One Park, One Family

Sandrine Tochem escaped a war-torn country to make a new home in America

By Tristan Scott
Sandrine Tochem, pictured after a naturalization ceremony at the Apgar amphitheater in Glacier National Park on Sept. 21, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Sandrine Tochem and her fiancé, Samuel Redfern, both gained their citizenship to the United States within the peak-studded boundary of Glacier National Park, albeit under disparate circumstances, and on days that fell nearly 40 years apart.

Nevertheless, on Sept. 21, they embraced along the shore of Lake McDonald, enjoined as U.S. citizens both for the first time since meeting.

Redfern, of Missoula, was born inside the park, along a trail, to a pair of unsuspecting parents on a huckleberry-picking hike in 1977, while Tochem, who was born in the central African nation of Chad, became an American at a naturalization ceremony last week, the first of its kind to occur in Glacier, which was transformed into an official courtroom for the occasion.

“Samuel was born here,” Tochem said prior to the ceremony, before going on to explain that she meant “here” in explicit terms. “So when I had the option of becoming naturalized here, I picked Glacier National Park.”

Redfern, who served in the U.S. Army for 12 years and completed a combat tour in Iraq in November 2005, “can tell you something about service to this country,” U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen told the crowd of friends and family members who gathered for the ceremony.

Now, Tochem can tell you something about it, too.

Born to the Laka Tribe, Tochem escaped the Chadian Civil War nine years ago, at the age of 21, when her father helped her flee rebel violence.

The fifth of seven children, she was the only sibling to break loose from the war. Although she keeps in touch with her siblings via Facebook and Skype, she was unable to return home when her father, a diplomat from the capitol city of N’Djamena, died three years ago.

“It was very hard, to not be able to go be with my family, but I worried that if I left I would not return,” she said.

For two years, Tochem lived in Virginia, where she worked at a Home Depot and taught herself English — her first language is French — while saving up money to apply for permanent resident status as a refugee and, eventually, a green card.

“It was a very expensive process, so I worked hard to save money,” she said.

Patti Johnson, right, with the Glacier National Park Conservation, stamps Sandrine Tochem's passport after a naturalization ceremony at the Apgar amphitheater in Glacier National Park on Sept. 21, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Patti Johnson, right, with the Glacier National Park Conservation, stamps Sandrine Tochem’s passport after a naturalization ceremony at the Apgar amphitheater in Glacier National Park on Sept. 21, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

After arriving in Montana, she attended college for two semesters at Montana State University, studying architecture, before transferring to the University of Montana to study business and, later, nursing.

Although she is taking a break from school to raise her two daughters, Evangeline, 5, and Alexandra, 2, she plans on returning to complete her nursing degree. She currently works in home health care.

“My life is here now because of my daughters,” she said. “My family is the most important to me, and so is education. But it has been very busy. Working and being a mom isn’t easy.”

Neither is gaining citizenship.

But Tochem said she promised her late father that she would become an American, and she was determined to keep her word. She studied for her citizenship test while commuting to work and on errands, using an audio lesson plan on CD.

“I really wanted to be part of this country, especially because my family did not have the same opportunity,” she said. “Maybe I am the luckiest one. I feel very lucky.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.