Diaspora “Expatriate???” Liberians Facing Rejection From the Nervous Stay-at-Home Liberians: Can Liberia Really Rebuild Without Us?

The President of Liberia, Her Excellency Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf desires that we should return home and help her rebuild our country, and she makes a lot of efforts to have that happen, but do some of those in our country want us return?Photo on the right above is a 2008 photo taken during the Liberia Diaspora Engagement forum organized by the Executive Mansion, to which I was invited to dialogue with President Sirleaf, in her attempt to end this undeclared war between Diaspora Liberians and the “stay at home.”

Do You Know that We Diaspora Liberians Are Referred to As “Expatriate” or “Imported Liberians?”

They call us “Expatriate” Liberians and sometimes refer to us as “Imported Liberians.” Anyone returning home from the United States, from Europe or from another much better African country to our homeland of the “glorious land of liberty,” known as Liberia, becomes an immediate target of rejection by those I refer to as the “stay at home.” Many of those who call us these names  may actually have the power on their side. The more educated and qualified you are, the worst the discrimination or rejection you face. Sadly, some of those who strongly reject the more educated, more qualified, and well-meaning Liberians returning home are most often not the most qualified. They are so afraid of losing their jobs to those of us visiting for short term, long term stay or returning home permanently, they forget that the country they call home is the same country we too call home. It is about time that the President of Liberia and other government officials begin to address this issue in open forums before this lack of understanding becomes a bigger problem.

Can Liberia Be Rebuilt Without Us?

The question I  ask those who make it difficult for returning Liberians to feel at home is: can Liberia rebuild without some of its most valuable, qualified, dedicated and committed citizens? Can you really rebuild the country without the help of your fellow Liberians who have prepared themselves for leadership and hard work and are willing to turn away from their lives abroad to help in the rebuilding process? Do you believe that the United Nations and all of its short-term, imported labor and foreign None Governmental Organizations who are the true expatriates do the job for us? I don’t think so.

Above: Far left, my sisters and my nieces enjoy time with me at my father’s home. Middle- United Methodist University officials meet with me, all, 2008 as I present my collections of books to their university. Diaspora Liberians often have much to give back to our country, but so often are prevented from doing so by the fearful stay at home who may not really love Liberia.

Nigerian poet, John Pepper Clark Bekederemo’s poem below rings so true for us Liberians today.

The Casualties

———— By John Pepper Clark Bekederemo (Nigeria)

The casualties are not only those who are dead;
They are well out of it.
The casualties are not only those who are wounded,
Thought they await burial by installment
The casualties are not only those who have lost
Person or property, hard as it is
To grape for a touch that some
May not know is not there
The casualties are not those led away by night;
The cell is a cruel place, sometimes a heaven,
No where as absolute as the grave
The casualties are not those who started
A fire and now cannot put to out. Thousands
Are burning that had no say in the matter.
The casualties are not only those who escaping
The shattered shell become prisoners in
A fortress of falling walls.

The casualties are many, and a good number well
Outside the scene of ravage and wreck;
They are the emissaries of rift,
So smug in smoke-room they haunt abroad,
They are wandering minstrels who, beating on
The drum of human heart, draw the world
Into a dance with rites it does not know

The drum overwhelm the guns…
Caught in the clash of counter claims and charges
When not in the niche others have left,
We fall.
All casualties of war,
Because we cannot hear other speak,
Because eyes have ceased to see the face from the crowd,
Because whether we know or
Do not know the extent of wrong on all sides,
We are characters now other than before
The war began, the stay- at- home unsettled
By taxes and rumor, the looter for office
And wares, fearful everyday the owners may return,
We are all casualties,
All sagging as are
The case celebrated for kwashiorkor,
The unforeseen camp-follower of not just our war.

Above is a shot I took of one of the leading opposition political parties, CDC’s standard bearers, Winston Tubman and George Weah, Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates arrival in Liberia on July 15, 2011 on my way to the Roberts International Airport. The CDC candidates running for office are supported by many who think of us in the Diaspora as “Expatriates” or Imported Liberians just as many supporters of the ruling party of the President. Interestingly also, all of the top leadership, including most of the candidates in the upcoming elections are people living in the Diaspora. “George Weah and Winston Tubman have their permanent homes in the US, not in Liberia,” I told a strong supporter of CDC who told me that “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is importing ” ‘expatriate Liberians’ to run the country.

