Awa Sanneh was born the day her father graduated from his master's program at the University of Manchester in England. Seven weeks later, the family left the United Kingdom to return home to The Gambia. They settled in Pipeline, a suburb of the capital, Banjul, and her father set up shop as an accountant, while her mother worked as a banker.
Awa's father was politically active, supporting the United Democratic Party, an opposition party to President Yahya Jammeh's repressive government. Jammeh, a near-dictator in power after leading a bloodless coup in 1994, oversaw the oppression of journalists, LGBT individuals, opponents and purported "witches." Jammeh was also instrumental in the promotion of bunk medicine, claiming to have personally developed a three-day herbal "cure" for HIV/AIDS and dismissing the need for anti-retroviral medication.
As Awa approached the end of high school, her father urged her to attend college abroad, as he had done. And so, with her parents' support, she enrolled at the University of South Florida, majored in cell and molecular biology, and soon was on the dean's list, winning multiple neuroscience research awards and graduating summa cum laude. Since she was 10 years old, she had dreamed of becoming a doctor who would work to increase access to medical care and eradicate preventable diseases, and so, in 2013, she applied to medical school. With a stellar academic record, she was accepted at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere.
The simplicity of it took my breath away. Just to be with him, talking about the little things, about school. In that moment, my life was perfect.
But before she could matriculate at Johns Hopkins, the political situation in The Gambia deteriorated. Her father was arrested by the government, charged with sedition and held for months without trial. Amnesty International tried to intercede on his behalf, without success. Then, in a sham trial that lasted almost a year, Awa's father was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail.
Awa tried to communicate with him, but her father was forbidden to use a phone or computer. In the end, all Awa could do was write him letters, to which her father was largely unable to reply. Sporadically, Awa's mother would be allowed to visit him in jail. He always asked how Awa was doing in the United States and, in particular, how her studies were going.
In truth, Awa's education had hit a roadblock. After her father's arrest, Awa was granted asylum in the U.S., but her change in immigration status caused complications on federal financial aid forms — and the resulting delays prevented her from receiving aid on time.
Without other options, she took a year off from school. She moved from Florida to live with an uncle in Gaithersburg, Maryland, took a job as a nanny and waited.
By the time she began at Johns Hopkins in the fall of 2015, the situation in The Gambia was changing. In an unexpected turn of events, Jammeh lost a rigged election in 2016. Jammeh tried to annul the vote and refused to leave power, until diplomatic pressure and a brief military intervention by neighboring countries convinced him to flee into exile. The new government freed political prisoners, and Awa's father was made the minister of finance.
In April 2017, Awa's father came to visit, and they saw each other for the first time in six years. "I have no words to describe it," Awa says, adding that the reunion was the happiest moment of her life. "The simplicity of it took my breath away. Just to be with him, talking about the little things, about school. In that moment, my life was perfect."
Eventually, Awa would like to return to The Gambia and give back to her country. In the meantime, she is enjoying her time at Johns Hopkins. "It has been amazing to be surrounded by people who inspire and support me," she says.
As for her father, he already has plans to return to the U.S. to meet with the World Bank. Awa can't wait.