JENEBA’S JOURNEY: From Africa To Iowa And Beyond

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Some families we’re born into.  Others we make along the way.  That’s what happened with one teenager from Africa.  This Thanksgiving, she has found a family.

Jeneba Wanjah has seen more in her 17 years than some people do in a lifetime.

“I used to live at a refugee camp,” she says.

Wanjah was born in Sierra Leone during the civil war.

“Sometimes we don`t have food to eat.  We`ll go through days without food.

In 2005, she and her mother fled to Iowa, but life here didn't provide the refuge she expected.

“At the age of 11, I got removed from my mother`s care and placed into foster care because I was physically, verbally, and emotionally abused,” says Wanjah.

For years, the young teen bounced around in foster care.

“She`s very easy to love.  She`s a sweetie,” says Becky McCarty.

McCarty welcomed Wanjah into her family.

“This is her forever home.  We told her she didn`t have to move out and she can always just consider us family,” says McCarty.

Just as she would with any of her four kids or three grandkids, McCarty says she felt tremendous pride when Wanjah won the Miss Africa Iowa pageant over the summer.

“Seeing her do so well and knowing that she worked so hard and that she`s got so much talent and she`s so gifted and I think has a lot to offer and I was just so happy,” she says.

“It feels really great  to be the first Miss Africa Iowa,” says Wanjah.

It`s more than a just title.  Wanjah wants to inspire others girls by being the kind of role model she never had growing up.

“I used to think I`m ugly.  I used to think all short of negative things about me because I grew up in negativity,” says Wanjah.

Now her life is on a different course.  She`s a full-time student at DMACC and holds down a part-time job.  In her free time, she practices her talent for the Miss Africa USA pageant.  But first she has to beat out other contestants from Sierra Leone before she can move on to the finals. 

“My monologue was basically about war and also my past and so I dance at the end because I`m free from that past and it`s my freedom now.  It`s time for me to make a difference,” says Wanjah.

She dances to the song “Freedom is Coming Tomorrow”.  It`s from the movie, "Sarafina!", which chronicles South Africa`s struggles against apartheid in the 1970`s.

Her journey doesn`t have a storybook beginning, but she’s writing her own ending.

“I am confident it`s going to be me,” she says.

Wanjah is traveling to Washington DC next week to compete for a spot in the Miss Africa USA pageant.  The finals will be held in DC in June 2013.