Fred and Caroline Mulbah arrived in Columbia from Liberia four years ago with $50 and a bag of possessions. But the couple could not afford to bring their three eldest children and were forced to leave them with relatives in the war-torn country.
The deadly violence in Monrovia, which eased only this week with the arrival of international peacekeepers, has increased the anxiety of the Howard County couple, who have been trying to raise money to bring Winifred, 20, and 14-year-old twins Rackie, a boy, and Teta, a girl, to the United States.
"It's terrible. There's no food, no water. I tried to send them money through Western Union, but it's closed. Everything is closed," Fred Mulbah said.
Schools and businesses in Monrovia were closed as violence intensified with an offensive by rebels seeking to oust President Charles L. Taylor, who was elected in 1997.
The three Mulbah children were eight miles from where a mortar round hit July 21 near the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, killing 25 people. They evacuated their home 10 minutes before rebels took over their residential area, New Georgia Estate. The twins moved in with an aunt on their mother's side, while Winifred Mulbah lives with a paternal aunt.
Because electricity is out and no schools are open, the children sit at home, fearing for their lives and waiting for their father to send for them.
"They can't go outside. They're prisoners in their home," Fred Mulbah said. He recalled a recent conversation with Winifred: "Daddy, get me out of here," she told him.
In October 1999, Mulbah, his then-pregnant wife and their daughter, Abigail, 8, arrived in America after winning a lottery, a U.S. government program that allowed foreigners to settle in the United States as permanent residents.
Because the cost of the resettlement was completely paid by the Mulbahs, they hoped to get jobs and settle down before sending for the three oldest children.
Once in Columbia, the family immediately got in touch with the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), which helps immigrants in Howard County adjust to life in the United States. FIRN paid for a motel for the Mulbahs for a month and recommended a job for Fred Mulbah as a security guard at the Laurel Park racetrack, where he now works.
The Mulbahs fell into good luck when they met the Mc- Eneaney family of Columbia. Danise McEneaney read about the family in a local newspaper and decided to "adopt" the immigrants.
She invited the family to her house to eat meals, do laundry and enjoy the holidays. The McEneaneys' 1999 Christmas present to the Mulbahs was their 1990 Buick. Fred Mulbah no longer had to ride a bicycle to work.
"They needed help so I helped them," McEneaney said.
The Mulbahs later moved to a rented townhouse, recommended by FIRN, and Caroline Mulbah got a job as a nurses' aid. McEneaney's father, Joseph Dobal, gave them his 1991 Toyota Camry. The second car came in handy because Fred Mulbah works from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. while his wife works from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
In the West African country of Liberia, Fred Mulbah was a police officer for the former government. When the current government took over, Mulbah would get paid every five to six months. Mulbah heard from a friend still in Liberia that the government has not been able to pay him for 16 months.
"I'm happy I'm out of there," Mulbah said. "I like being here. There's a lot of opportunities."
He takes pride that his two sons, Fred Jr., 3, and Quawood, 18 months, were born U.S. citizens. Mulbah will be eligible to become a citizen next year.
Until then, the Mulbahs are working to bring the rest of their family here. They applied for visas in April 2000. The process was supposed to take, at most, 999 days, according to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. But it has taken more than three years because of Homeland Security regulations put into place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The family decided to apply instead for V visas, which will allow his children to immigrate to America much sooner. The V visa allows spouses and children of lawful permanent residents in the United States to live here while they await completion of their own immigration process.
The Mulbahs are raising money for airfare so the three children can leave Monrovia once the V visas have been approved. A fund called the Winfred, Teta, and Rackie Mulbah Fund has been started at the Columbia Bank.