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Some Sierra Leoneans Decide to Stay in Liberia

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After years of living as refugees in neighboring Liberia, some Sierra Leoneans are choosing to integrate into Liberian society and apply for full citizenship instead of going home.

Jebbeh Konneh fled to Liberia as a young woman nearly 18 years ago.  She has no intention of going back, even though Sierra Leone is now at peace.  Konneh says there is nothing left for her there because rebels killed her entire family.

"When you go home, you are depending on them.  My mother, father, little brother, middle sister - the entire family was attacked," she said.

Konneh is among several thousand Sierra Leoneans applying for Liberian citizenship as part of a program sponsored by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Liberian government.  She says it was not an easy decision.

"It was hard for me to say, but I just had to say it because there is no way for me [to go home]," she added.

Liberian Patrick Wilson, a social worker with the aid group ChildFund International, says the program gives people access to housing, land for farming, and help to pay for school fees.

"Assimilation is a process that you go through to try to understand the make-up of the environment," said Wilson.  "What we see happening is a gradual process of adapting themselves to the norms of values of this community.  And the people that we brought to this community are respectful people."

Wilson says there are many reasons why people are deciding to stay in Liberia.  Some speak of the trauma they experienced during the long civil war.  Others say nothing at all.

Lahai Trawalay left Sierra Leone's Kalahun district and crossed the border in August of 1991.  He now has six children who were born in Liberia.

"I was a refugee, but I have decided not to go back home," said Trawalay.  "And I have decided to be integrated into Liberian society."

Trawalay says he does sometimes think about what life is like now in Sierra Leone, but he is confident it is better for his family to stay in Liberia.

"When I think about the past days when I was a young man, sometimes when the feeling comes in me I feel nostalgia to go back home," he added.  "But for now I cannot.  And I have kids who are quite used to the Liberian society.  I love the place.  That is why I have decided to stay here."

After nearly 20 years, Trawalay says he thinks of himself as a Liberian and hopes to soon make that change official.

"Now, I consider myself to be a Liberian because I have opted for integration, and the UNHCR and the Liberian government are working towards that for me to become a full-fledged Liberian citizen," he said.

Liberia's state-run Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission is building houses for more than 3,500 former refugees from Sierra Leone who have chosen local integration since the end of the voluntary U.N. repatriation program last year.

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