Liberians settle, or wait, in Md.


Refugees: A teacher wants to go back to Africa and run for president, but many prefer to stay far from the violence of their homeland.

October 07, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

From a community center on York Road, a 56-year-old Baltimore schoolteacher plots a grand return to Liberia, with dreams of being elected the country's president next year.

Other members of Baltimore's expatriate Liberian community say they will not or cannot go back - not now, maybe not ever.

Maryland has an intimate connection with Liberia going back to its 19th-century beginnings. Today the state is a haven for refugees of the West African country's violence.

A Liberian computer expert who fled government thugs for Baltimore says he craves stability more than home and will stay here nine more years to get a city pension.

A young couple afraid of being killed if they return to Liberia hope the two children they have not seen in four years can join them in Essex.

And a family of 10 that reached Baltimore this month after more than a decade in refugee camps wants to make a new start here, not in West Africa.

Though out of the headlines since dictator Charles Taylor went into exile a year ago, Liberia remains among the world's most lawless countries, with no effective government or security.

Even with a civil war finally halted after 14 years and United Nations-supervised elections set for next October, these refugees fear their country could easily sink back into the chaos.

The aspiring president, Joseph Mamadee Woah-Tee, a fourth-grade teacher at John Eager Howard Elementary, is more optimistic than most, but he knows the challenge.

"It's not going to be easy," he said, wearing a traditional robe over his dark suit. "But if we just sit back, we're not helping to solve the problem."

The human toll in Liberia has been vast. The war killed an estimated 200,000 Liberians and, in a country of 3.3 million people, made 750,000 people refugees. Thousands of children were turned into soldiers by all sides of the conflict.

"People are sick of war, and they'd like to see a peaceful transition," said Herman Cohen, an assistant secretary of state for Africa during the first Bush administration. "The only answer to the Liberian problem is a very, very heavy external presence to really guide them through the process, a virtual trusteeship."

Already, Woah-Tee has a spokesman, a campaign manager, a position paper and a group called the Woah-Tee Progressive Movement that spreads his message, and distributes relief supplies, in Liberia.

"I have a vision," he said in the conference room of the York Road center he founded in 1993. "The vision is to lead Liberia to a new kind of war, not against one another but alongside one another in the fight against poverty, insecurity, disease."

Woah-Tee, who has lived in Baltimore for more than 20 years, plans to visit Liberia in December for the first time since 1995.

In a field that could balloon to dozens of candidates, Woah-Tee said it will help him that he is indigenous Liberian and not Americo-Liberian - people descended from the founding ex-slaves who ruled Liberia for most of its history under a discriminatory two-tier system.

"No indigenous [person] has had the opportunity to lead Liberia," he said, except for Samuel K. Doe, an army sergeant who took power in a 1980 coup and had a bloody reign.

Liberia's ties to Maryland reach back to 1822, when freed slaves first sailed from Baltimore for West Africa to build a new nation promoted by wealthy whites. A decade later, Maryland was so eager to reduce its black population that the state helped 18 African-Americans form a separate nation, "Maryland in Liberia," that merged with Liberia. A county in eastern Liberia is still known as Maryland.

About 4,000 Liberians live in the Baltimore area, by Woah-Tee's estimate. State officials say 500 Liberian refugees have been resettled in Maryland since 1989.

When Ansu Bafalie and his wife, Khalidatu, learned last year that they would be moving to Maryland, all they knew was that it sounded better than where they were living.

Ansu Bafalie left Liberia first, in 1999, when he refused to join Taylor's army. He was a teacher at a Muslim school in the capital, Monrovia, and says the Egyptian ambassador helped him to reach Cairo.

His wife stayed behind to care for their two children. One night, she said, a man from the army came for her husband and, finding her instead, raped her in front of the children.

She went into hiding and, thanks to money from her brother-in-law, made it to Egypt in 2000. But the children, a boy now 7 and a girl now almost 9, had to stay with Khalidatu's sister and brother-in-law.

The Bafalies together waited three years in Egypt. British author Caroline Moorehead, long active in human rights issues, met them there and lobbied to get the Bafalies designated as refugees, allowing them to leave for America.

Today the Bafalies live in an Essex apartment. He works at a mailing company and she cleans rooms at a downtown hotel. They have asked Tressler Refugee and Immigration Services, the Lutheran agency that brought them here, to help bring the children from Liberia.

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