“The Looters for Office and Wares, Fearful Everyday the Owners May Return:”

When one of my most celebrated poets, Nigerian poet, John Pepper Clark Bekederemo says, “We are characters now other than before/ The war began, the stay- at- home unsettled/ By taxes and rumor, the looters for office/ And wares, fearful everyday the owners may return,” he was writing about the Nigerian civil war. He did not know that he would be writing for Liberians as well, decades later, about the Liberian civil war and those who died and those who survived. Isn’t it ironic that all of us are “characters now other than before?” That “the stay-at home,” Liberians, who either returned early after the end of the war, never went anywhere during the war, and perhaps, many of them, actually former fighters or stakeholders in the fighting, now are what Bekederemo refers to as “unsettled by taxes and rumors, the “looters for office/” and “Wares, fearful everyday the owners may return…?” Yes, this great poet, like all good poets was exploring the human issues that we Liberians are today faced with. Our brothers and sisters who remained mostly at home, afraid to see us Diaspora, exiled Liberians come back home to claim what is still ours, our homeland and all our lost lands and lost opportunities.

This below is the Liberia that is at stake. On the right, Dr. Amos Sawyer, my former mentor and professor, former & 1st Interim Gov. President explodes with excitement in receiving me at his office in Monrovia, 2008. That is what is necessary to rebuild Liberia. Those of us returning home short-term or long term must be welcome home, not rejected by selfish Liberians who think they can drive us away from our own homeland.

AAbove is what we refer to as Down Water Side Market Place (Photo taken by Whyne Jabbeh- July, 2008)

Diaspora Liberians or Liberians Who Fled the War Between 1990-2003 Are Not Expatriates or Imported Liberians and Have Every Right to Liberia, So Cut Out the Discrimination and Libeling. It Does Not Work:

The Shock We Diaspora Liberians Experience:

I experienced my first shock of the rejection in 2008 when I returned home after many years to make one of my many contributions to my native land. I was visiting for three weeks on a Penn State University Grant support to research Liberian women’s trauma stories. I was also there to donate up to 200 of my then three books, Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa, (New Issues Press, 1998) Becoming Ebony, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003) and The River is Rising, (Autumn House Press, 2007). I donated about 200 books to every college, university, and library, including the American Embassy Library near the US Embassy compound. I also interviewed dozens of women and met with Liberian writers. During that visit, I had planned to do a free poetry reading with the university of Liberia student body and the community, and met first with the Dean of the College or Acting Dean, Mr. Stephen Jugwe of Liberia College. I also met with the President then, my good friend, Dr. Al-Haasan Conteh, who received me very warmly.

Surprise:

I did not go to the university as though I were an outsider, looking to come and change things. If anyone remembers me, I was a professor at the university from 1980-1990, sacrificing much for my country during the 1980s when we worked three months before we received one month pay during the Samuel Doe era. So, I was no stranger to the university. And for someone who gets a very good honorarium for reading at the best universities in the US and in parts of the world, I thought my country could use me. And I still think I’m not wrong about that.

But the planned activities did not work out because the Dean of the college never put together the program as was instructed by the then President, and on the day of the program, only the pressmen from the Information Ministry, the Daily Observer reporter assigned to me and a few of my guests were on sight at the university. There was nobody from the university around to answer questions. The President of the university then was so surprised since he was sure the instructions were clear, and of course, he was around, but the program was never planned. I have a sense of humor, so I laughed because here was I, thinking of giving back to my country in another way for free, and here we were, treated like fools. My brother’s chauffeur who drove us to the event joked about that recently when I met him on my 2011 trip. He is not what you would call educated, but he knew that the university could do better than that cold treatment.

I felt sorry for the university students, for my country, and for the poverty stricken people of Liberia that day. The fear then was that since the University of Liberia was searching for a new President, and since I used to be a professor at the university for ten years leading to the war, and because I was a Ph.D., the kind they were in search of, I was a likely candidate so everyone was afraid of me. Wow!

But I Came Back?

Again, this year, I returned, once more with the support of Penn State University that has seen the need for research and paid my expenses to be in my country and work for short term. Again, the university of Liberia shunned me. My college, the College of Liberal Arts and Humanities or what we called Liberia College decided that if I wanted to contribute to my institution, I needed another round of “run around.” This is a place where I had taught classes as a young woman from 1980-1990, where I was on that last faculty bus that ran between the Fendall Campus and Monrovia, when we were stopped by soldiers in June of 1990 because Charles Taylor’s rebels had already overrun Kakata.

2011:

Nearly two weeks after running up and down to get the Dean of the college and the English Dept. to allow me do a student or faculty workshop in teaching and or writing, the acting chair of the Eng. Dept called me. Mind you, he’d refused to answer many of my calls over the two weeks, but now he was ready and told me in these words, “Since you want to do something with the university, you can come and teach my class how to understand the school ode, and if there’s enough time, Ma, you can also teach them the national anthem.”

