There’s a controversy brewing in Washington about the Liberia amputee soccer team that came to the United States over a month ago. It appears the three-time African Nation Tournament champions are stranded, and some say their current situation is their own making.
According to members of the team (15 in all), they had been invited by the United States Amputees Football Federation to take part in an international friendly match that was supposed to be held in the state of Maryland in early August this year. But before they could leave Liberia, the tournament had been canceled.
Still, the team decided to come to the United States but without proper arrangements in terms of accommodation. Now it appears they are having a tough time in terms of meeting their basic daily needs.
Rough conditions in Liberia
Cooper Melvin Goteh, president of the Liberia Amputee Soccer Association, told VOA the team came to the United States despite the cancelation of their tournament to explain to the world the deplorable conditions under which they live in Liberia.
He said Liberian amputees lack decent housing, education, and food and many have turned to panhandling in front of hotels. Goteh said the team came to the United States despite their tournament being canceled to appeal for assistance.
Members of the Liberia amputee team pose.
“We knew that actually on the 23rd of June the tournament was canceled but we had other appointments. So that’s why we use the opportunity to come to America. We felt that back home things are difficult, so that’s why we remain to see how we can raise some funds for our own organization and for our own purposes,” he said.
Goteh denies suggestions by some Liberians that the team came to the United States for a tournament that had been canceled because the members were looking for an opportunity to stay in the United States.
“What I will say to any Liberian that will be saying such a thing, first I will give him a parable. I will say look, if you give birth to a child and you are not taking care of that child, will the child be brave to be around you? The answer will be no! We need assistance. So that’s why we decided to come although the tournament was canceled,” Goteh said.
Goteh said he and his team members would like to return to Liberia but he has heard the government plans to prosecute them for using government funds to travel to the United States for a tournament that they knew had been canceled before they left Liberia.
“I can say I want to go back but when I heard information from home telling that they had threatened me as leader and my co-workers because I allowed government-use money that they were not willing to use, so if I go back they are going to prosecute me. For that reason I’m a little bit afraid,” he said.
Liberia’s Minister of Youth and Sports Eugene Nagbe told VOA there’s been a lot of goodwill towards the amputees in Liberia.
“They are the only federation that has a brand new bus; we interact with them daily; the president has made several contributions to them daily through her own personal finances and also through the budgets of the various ministries. So for them to say that they had not been honored; they had not been catered to, is quite unfortunate,” he said.
Nagbe said the government continues to encourage the amputees to return to Liberia because it would be better than to be loitering in America.
Nagbe denies claims by Liberia Amputee Soccer Association President Goteh that the government plans to prosecute them upon their return for using government funds to travel to the United States to participate in a tournament that had already been canceled before the team left Liberia.
“Prosecution for what? He has committed no crime here or in America; they got their visas to travel; they entered America legally. Our worry is that they don’t overstay their visas and then their stay in America would be illegal. So we are encouraging them to come back home. There’s no writ out for anybody’s arrest,” Nagbe said.
Nagbe said President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has met with the amputees on several occasions, including shortly before they left for the United States.
Liberian diaspora responds
A number of Liberians have been helping the amputees, including Saymendy Lloyd and her The Women’s Wing Organization based in Washington, DC. She’s currently hosting 11 of the amputees.
Lloyd and her organization found a six-bedroom house, renovated it with cable television so that the amputees can watch their favorite sport, soccer. She lobbied area hotels to donate mattresses. She is also lobbying restaurants in the area to donate their unsold food.
Other Liberians, like Varnie Sambole and Pastor Maxwell Roberts, have been helping with the daily needs of the amputees. VOA discovered through the amputees that Sambole has set up a GoFundMe.com, an online crowd funding platform that allows people to raise money for events. However, VOA called Sambole’s number and got this message: “At the subscriber’s request, this phone does not accept incoming calls.”
Over the weekend the group asked Lloyd for “pocket change” money and at least $50 for each of them to send to his family in Liberia because according to them, they were all breadwinners in Liberia.
Lloyd told VOA she is worrying about how and where to get the next day’s meal for the amputees as well as how to pay for the utilities – gas, water, electricity and cable and the nearly $2,700 month rent.
A Liberian Embassy official described the situation of the amputees as a “nightmare.” He said the embassy got a call one day from Baltimore police after a hotel there had put the amputees out.
The official said the Liberian government authorized funds of about $300 per person for the embassy to rewrite the amputees’ tickets to enable them return to Liberia.