You Think You Know, But You Don’t Know

budu

This is my contribution to Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s “A Day Without Dignity” campaign.

Dave Bidini is a Canadian musician and writer. In 2007, he traveled to a refugee camp in Ghana, home to tens of thousands of mostly Liberian refugees, Buduburam. (That camp happens to be a place where I spent many months working between 2007 and 2008.) While there, he was moved by the struggle of a young singer/musician, Samuel. For years, he kept in touch with Samuel, as the young man tried to pursue a musical career, first in Ghana and then in Liberia. Bidini was in touch with Samuel and Samuel’s uncle Jake, and was speaking on the phone with his protege on a regular basis. Excerpt from his story (worth reading the whole thing, really):

Jake also fled the war, barely surviving on foot as he left Monrovia for peace in Ghana. Jake said that if Samuel was back in Monrovia, he’d probably be a big name. “Dave,” the young singer told me one early morning on the phone. “If only I could get home, I know I could do it. I know this for certain.”

Samuel sent me his record. A demo. Endless tracks of highlife electronica mixed with ebullient female backing singers and Samuel riffing, singing and shouting overtop.

“Dave, can you help me make this record?” he asked me one day. Samuel has been calling me every week for about three years. He used the number I’d given him on my last day at the camp. Uncle Jake also had my number, but he never called. Instead, we emailed back and forth, staying in touch about his organization — the Liberian Dance Troupe — which he hoped to continue despite relocating to Monrovia in 2009, which was when everyone in camp was supposed to return to Liberia, part of the Accra mayor’s initiative to close the settlement and declare it a success on his watch. Some left, but some didn’t. Some stayed, squatting on the grounds. Samuel was one of those who couldn’t go home, at least not yet.

“I have no family,” he told me. “No mother, no father. All of my family was killed in the war. When I left for Accra, the boat was crowded and there were people drowning in the water at my feet. When I return, I want to return with a CD. I want to have a purpose.”

After writing about Samuel and Jake a few years ago, I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders. It made me a little suspicious of Samuel, but I figured that if even a fraction of what he’d described to me was true, it was enough to help him out. Then the phone calls started. One after another, relentlessly. In the middle of the night. Before I knew it, I was making his CD for him.

Ah yes. The White in Shining Armor. Sweeping in to make the African boy’s dreams come true, to lift him out of his misery. Except, it’s not so easy. In spite of having visited the refugee camp for himself, in spite of having met and talked and exchanged with the people he was trying to help, it’s clear to me that Bidini didn’t quite understand what he was getting himself into. For starters, in the quote above, Bidini talks about the “mayor of Accra” wanting to shut down the camp. While I’m sure the mayor of Accra supported the idea of getting rid of the thousands of refugees at Buduburam, he never spearheaded the effort. What lead to a massive repatriation of Liberian refugees in 2008/9 was a crisis between the UNHCR, the Ghanain government (in particular, the Ministry of the Interior) and the Liberian community in Buduburam. Anyway, the point is that Bidini, for all his good intentions and kind-heartedness, and for all his musical talent and knowledge, was not prepared for how this would eventually play out. Another excerpt:

I sent out a message on Facebook, and through it, I met Chris Parsons, who designed the record. He created four or five beautiful images, which I sent to Samuel. But Samuel said they weren’t right. Instead, he wanted an image of himself singing on the cover.

“No one in Liberia will buy a record without a picture of the singer on it,” he told me. I was in no position to argue with him.

Mark Logan of Busted Flat Records in Kitchener, Ont., pressed the CD. Five-hundred of them, for free. When they were done, they looked and sounded beautiful. Samuel now had a record, and, each time he called, I told him, “We’re getting the package ready. You’re going to love it.” Samuel sent us one address, then another, then another. While all of this was going on, Jake told me about his troupe, how they couldn’t afford studio space, which would double as a classroom where kids would learn about art and history and music. He asked for nothing, but it wasn’t long before Facebook yielded another donor, an old friend, Steve Dengler. Steve sent Jake the money, and he wrote to say thanks. Then Jake got on with the business of keeping Liberian culture alive. No phone calls. No requests for more, and more still.

Over the last four years, because of my work in Buduburam and my involvement with the community there, I have received countless emails from people trying to verify someone’s identity in the camp, trying to get a better sense of whether the person they met on a brief tour of the camp, or via an online chat room, was trustworthy. The only thing I’ve ever been able to do when I get these emails is reply with (usually long-winded) honest answers about the reality of life there. For many Liberians in the Buduburam camp, foreigners are seen as an opportunity for a better life. I’ve heard countless stories like Bidini’s (“I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders.”)

It just isn’t that easy to know who you’re helping, why you’re helping them, and if, in the end, you’re actually having a positive impact, or, on the contrary, contributing to perpetuating an insidious, counter-productive culture of dependency.

I made my share of mistakes at Buduburam, naively trusting the wrong people, so I can very much relate to Bidini’s story. In one particular instance, a teenage boy’s unemployed, depressed mother begged me to pay for her to attend a training program to learn baking. I relented, and agreed, and paid the (relatively) hefty fee for her to attend the program. I met with the director of the program, a fantastic lady named Agnes, a Liberian who had lived in the U.S. and come to Buduburam to be with her family members and help out. Agnes assured me that my friend would really benefit from the program, that this would be a huge boost for her, that I would be helping her become an independent woman. Music to my ears! Following months of training (and costs for me), my friend finished her training, got her diploma and immediately resumed sulking, sitting at home and being depressed about her situation. Years later, I know she has never made any use of her training. I wish so much I had thought this through at the time, and I wish someone could have told me that I was making a mistake.

At some point in my time at Buduburam, I also tried to help out a group of former child soldiers. This happened when the crisis between the Liberian community and the government was at its height, and many were worried (rightfully so) that they would be a target for deportation. These ex-combatants had organized themselves into a small organization, trying to learn skills and generate income to support their rehabilitation. By then, I was already more weary and careful, and I knew there really wasn’t much I could do. I could talk to them, and help them figure out logistics – how could they get a passport, or other form of travel document, putting them in touch with contacts in Togo (nearest border to Accra), etc. I remember sitting in my house at night with these guys, worrying so much that I was doing more harm than good, worrying that I’d make some kind of mistake that would get them in trouble, or worst. They didn’t *really* need me anyway – these guys were some of the most resourceful, cunning people I’ve ever encountered (I guess these are some of the qualities one needs in order to survive a brutal war.)

Back to Dave Bidini and Samuel’s story:

We sent Samuel the records. The phone calls stopped for awhile. After about a month, he called to say that he hadn’t received the records. I asked him why he’d waited so long to tell me, but he had no answer. I told him I’d check the post office, but there was no tracing the delivery. I became angry with Samuel. My wife told me that I was being a jerk for feeling mistreated through all of it. Then Samuel called to say, “Don’t worry about the records, Dave, I have to get back to Liberia. I need $200 for a plane ticket.”

I didn’t know what to think. Was Samuel fabricating a story to get more money out of me? Was a few hundred dollars too much to help a musician who lived in poverty, regardless of the details of his hardship?

I sent Samuel the money. The phone stopped ringing, but then it started again. At 4 a.m. Then 6 a.m. Samuel hadn’t received the money. Someone else, he said, had claimed it. I got angry again, then sad, and now, I’m just tired. Today, Samuel has neither his money nor his CDs. He asked me to send the money again, but I said that I could not. I didn’t have the cash to spare, and I no longer had the will. The phone stopped ringing. Then it started again. It was Samuel. At 4 a.m. Police had stormed Buduburum, he said, and they were running roughshod over the squatters. Samuel asked if could I hear them shouting in the background. It was early. I was exhausted. But yes, I told him, I thought I could.

I really liked Bidini’s column. I welcome his honesty and his willingness to admit failure, which are rare among would-be do-gooders. As an outsider, it’s very hard to know how best to help people. Going into an unknown community, unaware of the social and economic dynamics, one needs to bring along  a good dose of humility, curiosity, understanding and, I’d argue, skepticism. A place like Buduburam is complex. Yes, it’s a refugee camp. But it’s also a refugee camp in Ghana, a particularly dynamic country. Yes, Buduburam is home to thousands of refugees. But many of them were never officially registered with the UNHCR, for a variety of reasons, and cannot avail themselves of the rights in the refugee Conventions. Yes, people are struggling. But it’s also a place of incredible resourcefulness, dynamism and life.

The point I’m trying to make is that even at the individual level, it can be very difficult to know what’s good and what works to help someone lift themselves out of poverty. Even though it may seem obvious, giving a pair of shoes to a shoeless person may not be the best way to help them.

H/T Glenna Gordon, for bringing Bidini’s story to my attention.

Photo credit: Chris Leombruno, Brown Lion Photos

Outlaws

For people who flee violence and conflict and seek refuge across borders, pain and suffering does not necessarily end once their destination is reached. According to IRIN, as many as 46,000 Somali refugees are living in Kenya with an “unclear legal status.” (The Refugee Consortium of Kenya puts this number around 100,000.) For all intents and purposes, a refugee with an “unclear legal status” translates into “illegal”:

“Urban refugees live largely without material assistance or legal protection, leaving them vulnerable to police arrest at any time, and face high levels of xenophobia from the local population,” Okoro [from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said. “The challenges faced by urban refugees in Kenya falls within the broader issue of the ‘hidden’ urban humanitarian challenges.

“Confusion over the processing of legal status for urban refugees and fear of deportation is exposing more than 40,000 urban refugees to serious humanitarian challenges with significant protection issues,” she said. “Responding to protection issues for urban refugees is a challenge without a clearer and better plan for implementing legal status for urban refugees.”

“Illegal” refugees – as they are sometimes mistakenly called – cannot avail themselves of their legal rights as refugees, nor can they access educational or employment opportunities without risk of alerting the authorities. Another IRIN report from last week quotes the Kenyan commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration:

“The government has a duty to provide protection to refugees and this involves provision of shelter, food, health and medical care and education,” said Peter Kusimba, commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons. “These, however, are only provided to refugees with legal immigrant status or are mandated by the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] to be in the camps.

“It would, however, be difficult to provide services to unregistered urban refugees because they wouldn’t come out for fear of arrest but we encourage them to come and apply for legal immigrant status so that they receive these services like everybody else,” he added.

Yes, I’m sure that the process of applying for legal immigrant status is simple, straight-forward and focused on protecting individuals…No wonder so many refugees linger in legal limbo.

Blog Action Day 09: Climate Change: Paradise Lost

Boy am I late in the game here…It’s not even *really* October 15th anymore, but hey. In any case, I’m really happy to contribute to Blog Action Day 09 (BAD09). If you haven’t heard of it, BAD09 is a great, simple initiative from our friends over at change.org. Basically, it’s “an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. Our aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.” BAD organizers emphasize that the first and last purpose of BAD is to create a discussion – clearly, a blog post (or 10,000) can’t be the tipping point on an issue like climate change, which is not only broad and complex, but also divisive and polarizing. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I hope that this post will, at the very least, be thought provoking.

Few places in the world inspire awe like the beautiful atolls of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Their startling blue waters and white sandy beaches have inspired artists and attracted tourists since modern transportation has made these little pieces of paradise accessible. However, climate change has made these typically low-lying, coral protected islands atolls — such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu or the Maldives — particularly vulnerable. Rising sea levels, storm surges and the increased acidification of ocean waters, which contributes to the loss of coral reefs, are already threatening the livelihoods of these islands’ inhabitants. According to the Intergovernemental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

  • Sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities
  • There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised.

Studies from the University of Copenhagen (here and here) argue that island cultures have developed and refined coping mechanisms to handle variations in climate and habitat: storm surges, erosion and shifting sea levels are fundamental features of island life, and cultures have adapted to these realities. However, the current challenges posed by climate change patterns are so stark, that traditional coping strategies will likely not suffice:

Polynesian cultures on small islands in the Pacific have a long tradition for adapting to climate change and variability, as well as to changes in other factors, in order to maintain their culture and way of life. Current and future climate change constitutes, however, a qualitatively and quantitatively different set of challenges.

While there is still some degree of uncertainty as to exactly what the impact of current climate patterns will be on island atolls, there is a broad consensus that (i) these effects are caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere, a lot of it attributable to human activity and, (ii) that there is a strong chance that these islands will become unsuitable for people to live on. In fact, it is the very existence of island atolls that is at stake.

(Watch: Impact of Climate Change in the Pacific from Oxfam Australia on Vimeo.)

