Cosmic Cocktail in 2 weeks: Get your ticket today before they sell out.

Liberian refugees in U.S. fear 'death trap' if forced to return


PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island - While Angie Kollie was caring for a sick relative in Massachusetts a decade ago, her native Liberia was embroiled in a civil war. She took refuge here and waited for the chance to return to her homeland.

One year gave way to another. The war devastated the West African country settled by freed slaves from the United States 150 years ago, claimed 150,000 lives, displaced thousands and left Kollie and others in a refugee's limbo.

The special protection granted to Liberian refugees in the United States - some of whom are descended from those freed slaves - is set to expire Friday, and they are clamoring for another reprieve rather than return.

Kollie and others say the danger in their homeland is ever present, despite the war's end four years ago. They say they have earned the right to become American citizens.

For Kollie, 68, Rhode Island is her home. If forced to return to Liberia, the 68-year-old nursing assistant and homeowner asked, "Where would I go?"

It's a problem facing an estimated 10,000 Liberians who have been granted "temporary protection status" that has allowed them to remain in the United States and work. Every year since 1991, the U.S. attorney general has reviewed the conditions in Liberia and extended the Liberians' stay for a year. That ended last year, when Attorney General Janet Reno decided she could no longer grant the protection because the civil war was officially over.

President Clinton stepped in and deferred their departure for a year, noting the continuing hardships in Liberia: a scarcity of food; a shortage of electricity, hospitals and schools; a crackdown on the media; and the disappearance of political dissidents. Liberia remains a dangerous place for Americans to visit, according to the State Department.

Given that determination, "It would be unconscionable to ship people back," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who championed the Liberians' cause on the floor of Congress yesterday. "It's just simple justice."

Many Liberians fear for their future after Friday, but Clinton is expected to come to their aid again.

"Logistically, we just don't have the capacity to pick up people even if we wanted to, and we don't want to," said Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We're waiting for the White House to decide."

Many in the Liberian community in Rhode Island, among the largest in the country, say they don't know whether their homes are standing. Some say their relatives are scattered in refugee camps in neighboring countries that are also unstable.

"The whole region is in chaos," said Danlette Norris, president of the Liberian Community Association of Rhode Island and a 10-year resident. "Sending us back is like sending us back to a death trap."

Norris, 49, said many refugees are law-abiding citizens in every way but officially. They work, pay taxes - as is required under their status - and have American-born children who attend school and own homes in the United States.

Norris, a teaching assistant, gained permanent residence several years ago. She and others are urging passage of a bill before Congress that would allow Liberian refugees to live in the United States permanently and make them eligible for citizenship.

That would not be unprecedented. A 1988 law afforded the same privilege to 4,996 Poles, 387 Ugandans, 565 Afghans and 1,180 Ethiopians. Nearly 53,000 Chinese nationals became permanent residents after the 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement in China. Hundreds of thousands from Central America and Cuba have done the same under another federal law passed last year.

"We consider America our mother country," said Norris. Some Liberians can trace their lineage to the emancipated slaves who founded Liberia in 1847, making it the first independent country in Africa. Their family names are familiar to Americans: Kennedy, Cooper, Williams, King. The Liberian flag is nearly identical to the Stars and Stripes. The capital, Monrovia, is named for an American president. An island off the coast is called Providence.

Norris' maternal grandfather, Willie Taylor, hailed from Dallas. Her great-uncle Eddie Taylor joined his brother in the journey to what became Liberia but then returned to the United States. At 92, he lives in Texas.

Norris said her mother, Ethel Taylor, was born and raised in Liberia and married a Liberian named Johnson. Although her mother, who has since died, returned to the United States in the late 1970s, Norris refused to leave until the war broke out. She left on June 8, 1990.

"I always felt there would be an end to the war," she said.

But when it came, Norris was entrenched in her life here. A graduate of law school in Liberia, Norris held various jobs in Providence, including nursing assistant. She is studying for a degree in psychology and social work.

"Liberians are very proud people. We don't want to rely on handouts," said Norris. "We are contributing socially, financially and many other ways to society."

During a meeting at a Providence church Sunday night, activist Saah N'Tow assured his fellow Liberians that "the president knows about our situation."

Given the turmoil in his country, N'Tow argues that it makes political sense for the U.S. government to allow Liberian refugees to prosper here. Many send money to their families in Liberia.

"This is one investment that can be made without investing a cent in Liberia," said N'Tow, 36, who came to the United States in 1996.

Gonlakpor Gonkpala, 48, has been living in the United States since he arrived as a student in 1982. He got a degree in finance at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and did graduate work at Morgan State University.

The civil war prevented him from returning to Liberia. He lives in Brockton, Mass., where he owns a three-bedroom house, belongs to a Masonic lodge and is a member of a Methodist church.

He manages a CVS pharmacy, but his work card expires Friday.

"We came here with a hope that we would be able to go back home. The situation in Liberia has not improved. I would like to go back," he says of Liberia. "It is my home. But I do not want to be forced to go back. If I leave America now, I will be a stranger" in Liberia.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad