UNION CITY — There are many things about Gbessaykai Massaquoi that distinguish him from his friends. One is the twangy music he switches to when they get out of the car.
No one understands why this West African refugee, who has survived war and peril, likes country music band Rascal Flatts.
"We listen to hip-hop," Massaquoi says. "Then, when they leave, I listen to country music. It's soft. It calms you down. The sound, the melodies of it, just keep you going."
American country songs distract him from violent memories and daily poverty. The music and other pastimes — basketball games each evening, long hikes through the trails above Hayward — are salves.
"All that stuff, it keeps me busy, stops me from thinking about the past," he said.
Massaquoi, who goes by the nickname Kai, was a young boy when armed men stormed his family's home in Monrovia, the Liberian capital that in 1996 was ravaged by chaos and urban slaughter.
"They asked, 'Where's Mr. Massaquoi?' My stepmom said, 'He's not here.' They said, 'We came to kill him.'""
Born in Guinea to parents who fled from conflict in neighboring Liberia, his father had been a driver for Samuel Doe, the Liberian president who was executed by rebels in September 1990 — two months before Kai was born.
That made his family a target as fighters allied with rebel warlord Charles Taylor waged a brutal war to take over the country. Uncomfortable in Guinea, which had been flooded with refugees from years of bloodshed in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the family returned to Liberia because they thought they would be safe. They were wrong.
Assailants ordered the oldest brother to rape his stepmother — right now, they demanded, in full view of everyone. The brother refused and was shot dead on the spot.
Massaquoi, then 5, remembers sprinting outside and toward an uncle's nearby home as bullets fired in his direction. It is one terrifying memory of many.
"I'm surprised that I'm here, that I actually made it to America," said Massaquoi, who turned 19 this week.
Massaquoi will not share some stories, but he will say this: Along with witnessing the war, he was recruited to become a part of it.
"It was about tribalism, it was about religion," he said. "Most kids, they join the rebels for revenge. 'You killed my mom, you killed my dad, so now I'm going to kill you.' That's why the war kept going on for 14, 15 years. Just too much blood. Too much."
Desperation and abductions also pressed thousands of boys to join the fight, wandering in bands and factions — some of them sponsored by government leaders — that battled throughout the northeastern counties of Liberia and across the forested border with Guinea.
"His story is not the only one in the U.S. and I would wager not even the only one in Oakland," said P.W. Singer, an author and researcher with the nonprofit Brookings Institution. "You're talking about a global phenomena. Let's put it this way: There are roughly 300,000 active child combatants in the world."
Burdened by wartime stories his family advised him not to divulge, Massaquoi will not talk about being a child soldier, only about how he got out of it.
"Me and my friend Prince, we decided to just get out of there," he said. "While they were advancing, going toward the gunshots, we retreated."
He and his friend fled from Liberia into Guinea, washing up in a river and cutting their disheveled hair before looking for refuge in the town of Yomou. Sometimes they had to steal or rob to get what they needed to survive.
"It was very hard for us to live normal, act normal," he said.
They made their way to the refugee-filled border town of Gueckedougou and later to Conakry, the capital, where Massaquoi eventually entered a rehabilitation center before being transported to a refugee camp near Dabola. It wasn't until just before coming to the United States that he was reunited with most of his family.
"As soon as you let it out, you feel free," he said of his stories. "That's what my family doesn't want to do."
The burdens of his past are compounded by the fact that many Liberians have been hesitant to forgive and move on, or are still afraid of what could happen to them, he said. It was children like him, they whisper, who killed or mutilated their relatives.
"Even when I go to a party, I hear it — 'That kid was a child soldier' — I hear them," Massaquoi said.
More than 200,000 people were dead and untold thousands maimed by the time Liberia's civil wars finally concluded with Taylor's ousting in 2003.
"Like other child abuse, when it ends, that person may be scarred by that experience psychologically as well as physically, but it doesn't mean that they are somehow lost forever," Singer said. "It's an experience that's going to shape them, but it doesn't mean they can't get past it."
Massaquoi's first stop in the United States was Torrance, where he moved with his aging father and siblings when they arrived as refugees in fall 2003.
As he turned 13 and entered classrooms for the first time in years, Massaquoi had trouble adjusting. His father, frustrated by signs that the neighborhood gang culture was influencing his son, sent Massaquoi north to live with an aunt he barely knew. By age 17, the teen moved out of the house, rooming in Hayward with Lisa White, a cousin who had grown up in Texas.
They both had lost their mothers to illness. Friends sometimes lent them gas money, and they signed up for food stamps. When their apartment went up for sale last month, they prepared to sleep in a car, then reluctantly moved back with their aunt, paying $600 to sleep on the couch and floor of her converted garage.
"We don't have bad credit, we just don't have any credit," said White, who hopes to find a new apartment soon. "Sometimes I ask, when was the last time anything good happened? And I can't remember."
White juggles caregiving work with studying engineering at Chabot College and enjoys both. Massaquoi, unemployed for months, has signed up to learn welding next year. He could make easy money selling drugs, his friends tell him. He changed his number to stop their calls.
"I don't want to keep making mistakes. I made enough already," he said.
The teen was struggling to get through high school more than a year ago when Sharyl Larson, a teacher at the Union City adult school where he was making up a course, first spotted him in a classroom with his head down.
She chatted with him, asking what was wrong. They were questions that few adults had ventured to ask Massaquoi since he moved to America.
"She said, well, 'Kai, I'm here, whenever you need my help, just let me know.' She's been a good friend," he said.
Graduating from James Logan High School this year was one of his most hard-fought accomplishments. Massaquoi knows many languages — French, Kpelle, Mandingo and Arabic — but English was not his best, and he failed the state high school exit exam the first two times he tried.
On the third try, after studying hard, he passed it, meaning he could graduate. The day he found out about his score was one of the greatest of his life — not since he was 12, when he found out he was moving to the United States, did he feel so hopeful, he said.
"He's been through a lot," said Larson, who is no longer Massaquoi's teacher but remains a friend. "He's going through hard times right now. But he manages to get up every day to look for work and take care of his business."
The ebullience that rests beneath Massaquoi's serious outlook was on display Sunday, as Larson invited Massaquoi and White over for an early Thanksgiving dinner at her Oakland home. The friends joked, discussed their challenges but also the possibilities they have for the long lives ahead of them.
"I think he will survive," Larson said. "If the past means anything, he'll be able to get through anything."