Johan Bollers, who works at Citizens Bank in Chestnut Hill, grew up in poverty that even inner-city residents in Philly could barely imagine. (Photo by Len Lear)

Johan Bollers, who works at Citizens Bank in Chestnut Hill, grew up in poverty that even inner-city residents in Philly could barely imagine. (Photo by Len Lear)

by Len Lear  

Unlike most of us who were born and raised in the U.S., Johan Bollers does not complain about his boss, his teachers, his working conditions, his salary or much of anything else. In fact, his bubbly personality and permanent smile seem to charm both customers and fellow employees on his job at Citizens Bank, 8616 Germantown Ave.

His boss, Sandy Brydges, Chestnut Hill Citizens Bank branch manager, said, “We have known each other for four years. We worked together at 12th and Market before this. When I came here as branch manager in October, 2014, I wanted Johan on my team, and I was able to get him. That should tell you what I think of him. We have a winning team here.”

Johan, 30, grew up in Guyana, an extremely poor country on South America’s North Atlantic coast which is culturally connected to the Caribbean region. Johan has seven siblings. Five live in the Philadelphia area, one is still in Guyana, and one is in California in grad school. Johan lives in Mt. Airy with his wife of three years, Wonika, who is also from Guyana, and a sister, Shamane. Wonika works at Citizens Bank in Flourtown.

Johan, who has been in the U.S. for 10 years and became a citizen in 2011 (it’s not called Citizens Bank because Johan became a citizen, though), and his family had a subsistence farm in Guyana with bananas, pears and sorrel as well as goats and sheep as pets.

“Guyana is a Third World country,” said Johan. “My dream was to come to the U.S. Our image of the U.S. was that everything is easy, and you’re automatically rich. The reality is that you have to work very hard here to accomplish anything, but you still have a thousand times more of a chance to make it here than in Guyana, where only a small number of people run everything. Our work ethic is so different. We were able to buy a home here in just five years.”

In high school in Guyana, Johan worked as a paralegal-type of clerk for a judge in that country’s highest court. After coming to Philly (an aunt and uncle who also live in Mt. Airy helped bring the family here, which took 10 years), Johan attended Community College of Philadelphia part-time for three years and then Chestnut Hill College (CHC), where he earned a degree in business administration in 2013. Johan never saw snow until he came to the U.S.

Shamane got a paralegal degree from CHC, and their mother, Catherine, also earned a degree from CHC (in behavioral psychology) and then a masters degree in behavioral analysis from St. Joseph’s University. She also lives in Mt. Airy and is a drug/alcohol counselor.

“Lots of Americans have not been outside of the U.S. except for the resorts in places like Jamaica, so they do not see how people really live,” said Johan. “We had no running water, no electricity, no indoor toilets, no welfare. We dug a hole in the ground and used it as a latrine. When it was full of waste, we covered it over with dirt and dug a new hole. That is what Americans do not see. A few people got very rich, and almost everyone else was very poor. The government was corrupt. The same regime was in power for 23 years. A new regime is in now, and things seem to be changing slowly.

“There were lots of executions involved with drugs and a lot of domestic violence and men killing women. We would walk two miles to catch a bus to go to school, but there were not enough buses, so you might even walk the two miles and wait but no bus shows up, so you have to turn around and walk the two miles back home. That is why we appreciate education and work so hard when we come here.

“If you can afford a private doctor in Guyana, you pay for one, but there is free health care for everyone else. It is not the best care, though. One man was shot in the head and waited for six hours in the hospital to be treated. If a criminal is shot, he is left there to die. Criminals are not taken to the hospital for treatment, as they are in the U.S. People have no rights there. Here you can sue people.

“I have had no incidents of racism here with white people. I think they like the fact that I am working hard. The only discrimination I have encountered was from African Americans. There is jealousy from some African Americans against blacks from other countries. Whites have always been welcoming and encouraging, more so than from people of my own race.”

Johan is now attending St. Joe’s for a masters degree in criminal justice, which he expects to get this October. “Since I was 7, I wanted to be an FBI agent. I always had a passion for law enforcement. I could tell when someone was lying. I may have to start as a beat cop, but I hope not for long.”

John’s most memorable incident in the U.S. was probably when he and his wife were driving back home after a trip to Atlanta. “We needed gas late at night,” he said. “We decided to get gas at the first station we passed, but then we looked up and saw a sign, ‘You are now entering Lynchburg, Virginia.’ That was scary. I said, ‘Even if we run out of gas, there is no way I am stopping in a town called Lynchburg!’”

For more information, call Citizens Bank at 215-242-1734.