her go to Bishop Hendricken. Thanks to Paul Danesi.
To do this, she took on several jobs at once. She started her 7-minute shift at one nursing home, finally arrived at 3 p.m., and then began a second shift at another nursing home, which started at 3:15 p.m. (thanks to the internship manager who let her arrive 15 minutes late) and ended at 11 p.m. that night. Sometimes she would cook and take her wares to nursing homes to sell to her co-workers, just for the little money she was offered. He missed counting his games, working in his place so Quiti could play those games in that school.
Komotai remembers her mother arriving and collapsing in bed, too tired to eat. Quiti doesn’t remember seeing her at all.
She has three jobs, he said four years ago, in this crowded house. I never see his face.
Quiti observed these sacrifices, swallowed the way his mother had paid – in money, time and health – to let him stay on Bishop Hendricken, and decided he didn’t have much excuse for not keeping his part of the bargain.
It was a common refrain in Quiti’s corner of Providence. Agnes Church was a predominantly Liberian congregation in one of the busiest areas of Liberia: Rhode Island has one of the largest per capita Liberian populations in the United States, with an estimated 15,000 in the smallest state alone. Anthony Weatherstone was one of Quiti’s closest friends and comrades of Bishop Hendricken, and he too belonged to his church, Providence Church of Christ. He also went to school every day, burdened by the fact that his father had fled from Liberia and endured atrocities that he could not share with his son. They all carried that violence with them, the parents who survived and the children who inherited it, and the children felt compelled to survive because their parents did.
All of this meant that the Queets took the city bus every day and changed buses at 6:30 to get to school. Then he made the trip home, waited at the bus stop in the darkness of the cold New England nights, got home at 7 p.m. and had a 12 or 13 hour day. (And Providence is the capital of Rhode Island, says Mike Green, one of Quiti’s coaches at Bishop Hendricken. There’s a lot of character on that bus sometimes. It wasn’t a school bus with a bunch of teenagers.)
He got on a bus in South Providence and left the world alone. He got off in Warwick in another white bus. He was again a stranger, without a tour guide – Komotai visited Msgr. Hendricken didn’t; in fact, he left Rhode Island to live with his family in Tennessee to play high school football to increase his chances of playing college football. But Quiti came here with a job, so he started playing football and tried to get good enough to keep playing college football. It was in his second year, he says, that a play shook the tectonic plates of his foundation. In the win over Bishop Hendricken, the midfielder took the ball when the opponent was defending 15, hooked the ball at midfield and sprinted 30 yards forward with Quiti. Quiti chased the ball down the field to 1, then kicked it free.
Watch the best games of Michigan’s college career DE Quity Paye.
He received an offer from Boston College and received interest from Notre Dame. Bishop Hendricken’s coach, Keith Croft, accompanied him to South Bend, Indiana, and in the 48 hours they spent together, Croft was able to understand Quiti’s story. Croft knew there were stories of Quiti arriving at school hungry, needing a snack for practice, maybe not having enough money. But the story of Quiti and Agnes, in all its grandeur, was still uncharted territory for the coach. He asked Quiti about her father and mother, how they had met, and how Agnes had come to Providence in the first place.
And then, two years later, Quiti stepped on the Bishop Hendricken stage and laid it all bare. He was a four-star recruit. He was Rhode Island State’s top prospect for more than a decade. He was a freshman at the University of Michigan, one of the most embittered football programs in the country. And he felt nothing but relief.
He thought of his mother’s double shifts at the nursing home, of the patients she had to lift who were heavier than her, causing her to have sore knees. He had promised her that these double shifts would be worthwhile, and now he was keeping his promise. There he was, shedding the weight of the oath.
I do all this for them, he told the audience. So that one day she won’t have to lift a finger.
Quiti Pei graduated from Michigan last December with a degree in African-American studies. Joe Robbins/Getty Images
When Agnes was expecting her second son, she often dreamed of having a father.
I think my dad was trying to send me a message, she says. I don’t want to forget it. I want to keep it in my heart. Wait a minute, wait a minute. It stops because death, even after 30 years, even in the ocean, even when you are no longer a child and have children of your own, can take your breath away.
I want him near me, she said. I wanted my son to carry my father’s name.
Which, she explains, means civilization in her native language. Education. Agnes’ father, Quiti, wanted this for his daughter; Agnes wanted this for her son.