To draw attention to the threat faced by low-lying islands, the Maldives government will be holding an underwater cabinet meeting on October 17:

The president of the Maldives is desperate for the world to know how seriously his government takes the threat of climate change and rising sea levels to the survival of his country. He wants his ministers to know as well.

To this end, Mohamed Nasheed has organised an underwater cabinet meeting and told all his ministers to get in training for the sub-aqua session. Six metres beneath the surface, the ministers will ratify a treaty calling on other countries to cut greenhouse emissions.

pg-24-maldives-afp-_248191s
AFP/Getty

The Maldives, like other island atolls, may very well become uninhabitable by the end of the century. This raises a number of critical questions regarding the legal obligation of states to provide a territory to live on for its citizens. If entire island nations disappear, what then happens to its people, its culture? The Maldives government has been wrestling with this question, and is establising a sovereign wealth fund with revenues generated from tourism for the purchase of territory. President Nasheed said

Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.”We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.”

The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.
The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.

In the Pacific, the Carteret Islands have become the poster child for the issue of climate related migration flows. The Carteret Islanders, a matrilineal community living on an island chain 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, have become the world’s first “climate refugees”. The government of Papua New Guinea has begun the evacuation, scheduled until 2020, of some 3,000 islanders.

While predictions vary as to the precise number of people around the world who will be forcibly displaced by climate related events, a commonly accepted figure is that an estimated 200-250 million people will have to migrate by 2050 as a result of climate change. According to Oxfam, 75 million of these people are living in poor islands and low-lying areas of the Pacific. And, as the evacuation of the Carteret Islands is a clear demonstration of, there is an urgent need to create legal safeguards for “climate refugees”.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 42 million displaced people in the world, 25 million of which are receiving assistance or protection from the agency. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which constitute a majority of the displaced (26 of 42 million) do not, in fact, fall under the mandate of the UNHCR de facto – the agency regroups certain IDPs, stateless persons and other special cases that do not fall under its strict, narrow mandate under the umbrella of “persons of concern.”

Migration and asylum-seeking due to climate change will likely be on the increase in the coming years, however, the UNHCR (or any other international organization, for that matter) does not have a mandate to protect or assist “climate refugees”. Legal and funding constraints mean that dealing with “climate refugees” will most likely not be a core UNHCR task.  Not only that, but there is currently a dearth of legislation (both international and national) that would guarantee the rights of people displaced by climate change. Rajesh Chhabara, writing for Climate Change Corp, explains:

Sources at UNHCR, who want to remain anonymous, add that UNHCR is not equipped or designed to handle hundreds of millions of refugees from climate change. It already finds its resources stressed in handling the 14.3 million political refugees in the world.

Clarifying UNHCR’s position, Yoichiro Tsuchida, UNHCR Senior Advisor on Climate Change, explains that the case for environment refugees is too complicated and disparate to fit within the current refugee framework. Justifying international migration due to natural disasters is difficult, as is the task of attributing environmental phenomena directly to climate change. “While environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law,” she says.

Tsuchida claims that “the broader international human rights regime” should serve as the basis for guiding the responsibility of states towards people who are in need of international protection but who do not qualify for refugee status.

Elements of a response are being developed – Australia and New Zealand, whose small neighbors are sinking, are beginning to shape policy responses. New Zealand, for example, has a Pacific Access Category for migrants hailing from Pacific islands, a fast track, simplified immigration option. The Australian Labour Party published a policy paper in 2006, “Our Drowning Neighbours“, which outlines steps for Australia to take to assist Pacific islands. The paper includes recommendations regarding what sort of assistance Australia should provide Pacific islands to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as its responsibility as a leading voice for the advocacy of strong action internationally and locally to address climate change.

However, while these initiatives are necessary, they only begin to scratch the surface of the problem. Some experts suggest that policy makers need to construe the inevitable migration flows resulting from climate change as an opportunity rather than a burden. Indeed, while displaced people and migrants already suffer disproportionately from discrimination and difficulties in integration, it is critical for policy makers and governments to prepare us for increased and more complex migration flows. A paper prepared for the Expert Group Meeting on Population Dynamics and Climate Change in June 2009 argues:

There is growing evidence suggesting that mobility, in conjunction with income diversification, is an important strategy to reduce vulnerability to environmental and non-environmental risks – including economic shocks and social marginalisation. In many cases, mobility not only increases resilience but also enables individuals and households to accumulate assets. As such, it will probably play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change. Policies that support and accommodate mobility and migration are important for both adaptation and the achievement of broader development goals.

In addition to questions related to the development of an appropriate framework for managing migration due to climate change, the consequences of the impending disaster facing islanders is well summarized by Tarita Holm, an analyst with the Palauan Ministry of Resources and Development. Of the displacement and relocation of islanders, she says: “It is about much more than just finding food and shelter,” said  “It is about your identity.”

Addressing climate change is more than just figuring out how and when a carbon tax is appropriate, or whether coal is clean or not. It will force us to grapple with very difficult and fundamental questions about the preservation of culture and civilizations.

Good Reads

– A call for true coordination on African policy in the West

This woman is amazing – her honest, intelligent take on life in Liberia and her broader observations are always thought-provoking. Check out her professional site too – I’m a fan.

Easterly on untying official development assistance. Fave quote:


As recently as 2003 a document on the USAID website shamelessly stated: “The principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80 percent of USAID’s contracts and grants go directly to American firms” (source).

– A great article from the Growth Commission regarding the impact of the financial crisis on the developing world. Excerpt:

One of the major threats to the international system which must be carefully managed would be the increased competition for scarce resources at both the international and national levels. This has already manifested itself in the case of oil and food and is becoming increasingly evident in the competition for water resources. There is also a clash of objectives with respect to environmental issues. The traditional polluters having achieved developed status, are locked in a major controversy with newly emerging countries with respect to the ravages to the environment given their mode of development.

The trade-offs here are very difficult in terms of meaningful compromise as countries like India and China, with huge populations and millions of poor people who are migrating into the cities with prospects of moving into the middle class, will not be denied the trappings of that class such as the ubiquitous motor car. The solution may lie not only in efforts of moral suasion to change consumption patterns in all countries, but also massive efforts in science and technology which are international in scope and based on the open system principle. In short, some of the same principles which fanned the revolution in information technology must be applied to the revolution in environmental science […]

The basis for sustained economic growth and development lies not only in investment, but in the political, administrative and technical capabilities of the nation state and it is leaders in the public and private sectors. The creation and support of institutions and organisations which not only set the framework and agenda for political, social and economic intercourse, but also access, sift and distribute information and knowledge, are essential


– And, to finish off, a couple of links on population movement:

  • The financial crisis’ impact on economic migrants
  • Interesting, timely take on Mexico-US immigration: “The number of people caught trying to sneak into the U.S. along the border with Mexico is at its lowest level since the mid-1970s. While some of the drop-off is the result of stricter border enforcement, the weaker U.S. economy is likely the main deterrent.”
  • Smugglers throw migrants over board in the Gulf of Aden.

Liberians Go Home?

Via African Loft:

Thousands of Liberians living in the United States face deportation at the end of next month. This follows the expiry of the temporary immigration status granted to 14,000 Liberians who fled the civil war in the 1990s. The US government extended their temporary protection status during Charles Taylor’s dictatorship in Liberia. But after he was toppled in 2006, and a new government installed the following year, they were given 18 months to return home. Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island, which has a large Liberian community, said many of them have become an important part of the community and should be allowed to stay. But Dan Stein, president of an NGO for immigration reform, said it is time for them to go back and rebuild their country.

Here is CNN clip on the story:

I find ludicrous the argument that this is a “mockery” of short term asylum… These Liberian families should be given credit for integrating and contributing to the elaboration of a diverse American society. This is how History happens – people migrate for varied reasons (including war) and establish themselves in new places. Why fight it?!

In addition, on a more pragmatic level, Liberians in Liberia rely on the vital lifeline provided by family members abroad. With 14,000 Liberians in the US, you can be sure that their wealth is spread deep into family circles back home. In fact, remittances from the US to Liberia averaged $6 million/month in 2007. (see previous post for background)

Of course, I’m sure the fact that some (but not all) Liberians in the US have been linked to gang violence and other societal woes is informing the opinions of deportation advocates. But what community doesn’t have its fringe? There are plenty of Liberians in the US who have productive, happy lives, and for who returning to Liberia means leaving schools and healthcare for their children (services they have earned through their hard work and contributions to the IRS). As the CNN report notes, some of these families have children who were born in the US and have US citizenship – we can at least hope that good immigration lawyers will be able to keep these families together.

