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Some Liberian Refugees Get Ticket to US - 2004-03-22

With the official end of the 14 year civil war in Liberia last year, Liberian refugees around the world could finally begin thinking about going home. But stability has been slow to come to the nation. Upon their return to Liberia, refugees caught up in the last year and a half of civil war in Ivory Coast, are being blamed for the rebellion that has split the country. As a result some of the Liberians are being given the chance to take refuge in the United States.

Liberian refugees sing on the bus ride to the airport in Abidjan, where they will board flights to the United States. It is a joyous moment for these refugees, who fled the civil war in their own country as many as 14 years ago, and later found themselves caught up in another civil war in Ivory Coast.

"Yes, I'm feeling like I'm going back to my country," says Delbora Harmon. Although she was born in Liberia and has never been to America, Ms. Harmon says she feels like she is returning to her country because Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the 1820s. "Liberians were taken from America during the slavery [only] to come back home to build Liberia. And now we are the same Liberians. We are leaving again to go back to America. So it's like we are going back to our grandparents' land," she says.

Ms. Harmon is one of 7,000 Liberian refugees who are expected to go to the United States before the end of May as part of a group resettlement program being organized by the United Nations.

A relief worker with the U.N. refugee agency, Panos Moumtzis, says group resettlement was necessary for Liberians in Ivory Coast. "Group resettlement is an emergency solution for a large number of refugees who find themselves in a life-threatening situation in the middle of a war, or a conflict. This was an emergency measure we used as a prototype program in Ivory Coast in order to provide a life-saving solution for Liberian refugees who found themselves under threat and enormous hostility while living in Cote d'Ivoire and at the same time had no solution or option of going back to Liberia due to the war in Liberia," he says.

One of the refugees, Ettie Manie Sowa says she has nothing to return to in Liberia. "I cannot go back to Liberia because I don't know anyone in Liberia. I was very little when I came here with my parents so I don't know anybody in Liberia. When the rebels attacked the area we all scattered. I was at school when the rebels attacked so since then I have not heard from my parents and I don't know their whereabouts," she said.

But not all the Liberian refugees living in high-risk areas of Ivory Coast will be able to benefit from the group resettlement program. The United Nations identified 9,000 Liberians who meet the basic criteria, but U.S. official Wally Bird says about 20 percent of them will be denied entry to the United States for any one of several reasons. "They can be rejected by not making the standard, they can be rejected because they're barred from coming to the United States, because of a criminal background, because they have persecuted somebody else, because they have aided terrorists. There are a number of things that make them ineligible," he says.

While the Liberian refugees wait for clearance, they are being given orientation classes to teach them about life in the United States.

They are taught about things they may never have seen like the symbols used on men's and women's rest rooms, new concepts like the importance of being on time, and new skills like how be a proper airline passenger. Refugee Blayson Kweh says they also learn to expect something called culture shock, and how to deal with it. "They first told us that they've got what they call shock. That is when you newly go to America you would like even to come back but we were encouraged that if that situation takes place, we should be patient because as time goes by life will change," he says.

Some of the refugees have relatives in the United States and will stay when they first arrive. Others will be provided with temporary housing and then helped by non-governmental organizations in their new areas to find a place to live, organize work opportunities and purchase basic necessities.

Most of them do not know anything about the specific places they will soon be calling home, and they rush to check a map once they are told their final destination.

When the group resettlement program ends in May, individual refugees will still be allowed to apply for resettlement in the United States. According to the State Department, 25,000 African refugees are expected to arrive in the United States this year.