There is a song from Miss Saigon called ‘The movie in my mind’ and the life that Oil and Gas student Marcus Solo has led, would be worthy of any Hollywood script and while he was talking, the movie of his life was literally playing in my mind.
Imagine being an 11-year-old boy caught up in the middle of a war in your home country. Your Mother has disappeared, presumably killed, along with her baby and just before things got out of control, your father and your five sisters left for a new life in the US, leaving you behind to fend for yourself and be at the mercy of the militia.
That was Marcus’ life from the age of 11 – 15.
So how did this story all come about? I began by asking Marcus about his volunteering experience at Coventry University, thinking he was going to tell me about the hours he works for local charities. Instead, his opening gambit was:
“It was the word, volunteer, that saved my life, but not in the way you would think”.
The First Liberian Civil War was an internal conflict in Liberia from 1989 until 1997. The conflict killed about 250,000 people and Marcus found himself in the middle of it. The only way he could survive after being left alone to look after himself, was to offer his services as a volunteer – in other words, a boy soldier – he didn’t want to, but, in his own words, “it was either kill or be killed and I had a life that I wanted to live”.
It wasn’t an easy existence. Being a ‘volunteer’ meant that he had food and clothes, albeit a uniform, but he was working for a regime that he didn’t want to be a part of but did not see any way out.
From 1988 – 1991, Marcus was doing everything a soldier in the middle of a war would be expected to do and obeyed orders and survived – so many things happened to him, that was obviously difficult for him to talk about, but it would have been hard not to have been affected by it.
When the Red Cross staged an intervention to help young people caught up in the war to escape, Marcus saw this as his way out and he was taken in by some Catholic priests from Sierra Leone and put on a plane as a refugee.
“I just wanted to go and live somewhere quiet. A small country that didn’t have conflict, somewhere I could start again and forget what I had done and seen.”
On the plane, Marcus was told that his destination was one of the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg) and he could take his pick of where he wanted to go.
“I didn’t know what to do as I didn’t know much about the world, but I had heard the world ‘Brussels’ and when I told the Red Cross people, they told me that Brussels was in Belgium and that would be my new home.”
When Marcus arrived in Belgium, he was taken to a refugee centre in Ostend where he stayed with other refugees and had his papers processed.
“It was so nice to be somewhere quiet and no sound of guns, bombs or screaming. I still had all that going on in my head, but now I was in a new country and the prospect of a new life. The Belgians were very welcoming and they did everything they could for us to help us readjust to our surroundings.
“We were given bus and train passes and asked to go and find employment. One day, I took the train to a place called Kortemark. It was a very nice place but all I saw were white faces. There were no other black people there and I was seen as a novelty, I guess.”
However, Marcus found the people welcoming and they seemed genuinely interested in him and his story.
He eventually got a job working on a farm Sunday – Friday (as he had to go back to the refugee centre every week as part of his conditions of staying in the country until he was a naturalised Belgian).
Within a few years, Marcus eventually settled down, got married and had children but when the marriage failed, Marcus felt that he needed to do something with his life to make amends for what he had done in the past and the only way he thought he could make a difference, was to get himself an education.
And this is where Coventry comes in!!
He went to the British Embassy and started looking at brochures of universities in different parts of the world and looked at the UK. He came across Coventry and saw the words ‘city of peace and reconciliation’ and knew that his educational journey started here.
Once he had enrolled and sorted out his finances, through scholarships, hand-outs and the kindness of friends, Marcus began his Oil and Gas degree course where he covers the financial, technical, political, social and environmental aspects of modern energy management.
However, such was his determination to give something back, it wasn’t long before he signed up to become a volunteer – a long way from his childhood days when the term meant something completely different to him.
He signed up for as many Make A Difference Days as he could, working mainly in food and clothes banks, doing volunteer work at Coventry City Football Club and volunteering at Coventry Cathedral – the spiritual home for Peace and Reconciliation.
“I try and pack in as much volunteering work as I can to help others. If I can make up for some of the things I did when I was a child, I hope that God will forgive me and help me to help others. I didn’t have a choice when I was younger. The urge to survive meant that I would do anything to live. Now, I am here and want to give hope to others who find themselves facing hard times.”
Marcus truly enjoys volunteering. He has met so many nice people, made some great friends and has given him some purpose during his student life in Coventry.
Listening to Marcus makes you thankful that we live in a country that has not experienced civil war where families are killed or torn apart, where children are forced to fight like adults and where childhoods are stolen and memories of evil are hard to erase.
All the more remarkable when you think that in his spare time, Marcus does stand-up comedy and is a regular on the local circuit acting as MC.
“I enjoy making people laugh” he said. “I like singing, I like dancing, I like entertaining – it is a way of relaxing for me and making people smile is worth it.”
So what is next for Marcus when he graduates?
“I don’t know” was his reply. “My life has been a rollercoaster, up and down, up and down. I am Belgian with grown up children and am in touch with my family in the US, although my Father is no longer with us, I have my sisters and they are doing well.
“I would like to use my degree in a useful way and look at how wind farms in Belgium and other parts of the world differ. I know I have a lot to offer an employer because I have a good work ethic and would do a good job for them given the chance, but for the moment, I take each day as it comes.
“I will continue to do my volunteering work and am always looking for new ways to help people because without the help I received as a refugee, I wouldn’t be where I am today and helping others is important to me.”
Marcus, you are an inspiration and you should definitely write a book about your life and instead of it being a movie in my mind, I’d pay to see it on the big screen.
If you would like to do some volunteering work we have a variety of volunteering roles for you to choose from. You can volunteer in the local community, volunteer on-campus, take part in a Make a Difference Day or a Student Led project, the choice is yours!
Our dedicated team is here to make sure your volunteering is both enjoyable and worthwhile. We are here to support you throughout your volunteering journey, helping you to get the most out of your experience.
For more information, go to: https://www.cusu.org/volunteering/