Wow!

I told him to please let me call him back. I was too upset to respond to such a request. So shocked, I laughed until I teared. He never called me back however, and when I called the next day and told him that I did not see myself teaching college students how to understand their school ode when I am a poet who has work to do, he was upset. I said that I would tell the President of the University that he told me to teach his students not about my poetry or Liberian poetry in general, but the school ode. The Dean was angry about this, of course, and told the Provost who called to get his side of the story that I had said something terrible to his professor. Are these people joking or are they serious? How could I, who graduated from the University in 1980 even remember the school ode and did I even know this ode while I was a student? And why in the world will I travel to Liberia just to teach a group of educationally starved college students their own school ode?

Liberia Needs Everyone:

I did not give up on my country. There are many institutions of learning in our beloved country and there are many “stay-at-home” Liberians who are making great contributions to our country and they also love Liberia just as many of us Diaspora Liberians do. Those who keep us away, threaten us, reject us and are intimidated by us are not going to win.

I put out the word on the national radio, ELBC and with everyone of the journalists who interviewed me, and before I knew it, many calls came in for me to conduct workshops and to work with our people. I conducted a teacher training workshop at Monrovia College and Industrial Training Institute, met with the Vice President of United Methodist University, gave numerous interviews to speak to the Liberian journalists and the Liberian people about what I think about the issues the country is now wrestling with. I also conducted a Women’s empowerment workshop with 50 traditional Grebo women from across the city and did many other things for my people. Of course, I interviewed dozens of Liberian women, recorded their war stories, etc as I was supposed to do.

We Are Not All Out to Steal Your Jobs:

Diaspora Liberians are not all out to get the jobs from those who hold them. There is no reason for anyone to prevent our country from using all of its human resources to rebuild the nation. We do not have many educated people as with other countries and we lost many of our best in the 14 year war.  Liberia is one of those African countries with one of the lowest literacy rate, and the war drove most of its educated and upper income citizens out of the country. Many of the others who did not leave, died in the war. How can this country not have a place for its returning people?  How can the University become a better university if it does not go out and recruit all of its past professors, alumni, its citizenry abroad and within the country to rebuild its walls and its future? Think what could result from a relationship between the University of Liberia and Penn State if only the university could allow others to come in. Even as I was in Monrovia, there were students from US institutions, including one from Penn State who were in the country for research. Can the nation use such resources to help rebuild?

Meeting the President of UL: There is Hope

Before I left home, I had the privilege of being invited to have lunch with the Provost of the University, my good friend, Dr. Brownell and the President, Dr. Dennis. I told them over lunch about my frustrations with the university. I was glad to be in the good company of two “Expatriate,” “Imported” Liberians like myself, I said. If I had more time left in my schedule, I know these two great academics would have given me an opportunity. The problem is that I could not even see them when I tried to see them since you need to cut through red tape to get to the top officials. I recall bursting into Al-Hassan Conteh’s office in order to see him in 2008, and of course, when he saw me at his door, he jumped from behind his desk to welcome me. What he did not know then was that I had to push past his staff to get into his office.

At lunch, that hot July afternoon, the two top most officials at the university were surprised about the troubles I had experienced and wanted to do something about my frustrations. But I had only two days left to be in the country. A call to the Dean resulted in accusations that I had made remarks about reporting the matter to the President. What was sad about my own frustrations is the fact that I confirmed my own observations from my meeting that all of us at that lunch table, including the President, who is a very hardworking, highly educated veteran Professor, and the provost, Dr. Wede Elliott Brownell, an excited new appointee and I were all the so-called “Expatriates or Imported Liberians” you have been reading about. We, the ones returning to contribute, excited about the need to give back to our country are the “Expatriates.” Those who fear us do not see the true expatriates from around the world and Africa, the UN officials and the private businessmen who are making hefty salaries even while raising the cost of living in a place where folks cannot even feed themselves.  It is us they seek to keep away.

