Once a victim of human trafficking with only temporary legal status in the United States, today Paul Banda is a permanent U.S. resident, respected co-worker, loving husband, aspiring artist and accomplished musician. Despite overwhelming odds, this Zambian immigrant has channeled his seemingly boundless energy and his faith in God’s plan for his life into a classic American success story.
More than a decade ago, Banda, now a communications officer in the School of Medicine’s Department of Protective Services, was part of a Zambian boys’ choir brought to the United States by a missionary who had heard them perform in their native land. At first the group was happy to travel around the United States, performing at churches, schools, Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., and even on NBC’s “The Today Show,” knowing that their efforts were providing stipends to their families and education funds to their community.
As time went on, however, conditions deteriorated: The boys were required to perform multiple concerts in a day, not fed if they couldn’t perform, not allowed to attend school, and not paid for their efforts. They also received inadequate medical care and were often forced to perform manual labor.
Although the boys had limited contact with family back home, they eventually learned that neither their families nor their community, located on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, were receiving any of the promised compensation.
While touring, the boys were not allowed to mingle freely with the people they met; even if they had been, their limited grasp of English at the time would have made meaningful communication difficult. However, during their travels they did obtain the business card of a St. Louis man who came to hear them sing, and they held onto that card when they returned to the missionary’s home in rural Sherman, Texas.
Seven months later and after four years of servitude, Banda and four of the older boys decided to escape. They ran 10 miles through the night to a nearby town and were able to contact the man who had given them his card. He advised them to contact local authorities. They did so, and their bravery launched an extensive federal investigation into the man who had brought them to the United States. He died before official prosecution could commence; Banda and the other boys were left in legal limbo.
While the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service sorted out the case, the younger boys were taken in by church host families. The older boys, now young men, used their St. Louis connection to move here and begin their lives anew.
“Not everyone can go through what Paul has and maintain a positive outlook, and he does it with class. Paul genuinely cares about others, and that really shows through in how he deals with people on the job. He’s definitely a benefit to the School of Medicine and the university as a whole.”” says Protective Services supervisor James T. Cooper. “
Banda capitalized on his “second chance at life.” He roomed with the other young men at various apartments, got a job stocking shelves at a local grocery chain, and immersed himself in learning the culture and the language.
Later while working for minimum wage at an area drugstore, Banda met a customer who changed his life. Impressed by his work ethic, she referred him to a local security firm where he would be able to more than double his hourly income. He took that job, which assigned him to work the front desk at Spencer T. Olin Residence Hall at the School of Medicine. Popular with his bosses, co-workers and medical students, Banda was soon offered a permanent position as a protective services officer with Washington University.
While working at Olin, Banda realized he was the same age as the students and began to think he could improve his lot in life with education. “I knew I could do better,” he says, “but what I didn’t realize at first was that I was in the right place at the right time. The people at Washington University are amazing.”
Banda began taking high school academic equivalency courses at St. Louis Community College (STLCC) and soon earned his general education diploma (GED). At the same time, he and other former choir members came back together as the Zambian Acapella Brothers and began performing at different venues around the St. Louis metropolitan area.
After a fund-raising performance at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Banda and the other choir members were offered two-year scholarships at STLCC. “I was scared to go to college,” recalls Banda, “but I was so happy to get the challenge.”
Banda went on to earn his two-year degree in political science. Now he is enrolled at Washington University where he takes classes in the evenings, maintains a 3.5 GPA and recently made the dean’s list. Each night after classes, he heads back to the School of Medicine to work as a dispatcher.
In addition to his full-time job and his academic schedule, Banda finds time to practice weekly with his singing group and spend quality time at home with his wife, Dallyda, whom he married in 2009. He has discovered a talent for sculpting and painting; several years ago his wire car sculptures were featured at the School of Medicine’s annual art show, and he currently has several paintings on exhibit at a University City gallery. Meanwhile, the Zambian Acapella Brothers released a CD of gospel music in 2010.
Many people might wonder just how Banda remains so active. “It requires a lot of time, but my art is like therapy,” he says. “If I have a second chance at life, then I might as well live that chance. I know that no one is taking advantage of me, and I’m trying to be positive and contribute to society.”
Just last year, Banda finally received the Green Card that authorizes him to live and work in the United States permanently. It also allows him to travel, and he hopes eventually to return to Zambia to visit his family. Still, as he puts it, “I’m happy to be part of St. Louis.”
Despite his many accomplishments, Banda has no intention of slowing down. His next goal is to complete his undergraduate studies, with his sights set on law school and a future career in corporate law. Perhaps both of those dreams, he says, may also come true at Washington University.