When Arie Kouandjio first came to the United States from Cameroon at six years old, he flew into Dulles Airport to meet his mother in their new home. He would grow up in the Washington, D.C., area through high school and only leave to attend school and play football at Alabama.
But before that came a lifetime of growing up in a country and culture that differed from the one in which he originated. His first memories of the change he faced early on centered around something incredibly simple: food.
“I kind of just remember flying into Dulles and meeting my mom and she had like a really big lollipop, which I’d never seen before. It was new to me. I remember eating it and I was like, ‘wow, this is a lot.’” Kouandjio said. “I remember the first time I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was like, ‘what is this?’ I liked it. I was kind of like a fit little kid when I first came here at six and by the time I was like seven I was a little chubby.”
Alongside his love of food in his new country came an instant connection with all kinds of sports. He had played soccer before moving to the United States but grew to enjoy the many other sports that became new options for him.
“I was always into sports,” Kouandjio said. “I think taekwondo was my first sport. I also did soccer and did a lot of basketball over the years. Did a lot of soccer, did some baseball, but I was terrible.”
Finding the activity that he would grow to become quite good at took time, as football didn’t become a part of his life until the age of 14.
But the transition to his new home came with its challenges as well.
Kouandjio arrived in the U.S. only speaking French and had to quickly learn English. But the much more daunting task to take on was finding his place amongst the cultural norms in which he had to adapt.
“My mom always cooked obviously more traditional foods and the house smelled like it and it got in my clothes,” Kouandjio said. “I couldn’t smell it on myself, because I was used to the smell and I mean I just remember growing up and kids used to just pick on me cause I always smelled funny, smelled bad or different.”
In an effort to prevent himself from being made fun of, Kouandjio invested significant energy doing everything in his power to get rid of the odor that marked him as unique from the people with whom he spent everyday.
“I used to try everything," he said. "I was wearing deodorant, I was doing all that stuff, but I could just never figure it out. And then it got to high school and then I was like, huh maybe its like the food we cook at home. I just made more of a point to like close my closets and make sure that my room and my closet doors closed whenever my mom was cooking and stuff like that. Those kind of like times went away, but it was pretty rough in the beginning.”
He took the final step in furthering this when he became an American citizen this past September. Taking this formal step was something that Kouandjio had been thinking of since his time at Alabama, but he had been unable to find the right opportunity to do so. Now with a full-time job, he had the chance after the first game of the regular season.
“My parents have been trying to have me become a citizen since I got here. It was kind of an easy decision for me, whenever I was able to do I kind of just tried my best to make it happen and I was blessed to become a citizen now,” Kouandjio said. “Now I’m a citizen.
"It’s important to me probably because I’ve been here for so long. America represents a lot of things and it kind of raised me, so I wish I could have kept my Cameroonian part, too, but I’m proud to be considered American. I feel American. I know I’m African by where I was born and at the end of the day I feel I was born in Africa and raised in America. They’re both part of me.”
While a lot of his journey can be traced alongside these two countries, becoming a citizen was incredibly natural for him and not something that he views as life-changing. It just cemented what he, and his older brother Cyrus, who plays for the Bills, already knew to be true.
So in 2015, after Kouandjio had been drafted, when he made another trip to Dulles Airport, it was time to play for the Washington Redskins in the area he was raised, working towards another kind of opportunity.
“I know my journey started in Africa and I moved over here,” Kouandjio said. “Whenever I’m out there I think of who I am, but not really where I am, if I’m American or anything like that. I got other things to think about at the moment, I’m just trying to be me.”