You Are Now In America…Live Here, you say, but Then There is the Liberian Immigration Question

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I Now Wander

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Taken from Becoming Ebony, SIU Press, 2003)


I raised ducks, pigs, dogs, barking watchdogs.
Wild chickens loose, dancing, flapping old wings.

Red and white American roosters, meant to be sheltered
and fed with vitamins until they grow dumb;

in our yard I set them loose among African breeds
that pecked at them until they, too, grew wild and free.

I planted papayas, fat belly papayas, elongated papayas,
tiny papayas, hanging. I planted pineapples, mangoes,

long juicy sugar canes, wild coco-yams. From our bedroom
window I saw plantain and bananas bloom, again and again,

take on flesh and ripeness. And then the war came, and the rebels
slaughtered my pigs, my strong roosters, my hens,

my heavy, squawking ducks. Now I wander among strangers,
looking for new ducks, new hens, new coco-yams, new wars.

— 2002 Copyright © Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

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Monrovia, Liberia, where some of us came from was damaged, and for some, there is nothing to return to, and even if they ever return, life has changed. So, for many Liberians, the United States, France, Guinea, West Africa, Ghana, or some other far off place in the world is now home. And yet, last week, dozens of Liberians were deported from the United States because of crimes they committed and have served time for. They were returned to a place they left behind, where bullets and bombing remained their freshest memory of home, and had to give up the land of promise they had been given briefly when they needed a place of refuge. Did these forget to live in America, and so they were sent back to Liberia where they may never ever be restored enough to contribute in a way they should?

That brings me to the question, not of the deportation story of immigrants from Liberia or from other parts, but of the Liberian TPS question, the never-ending question of reclaiming your life that was destroyed, living again in the land that was given you as a refugee from the burning towns, cities and villages of Liberia, getting over your old self in order to embrace your new homeland, whether temporarily or not, being here with us in America, living within the laws of the nation that has given you refuge, bringing up your children to obey the laws and to enjoy the privileges of this great nation, getting your immigration up one level from that Temporary Protected Status (TPS) mode into the mode where you are a permanent resident or a citizen, if you choose. Can you do that for yourself?

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Robertsport, Grand Bassa County, Liberia, where others came from. Many Liberians came from such a place, but today they continue to be scattered abroad, far away from what they knew as home. The beautiful coastal country of Liberia with all of its long white sandy beach line and huge tropical forest land, its lovely mountains and very happy people was stolen from many of you almost two decades ago. In fact, many Liberians in the villages far from the seat of government did not even know the issues that caused the war when the horrific wars snatched them from their lifestyles.

Many of these people are mere survivors, only survivors, many still languishing in refugee camps in Ghana and other parts of the world. Many have been in the limbo for eighteen years, not having any place they can call home. But tens of thousands of Liberians are among the fortunate ones like myself who now live here in the US. We so miss home, miss our families or we may complain of racism and discrimination that is characteristic of living as a black person in the United States, but we can never deny that many of us are far more fortunate than other Liberians who never got the chance of leaving the war torn country . Many other hundreds of thousands never survived to be here with us, and there were those of our families and friends and relatives who were forced to live in refugee camps in Ghana and other African countries. So if we are fortunate because despite all the disadvantages of being immigrants with our lovely, but often misunderstood accents and with racism, we still have many opportunities not possible in other parts of the world, why are not taking advantage of these opportunities?

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For many, the war symbolizes the broken bridge into the future just like the Old Waterside Bridge in Monrovia that finally collapsed after many years of war and lack of care. For many in the Diaspora and in refugee camps, the bridge to both the future and the past has been completely destroyed.

Thousands of Liberians were mindful that the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) awarded us refugees and war victims by the United States in 1990 would not last forever. Many therefore went ahead and changed that status by applying for more permanent residency visas or becoming citizens. Many saw that the war had destroyed everything they knew, including their whole families and towns and did not see why they could wait to return to Liberia. And yet, tens of thousands, between 4,000 to 10,000 Liberians did not change their TPS status; instead, they renewed TPS year to year until now. Many of those who did not renew will be deported to Liberia if the United States House of Representative does not follow its Senate counterpart bill and pass the extension of TPS for Liberians. But as we all know, Liberia that is just beginning to rebuild after the fourteen year war is not prepared to take in such a number of returnees if these Liberians are returned.

In 2006, I visited Minneapolis, Minnesota where the largest population of Liberians in the US lives. According to statistics, there are about 25,000 Liberians living in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Also, Staten Island is home to another heavy population of Liberians, mostly former refugees who were settled there in the 1990s to 2000s during the Liberian civil war. During my research trip to record the stories of Liberian women survivors of the war, I was amazed at the diverse community of Liberians living in the two American cities: New York and Minneapolis area.

