121015 Usifu Bangura-1-tm.jpg

Usifu Bangura poses for a portrait at his home in Missoula on Wednesday. Bangura plans to return to Sierra Leone in March and April to meet his mother.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

At first, Usifu Bangura thought the text message was a joke.

"Please call me back this is your mom Fatu."

Bangura, a graduate of Hellgate High School, was adopted in the U.S. from Sierra Leone, and a conversation in his history class about Ebola sparked his interest in returning home to help the devastated country.

The construction worker with Jackson Contractor Group also wanted to find his mom, but he didn't know if she was alive. His father, Ibrahim Bangura, died in the civil war, and friends had warned him his trip might end in sorrow.

The same day he got the text message, though, Bangura made the phone call, and on the other end of the fuzzy line, he heard his mom's voice.

"She screamed in joy," he said.

Knowing she is alive has given him a sense of relief about his family and confidence in his plan to return to Africa. He keeps a picture of her on his phone, and she's smiling and giving him a thumbs up.

"I'm just ... a happier person to know that she is there," Bangura said.

***

Craig Shannon and Shelley Hesslau in Missoula offered to help Bangura after reading the story about his plight and his dreams. Shannon is a lawyer, and as such, he knows something about tracking down people, Bangura said.

The couple invited Bangura over, and they talked about his story. To help, Shannon reached out to the adoption agency that had taken in Bangura, and the young man ended up emailing the woman from the agency that flew him to the U.S.

She remembered him, maybe because he was 4 years old at the time, older than his twin brother and sister who were also given up for adoption, and older than many other orphans given up in the poor country. She also promised to help.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Bangura received the text message.

"I really couldn't believe it, to be honest. I thought someone was just trying to be funny, trying to play with me," Bangura said.

He called as soon as possible, and he heard a deep voice with a thick accent on the other end. Eventually, he would learn the man on the line was an older brother he hadn't remembered, a man named Ibrahim after their father.

"We've been crying ever since you left," his brother told him.

He heard his mom's voice as well, and she whooped with happiness on the phone. Their first conversation was 20 minutes, and confusing at times because his mom speaks mostly only Krio, and he's trying to learn it again.

Still, they told each other "I love you." Most Sierra Leoneans don't live past 43, he said, and she's 65.

"It's just a relief to know she's there, and she's alive. It's a perk that I also found my brother," Bangura said.

***

Shannon and Hesslau have opened their home to Bangura, and he swings by on Sundays sometimes and updates them on his progress.

They talk about college, his trip to Sierra Leone and his bright future.

"He's a diamond in the rough if you've ever really met one," Shannon said.

The couple has enlisted daughters Stella, Isadora and Ingrid to help in different ways, with Stella on the hook to help plan a fundraising event for Bangura in January when she's home for the holidays.

The couple sees him growing in just the short time they've known him, gaining self-assurance from talking to 500 children at Target Range School about bullying.

"I see a confidence in him. He knows where he's going," Shannon said.

***

Originally, Bangura had planned to return to Sierra Leone for one year to spend time searching for his family and learning about his home country. Now, he is expediting an initial trip, planning a return in March, and also shortening it.

His brother has invited him to the celebration in April of Sierra Leone's 55th anniversary, and he would like to attend. Then, he will return to the U.S. and plan a longer trip to deliver LifeStraws, which filter pathogens from water, and water bottles.

This time, he plans to bring back videos and pictures to share the details of life in Sierra Leone with people in the U.S.

Bangura is already in touch with his twin siblings, adopted to a family in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and now he's texting at least every other day with his brother in Africa for 20 or 30 minutes. His brother drives a motorbike as a taxi service in Freetown, and his mom lives in a nearby village.

"They're in need of help, so that's one of the things I do plan on going back there for," Bangura said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian