Africa

Liberian Refugees: 17 Years in Limbo

Liberian refugee children pose as one plays a drum in the Buduburam Refugee Camp, east of Accra, Ghana. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP-Getty Images)

"We must go back to Liberia and help rebuild the country."

Young and old in the Liberian refugee camp located in Ghana, West Africa repeat this phrase. But usually it sounds more like an abstract slogan than a plan.

More than 40,000 refugees live here in Buduburam, 27 miles west of Ghana's capital, Accra. Some came as long as 17 years ago, when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees founded the camp to shelter Liberians fleeing civil war at home. With the war over and a reformist Harvard-educated president in power, the U.N. has begun a voluntary repatriation program. But only 6,000 people have signed up. Tens of thousands of others could choose to return to Liberia on their own, or try to integrate into Ghanaian society. Few are hurrying to decide.

For many, Liberia is by now a distant, wild unknown. Others are spooked by rumors, memories and failed attempts to repatriate.

Christian Doebo, Jr., a 28-year-old orphan who fled Liberia alone and on foot when he was 12, said he'll never go back.

"The only thing I remember about Liberia is rebels burning down our house and abducting my parents," he said. But he scoffed at the idea of settling in Ghana. "If you don't speak [the local language] Twi, you don't move, you don't have work, you are not in their society."

No one is forcing the refugees to leave — they can simply stay in the camp. Buduburam, built for 5,000, now sprawls over 141 acres, and has morphed into a permanent settlement. No tents here — the camp is a labyrinth of clay houses, concrete schools and churches, wooden market stalls, and giant black polytanks where the refugees get their water.

It long ago established its own rhythms. On Sunday nights, hundreds of revelers pour into "The 18," a path named after the typical age of Liberians who congregate there to drink Guinness and dance. Vendors sell fried dough and grilled meat by kerosene lamps. Otherwise, there's no light at night — though there's always enough generator fuel to power the tremendous sound systems that rattle the camp with hip-hop and reggae music until well after the midnight curfew.

By day, commerce thrives. The nameless main avenue boasts pharmacies, photo studios, nightclubs, luncheonettes, pool halls and Internet cafés, most built and all run by refugees. Both Liberian and Ghanaian market ladies lay out their produce on blankets underneath the broken electricity transformer in the center of the camp. In spite of its extreme poverty, Buduburam serves as the main market for area Ghanaians.

With U.N. aid now cut to a minimum, it's an economy powered almost entirely by charitable donations and remittances from friends and family in America. Ghanaian law allows the refugees to work, but unemployment is high for natives, and few Buduburam Liberians have jobs.

Many refugees have started volunteer community organizations instead. Liberians have a mania for acronyms. In the war years, rebel groups like N.P.F.L., L.U.R.D., and U.L.I.M.O. vied for power. In Buduburam, refugee-initiated N.G.O.s like S.H.I.F.S.D. (Self-Help Initiative for Sustainable Development), P.C.O. (Population Caring Organization), and C.Y.E. (Center for Youth Empowerment) compete for dwindling donor funds. As the U.N. gradually withdraws support here for everything but sanitation, a clinic, and food for the most vulnerable refugees, such groups provide social services, programs for kids, and employment training.

The leaders of these groups talk about transferring their work to Liberia, but few have concrete plans to do so. Slabe Sennay, an 11-year resident of Buduburam and director of C.Y.E., wants to bring his education program to the Liberian hinterlands. But he's apprehensive about the information that reaches him from home.

"They're not hearing the sound of guns, but there is still war," he said. "When people aren't eating, the war is not over. When a family can't put a child in school, it's still war."

Kebbeh Freeman also wants to take her work to Liberia, and has a dedicated staff of teachers who want to go with her. Her group, Women of Glory, is busy with microfinance, H.I.V. workshops and vocational training for women, especially for prostitutes and single mothers. But a recent coup attempt in Liberia has left her wary.

"Some of the people who killed our parents are still in the government," she said. And she fears losing her already-meager resources. "Before going back, I need a sponsor, because I can't start from nothing."

Some Liberians still dream of moving to the United States. Not all Americans know that freed American slaves founded Liberia. But Liberians are extremely conscious of that historical link.

"You have to be here for two or three days to see the real suffering, because we won't let it show," said T. Mark Jackson, 33, who has lived in Buduburam for three years. "You always see Liberians looking strong. Even if we haven't eaten all day, we know we're small Americans."

Though grueling, Buduburam is the devil they know. Conditions are no worse than in the surrounding Ghanaian villages. It looks as though many could spend the rest of their lives waiting and hoping in Buduburam.

Mary T. Nelson has lived in the camp for 15 years. To support her seven children, she works 12 hours a day selling fresh fish for a Ghanaian woman, then moves on to her night job selling fried dough in front of a nightclub. "I don't have any power for myself," she said. "I rely on the U.N., because they were the ones who saved me when I was dying. Anywhere they want to take me I will go. But I will not go to Liberia. Never. And I will not stay in Ghana. Never."

Rollo Romig is a graduate student in journalism at New York University. This article was first published on NYU Livewire, a biweekly service supplying newspapers and magazines with feature stories about and for young people in college and their twenties. .

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