It’s refreshing to see politicians such as Sen. Jack Reed from Rhode Island take a stand for the Liberians.

First South American thoughts

I somehow ended up taking a work related week long trip to Peru – made the decision thursday, and here I am! This is exciting for me, as I have never been to South America, and I am beyond thrilled to discover this continent (or at least a tiny part of it). Working for CGSGI, I have been researching and writing about poverty in Peru and Colombia (where we work), but this trip will be an opportunity to get a much more holistic and real understanding of the dynamics at play. In Peru, the stats are staggering: over 40% of the population lives in poverty, and that in spite of strong and sustained economic growth – 9% last year, the highest rate among South American countries. In one of the regions we work in, Cajamarca, mining is the economic engine. Nonetheless, nearly half the children under 5 in that region suffer from chronic malnutrition…. Meanwhile, the central government collected nearly $2 billion in tax revenues from mining companies, but this has failed to translate into improved quality of life for impoverished Peruvians.

Anyway — I cannot wait to visit the sites of our project work, and to experience it for myself. It’s 2:20 am, and I am wired! 
In terms of first impressions, the Lima airport at midnight was chock full of American missionaries… There were probably 200 missionaries, mostly middle aged/older people. I have no doubt that they come and do work in good faith here, probably contributing to poverty alleviation in some way or another. Regardless, I have a fundamental issue with aid that is tied to religious proselytizing. Particularly in this part of the world, where Christianity wreaked such havoc. While I was waiting in line at immigration, I kept wondering how the Peruvians perceived this. Perhaps they are despondent, and this is just part of the landscape. Maybe they think Americans are mighty, mighty strange. Who knows. In the mix, we also had an enormous tour group of older Japanese people, most of them wearing those fancy face masks… 
To finish off, a collection of infuriating stories from this past week: 
Firestone and workers’ rights violations in Liberia (and their $30 million Superbowl ad…)
– This isn’t so much infuriating as disappointing – ECOWAS gives $100K to Liberia to fight the invasion of caterpillars which is decimating the country’s agricultural sector. $100K? Seriously? Not that ECOWAS should be giving more, but perhaps more substantial help should be making its way….
– And, of course, another story of refugee abuse. I long for the day when people fleeing tragedy will be treated with dignity and respect.  

Thinking Back

I miss thisI DO NOT miss this

I’m having some serious computer issues these days, and as I was cleaning up my hard drive, I stumbled upon something I wrote nearly two years ago, after my stint as a volunteer in Buduburam. At the time, I had no idea that CG and I were going to create The Niapele Project and that I would return there soon afterwards.

It’s interesting to see how my perception and understanding of the Liberian community has evolved – my little spiel on religion still holds true, although I’ve come to realize that while religious faith is essential to their “social contract”, it can also act as a hindrance… It’s very complicated to explain without sounding condescending – I’m not sure I can sound anything but – however, I really do believe that blind faith makes people hope and believe in unreal and unsustainable ideas. For instance, relying on God to “provide” sometimes leads to situations where individuals will not proactively seek to better their circumstances, leaving their fate in the hands of a merciful God… who, in the end, may or may not provide.

Karrus Hayes, the founder of Vision Awake Africa for Development, asked me to write this. I’m not sure if he ever ended up using it for anything… Anyway, here are some unfiltered thoughts about the Buduburam refugee camp and its community, from Feb 07:

Simply put, I am humbled by my experience at the Buduburam refugee camp. I have always cared about the fate of those less privileged than myself – that is why, throughout my life, I have tried to give back, share my knowledge and help, as best I could, people less fortunate than I am. My academic studies have been focused on international affairs, and African issues and the fate of that continent have always grabbed my attention. In 2003, I did spend 6 months studying, living and working with the disenfranchised in Cape Town, South Africa. I have also traveled extensively in the developing world, and thought I was mentally, emotionally and intellectually prepared to face the realities of a refugee settlement in Ghana. But none of my experiences prepared me for my time at Buduburam.