Quiti was born with the promise of an education, a promise he kept. Approached by national authorities, he first attended nearby Boston College, then followed coach Don Brown from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Last December, he graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in African American Studies.
He was a strange but successful glutton. In 2018, Quiti started as a sophomore; in 2019, when he collected 6.5 sacks, he started as a junior; and in 2020, he became a senior and participated in the injection and coronavirus campaigns. In each of those seasons, he received Big Ten academic honors. Finally, he doesn’t have nearly as much impressive production under his belt (11.5 sacks in his career) as he does an attractive ceiling, the appeal of the kind of pro-day results that make scouts giddy (4.52 40? for a 261-pound lineman?), and the approval of a high draft class. Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay predicted him as a first-round defensive lineman on Thursday.
In a few days, he’ll have one of the biggest megaphone platforms in the country, the NFL, and he has a very specific end goal in mind. He could be Colin Kaepernick, he thinks, but on the immigration issue.
Here’s what he knows, and what he wants everyone to know: He’s an immigrant. He has lived in this country since he was 9 months old and has been a citizen since he was a teenager. And yet, the line between what he is and what he could be seems fragile, unstable. He was like the other kids in South Providence, and they still cried that he smelled like fufu. One of his cousins was deported years ago, and yes, he made some bad decisions that led to that deportation, but he was still his cousin. Quiti could recognize himself in it. Quiti could be him.
So he wants to be like Colin Kaepernick, to shine a light on the mystery and stigma of immigration, to become the human face of a conversation that has often been stripped of its humanity. The roadmap is still vague in his mind, but he knows he wants to make it easier for people to come to America and become citizens by helping them navigate the maze that will allow them to do so.
He doesn’t know how to help yet, only what he needs. For a thought haunts his mind, buzzing, probing.
You never know if there’s another Quiti, he says.
Quiti Paea didn’t have great stats at Michigan, but his explosive speed was interesting to NFL scouts. Polished image of the U-M
If there’s another Quiti, he wants to find it. Liberia is still one of the poorest countries in the world. So he asked his mother what he should do with this new capital – economic, social – and she advised him to build. Schools in Liberia. Hospitals in Liberia. Agnes’ grandmother had been bitten – a snake or a spider, they didn’t know, but definitely something poisonous – and her family, who didn’t have a car, tried to transport her in a wheelbarrow to another town, as there was no hospital there. The poison did its job on the way, and she died. Maybe he thinks he can help someone’s great-grandmother.
He would love to do it. He hasn’t set foot in his mother’s house yet, but it’s his house too. This is his home, this is where he honors art on his own body: Tattoos with the coordinates of Liberia and the flag of the country, the tribe of his mother and the lion, the national animal.
That’s what I am, he said. I’m Liberian. Even though I didn’t grow up there, I feel rooted there. When people ask me where I’m from, I always say Liberia.
He doesn’t speak the Krahn language like his mother. When he was young, his mother tried to learn English, as did her young sons, so she spoke only English at home. Now when he takes her calls, he asks her to say hello to Crane. He doesn’t want the language to die out in his family, so Agnes teaches him the new nuggets, Crane pearls, when they talk on the phone. He keeps a notebook of what she taught him and writes down the words phonetically because his mother doesn’t know how to spell them either.
Ow nadu, hey, come on in.
Tiene, where are you?
Inegbo, I’m home.
Agnes returned home decades later, long enough for her mother not to recognize her. And Agnes and Komotay are going there together next month. Komotai is a graduate student finishing his senior year at the University of Northern Colorado, but the reality of Quiti’s new life as an NFL professional has collided with his dream of seeing his country. His stay in Liberia is not yet over.
He meets Agnes’ mother, whom he has never seen and never really spoken to because she doesn’t speak English.
He would meet his father, Leroy, who had never had the chance to come to the United States, but with whom he spoke sparingly.
He meets his mother’s cousin, Cyrus, the man whose money enabled Agnes to escape to Guinea, which then allowed her to live in the United States with her boys – all of them.
The ability to become a statutory person and then go back to my community, to my village and raise them? Like his mother dreamed? Like his father predicted? This is something I look forward to.
It is also his birthright.
So he’ll be back. That day will come.
Tiene, they can ask.
Inegbo, he’ll tell them.
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