The Issues, the Myths and the Reasons Behind this Rejection:

I read a power point presentation by Dr. C. William Allen, a good friend of mine, Director General of the General Services Agency, Republic of Liberia, in which he indicates that the prolonged civil war caused a brain drain of the most educated, skilled and qualified professionals, thereby creating a problem of inefficiency which needed to be addressed. The paper entitle, “The Role of Liberians and Liberianologists in the Diaspora in Human Capacity Building in the New Liberia,” speaks of the “TOKTEN” or (Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals” program as one of the means of solving the nation’s problems of the lack of qualified professionals. Well, such a program would bring in expatriates as well as Liberians in the Diaspora, pay them a reasonable salary with benefits to help rebuild the country. In such a program, Liberians would be encouraged to take short term missions away from their foreign jobs and return home or take their sabbatical leave in order to help boost the new Liberian workforce. Such a proposal, whether originated by Allen or some other group has been effective in the Johnson administration. Liberians from all professions heeded the call to return home at the beginning of the Johnson administration, and returned home. Many are still residing in the country today whereas many have left to return to the western countries where they lived for the 14 years of the war.

The Issues:

The Issues many of the “stay-at-home” raise have to do with the preferential treatment Diaspora Liberians are given when they return home to serve their country. In 2008, during the “Diaspora Engagement Forum” with Her Excellency President Sirleaf, the issues of the overpayment of Diaspora Liberians came up. I recall my own disclaimer when I presented that I was not in Liberia to “steal” people’s jobs. During the question and answer part of the forum, I recall a very top government official, a friend of mine from college days, standing up in anger to tell me that they the stay-at-home do not like us because we get three times more than they are paid to do the same jobs because their degrees are from African countries and ours are from the US. Another woman stood up and was so outraged with anger against those who come from “America to steal our jobs,” I had to leave the stage and go up to her to give her a hug. I could not believe the sort of anger I was seeing.

The Other Side of the Issues:

Are qualified Liberians who have not been abroad being underpaid compared to those from abroad or are those from abroad more qualified? Or, let me put it another way: Is the price of leaving your security in the United States and your children and spouse so high that the government has to pay you a higher salary to draw you back home to your country? Is it not reasonable that after I have worked as a college professor for decades, having established a salary that supports my family here in the US, and with a terminal degree, that the government that needs my services has to pay me a salary that is realistic to my qualifications and sacrifice in order to gain from my expertise? You can answer that for yourself.

There are other arguments, however. A good friend of mine posted something she received from some place that made me laugh. The piece of statement claimed that many of us Liberians abroad have spent years cleaning toilets, changing diapers at nursing homes, and working at gas stations, and upon return, we’re given the best jobs, making 10,000.00, 20,000.00 or more dollars a month. When I saw that, I thought the piece was so untrue, I could not comment on such a mass distributed piece whose author was so unknown, it was hilarious.

There are of course, those who make such money in our country. There are many UN workers, international specialists, and international workers who make up to a quarter million dollars, I’m certain, but I know of no college professor hired to teach in Liberia with the sort of salaries the “stay-at-home” complain about. If this is happening, the people to speak to are the nation’s leaders, not us, Diaspora Liberians. I know that it is not right to pay a PhD. who has been tenured $300.00 a month to teach at the University of Liberia just as it is not right to pay a university professor who has never been abroad $300.00 a month. I’m not saying this is what they make, however.

The myths do not help us correct the problems. If Liberia will rebuild from the bullet shelled streets and become a successful country,  the country needs all of its citizens, friends, expatriates, stay-at home folks, traditional, non-traditional folks and everyone that has a heart for the country. Politicians are not enough to rebuild the country. It takes ordinary people with the love and desire for change to build a nation. Everyone cannot be the President and the President cannot do everything. This silent war being waged must end or we will end up just where we began.

While I was in Liberia, I wrote a poem that sums up my perspective on the issues I have just discussed. Enjoy:

When Monrovia Rises

—-By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

The city is not a crippled woman at all. This city
is not a blind man at a potholed roadside, his

cane, longer than his eye, waiting for coins to fall
into his bowl, in a land where all the coins were lost

at war. When Monrovia rises, the city rises with
a bang, and me, throwing off my damp beddings,

I wake up with a soft prayer on my lips. Even God
in the Heavens knows how fragile this place is.

This city is not an egg or it would have long emerged
from its shell, a small fiery woman with the legs

of snakes. All day, boys younger than history can
remember,  shout at one another  on a street corner

near me about a country they have never seen.
Girls wearing old t-shirts, speak a new language,

a corruption by that same old war. You see, they have
never seen better times. Everyone here barricades

themselves behind steel doors, steel bars, and those
who can afford also have walls this high. Here, we’re all

afraid that one of us may light a match and start the fire
again or maybe one among us may break into our home

and slash us all up not for the wealth they seek, but for
the memories some of us still carry under angry eyelids.

Maybe God will come down one day without his boots.
Maybe someone will someday convince us that after

all the city was leveled, we are all the same after all,
same mother, same father, same roots, same country,

all of us, just branches and limps of the same tree.

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