There were the highly educated Liberians who could afford to pick up the pieces after war had taken everything from them. They moved on both emotionally and financially despite the sad memories of loss. There were the not so educated, still making an effort to prepare themselves for living in the US, many who have not made their statuses permanent. Then there were the uneducated in the Western sense, the traditional older generation who were taken both from Liberia’s cities and villages, many who had lost everything and had nothing to return to. All of these groups came from every Liberian ethnic group, and represented all ages of people. Many of these did not know the American system of immigration, and did not know that they would lose their status if the TPS is completely terminated some day. Many could not afford to change their status either, having lost everything and still trying to make a new life in a world alien to them. Many cannot speak nor understand much of any English, and many of these were being held down by their grandchildren who had lost their parents to the war. Many of these elderly people who now live in small apartments in high rise lower income housing units in America’s big cities will be deported if nothing is done about Liberia’s problem. What can we do to prevent the deportation of such a huge number of Liberians to Liberia?

Even as we wrestle with such a question, I wonder how we can help prepare our people to change their status if TPS is granted again for another year?

While I was in Minneapolis last year, I was the featured speaker at a forum for Liberians in the area, a program hosted the the Liberian Women’s Initiative (LiWIM). During that forum, several Liberians in the audience were concerned about their status and again were worried that TPS would end in September, 2006, and they would probably be deported. We again discussed the various options to prevent the deportation of Liberians, and again, there was a rally call to extend TPS to Liberians for another year. TPS was extended then, but now, again, that chance has run out as always. And we are again where we’ve been every year for the past sixteen or more years.

What can Liberians do to prevent the involuntary return of Liberians to Liberia? One of the things I have done in my small world is to help educate everyone I know about the ways to go about regularizing their status as they now live here in the US. Everyone must be everyone’s keeper as we used to do in our home country. Tell your family members that the $260.00 (two hundred and sixty dollars) it takes to pay for the entire process of the permanent residency visa or the green card is far less expensive than the worry of not knowing what will happen to you when TPS expires. And as we all know, no one can become a US citizen unless they have been a permanent resident here in the US for at least five years.

I am not advocating for huge groups of Liberians to become US citizens. I am not a US citizen myself, and just recently, I renewed my own permanent residency status that would have expired after ten years of having that status. I want to be a Liberian still, want to be identified as one, and have no current plans of changing that status. But I am legal, and I am living here and trying all I can to live in this great country and enjoy all of the resources for which I pay taxes. This is what we need to do, whether we are educated or not educated. This is the law of the country that felt sorry for us when we needed help, and allowed us to remain here for this length of time. This is not to undercut all of the arguments of what the US should have and should not have done when the war ravaged our beautiful homeland. But this is to give credit where credit is due. Liberians need to pay attention to the immigration debates on all sides, check their statuses and follow the law and change the temporary status while there is still time.

What can others who are not Liberians or who do not have the problem with TPS do to help?

Join in the fight to save our people from being deported. There are many organizations, including the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights that are helping to inform Liberians and assist in bringing both the debate and the matter to the forefront. The Union of Liberians in the US, led by President Wettee is also working hard at assisting our people. Write your State Senator and Representative and find out how they can assist with preventing the deportation of these people whose lives were destroyed by the horrific war in Liberia. Visit this site: http://www.energyofanation.org/Learn_About_Temporary_Protected_Status.html

Do all you can to save Liberians and Liberia. Most Liberians who face deportation when TPS expires in October 2007 have suffered all kinds of human rights abuses, have had whole families killed, have had everything they possessed destroyed, and have suffered more than a decade of trauma due to all of this loss. Many have resettled here and are bringing up American born children, have contributed to the development of this country, pay their taxes, and are America’s strong voice because of the love they have received from tens of thousands of Americans and from America, and cannot lose this new world they have adopted. They do not deserve to be deported.

I will close with a poem written by a Liberian friend and fellow writer who is emerging out of her own memory of watching from the distance as her country was destroyed. She is Miss Ophelia S. Lewis, author of two books of poetry.

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From left to right:Me and Ophelia at the home of my childhood girlfriend, Marietta Freeman Johnson in Atlanta, GA

I am Thinking of Liberia

By Ophelia S. Lewis

As the day chase away the night

And as the night chase away the day

Homesickness has made a nest in my heart

And sits there like a bird

I am thinking of Liberia

 

Liberia is painted in my heart

Her red earth

Her green jungle

Her silver drops of tropical rainfall

Her red hibiscus dotted on green bushes

 

In the silence of her countryside

I hear the cries of her Pepper Birds

I yearn to touch the chill in her air

So pleasantly refreshing after the heavy rain

 

I hear the whispers of her night

That rides along her Atlantic winds

I hope it finds its way into my mind

I am thinking of Liberia

 

Her little boy

Running and rolling an old rimless tire

Her little girl

Plaiting the hair of a corncob and

Pretending that it is her baby

 

Her woman’s gracious walk

In her colorful lappa

That trails royally behind her

Her man, draped with a special robe

That only he may wear

 

Her mother, whose infant

Sleeps cozily against her back

Her father, standing waist-deep

Among straw-yellow rice in its ripeness

 

I crave the warmth of her sun

To beat against my shoulders

While I walk down the winding road

Through richly cultivated sugarcane farm

 

My memory is kind to me

Although it is only a taste of a lesser satisfaction

As the day chase away the night

And the night chase away the day

Liberia is painted in my heart

I am thinking of Liberia

 

 

©2004 –Ophelia S. Lewis
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