The first few days were dizzying. First of all, the Harmattan season was in full swing, and it made it all the more difficult to situate myself, in the physical sense, in this foreign world. Situating myself on the metaphysical level was also incredibly difficult – all of my usual socio-cultural markers were obsolete in this new world, and, in order to be able to fulfill my mission at the school, I was under pressure to quickly adapt. On so many levels, I felt challenged by my surroundings, by the people. Trying to communicate with friends and family at home was difficult, and even when I did manage to speak with them, I knew that they could hardly understand, let alone relate to, the situation at Buduburam. Quickly, I realized that the best way to integrate, or at least to feel more at ease, was to strip away all the layers of difference between me “me” and “them”, and to simply relate on a very basic human level. As difficult as it was, I found that it was only by going beyond the differences that separated us, and focus on our common humanity, that I could create a space for myself in the community. Deep down, we all share the same basic aspirations, the same fears and desires – it is only the way we lead our life which is different. And it is so not by choice, but because of circumstances.

One of the most striking dimensions of the Liberian refugee community is their unwavering, genuine faith in God. Had I been through the traumatic experiences they had been through, I would have found it very difficult to reconcile the horror that the world imposed on me and a belief in an Almighty, profoundly good, God. It was truly an intellectual conundrum for me, as well as the other international volunteers I discussed this with. In my life, I rarely use religious explanations for what is happening to me, or around me. Everything seems mechanistic, guided purely by human desires, whether good or evil. Still now, I find it incredibly difficult to understand this type of religious fervor, but I do respect it. I suppose that, in many cases, it is precisely this religious fervor that allowed people to move on, to carry on with their lives, to look beyond the past and into the future, with hope. Had I been exposed to such trauma, I don’t know if I could have continued on with my life – I would not have had the motivation, the desire or the strength. So while the religiousness of the Liberian community was – and still is – baffling, it commends admiration. The strength and hope that people have acquired through their faith is essential to their survival, to their happiness and to their well – being. For me, a jaded Westerner, understanding this is very difficult – the world we live in is a godless one, and I have always believed in the importance of separating the religious, spiritual realm of life from the political, social realm. But living among Liberian refugees showed me the crucial importance that faith and God can have in human life, and I while I do not always understand it, I respect it.

While my work at the Carolyn A. Miller School was certainly one of my most fulfilling professional and personal experiences, it was the personal relationships I forged at Buduburam which really captured my heart and soul. I met men, women and children, who had suffered trauma beyond anything I can imagine. Torture, death, loss and separation is common experience for them, and the pain which they had endured is something most of us can barely understand. Yet, so many of the people I met were generous and kind, with open hearts and minds. This is not to say that every person I encountered had a heart of gold and pure intentions – there were plenty of stories about parents beating or torturing their children, men raping girls, as well as accounts of petty crime, jealousy and gratuitous violence. However, some people I met there really showed me what it means to be a genuinely GOOD person. Mr. Karrus Hayes, whose kindness, generosity and emotional intelligence cannot be captured with mere words, was – and will remain – somebody who I look up to. This man’s compassion and true desire to better the lives of others is poignant. There are few people I have met in my life who give themselves so wholly to their causes. His dedication is an inspiration, and while I will not have the arrogance of saying that I hope to emulate him in my own life, he certainly sets the bar very high for the rest of us who wish to do some good in this world.

There are so many people whose exemplary humanity I could discuss – Regina Krangar, mother of 3 biological children and 9 adopted ones – is devoting her entire life to raising these children. Besides the admiration I have for her, she also taught me the true meaning of Love, and how this concept, which we all think to have figured out, is in fact so much more than we think. She does not raise these children simply out of moral obligation, but because she truly cares and Loves them, and strongly believes that it is her duty to bring up these children that nobody wanted. I have met so many people whose outlook on life, whose attitude and whose work really humbled me, made me begin to understand the meaning of the word “sacrifice.” From the teachers of Carolyn A. Miller who devote themselves to educating the future generation for little or no money, to the admirable work performed by the staff of the UNHCR – subsidized Catholic clinic, the people of Buduburam had a huge impact on me. I left feeling inspired and strong, re-energized, with a desire – stronger than ever – to work as hard as I can to help those who need it.

Upon saying good bye to my friend Regina, she left me with these profound and heartfelt words, which I hope you will find as beautiful as I did at the time: “A life without sacrifice is meaningless. True sacrifice requires courage and strength, it is not easy. But it is the only way to truly understand and penetrate human nature.”