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Returning Refugees Face Challenges in Liberia


Refugees returning to Liberia face the challenge of rebuilding lives in a society traumatized by 14 years of civil war.

Solomon Weah came home to Liberia hoping to find a job with the computer skills he learned in a refugee camp in Ghana. Four months later, he is still without work.

"I am actually frustrated being in Liberia," he said. "It would have been better for me to stay in the refugee camp."

Weah's wife died during Liberia's long civil war. He says coming home after five years in Ghana has been hardest on their three children.

"They need to go to school. They need to eat. You have your entire family that depends on you, and you are not working," he said. "The situation is very, very tight."

Liberia's repatriation and resettlement commission says more than 9,000 refugees returned last month from camps in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Commission field supervisor Momolu Freeman says many of the returnees, like Weah, acquired new jobs skills as refugees. But that does not necessarily make it any easier to find work.

"Liberians already on the ground are also looking for jobs, and those that come are also looking for jobs, so the challenge there is how can they fit in," said Freeman.

Fitting in is not just about finding work. It is adapting to a new life in a country forever changed by war. Liberians who stayed and those who left have all been traumatized by the brutality of the 14-year conflict.

Returning refugees have the added psychological stress of not knowing what to expect or how they will be received. Many find help at the Trauma Healing Program of Liberia's Lutheran church.

"We try to help them to understand that their expectation can not, 100 percent, be met," said J. Lazarus Flomo, the program's chief trainer.

"We first try to help them to understand their self-esteem, try to make them to know that there is nowhere like home," he said. "They have to know that the war itself has an impact on community, wherever, be it Europe or Africa, it has an impact on community."

Flomo says the church program helps returning refugees adjust to a traumatized society by focusing on the need to move forward toward reconciliation and not remain locked in a cycle of hatred and retribution. He says post-traumatic stress in Liberia is a serious issue in the workplace and at home, a stress that is felt more acutely when coupled with the anxiety of looking for work.

The United Nations estimates that about 85 percent of Liberians are unemployed. Since taking office in 2006, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's government has actively sought to encourage job growth with more than $130 million in new investments creating more than 2,000 new jobs. But much work remains in a nation where the World Bank estimates three-quarters of the population live on less than one dollar a day.

"We have got to bring down the high unemployment rate," said Richard Tolbert, who chairs Liberia's National Investment Commission. "We have got to secure jobs for all of the people, as many of the people as we can. This to me is the essence of our poverty-reduction strategy of the government is job creation. So there is much more to be done. We work night and day to achieve that."

Weah says he is most concerned about educating his children and appreciates government efforts thus far to improve schools and hospitals. Driven from his home by conflict, he is most thankful for the chance his children have to grow up in a country without war.

"With the kind of peace we are enjoying now, I think that things will be fine with the level of acceptance from the international community and the people of Liberia themselves," he said.

Nearly 200,000 Liberians have returned home since the end of the war. Camps remain in Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, where the United Nations refugee agency says it will not complete their return until after Ivorian elections - expected sometime later this year.

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