University Liberians warn of community dissolution

Liberian students at the University might lose friends and family to deportation.

Alex Amend

Liberian students at the University have considerable concern with friends and family facing the possibility of returning to Liberia.

Last September, the Department of Homeland Security determined that the approximately 3,600 Liberians granted temporary protection in the United States would need to return to their war-torn homeland by October of 2007.

Minnesota, with one of the largest populations of Liberians outside of West Africa, will have to bear the far-reaching consequences of this mandate, breaking ties within the local Liberian community.

“It has put me in a position of anxiety because where they are going is not where they should be, and this anxiety has a very direct impact on my studies,” said Jefferson F. Cooper, a political science and journalism junior who earned his citizenship after coming to the United States.

Mack Mulbah, a sociology and global studies senior whose aunt faces deportation, said students like him depend on the community for networking.

“The Liberian community is a close community, and almost everybody is connected to somebody,” he said. “And being students we all rely on a social network, and a good number of our social network is on (temporary protected status).”

Many Liberian students expressed disbelief at the decision, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has said the country is not ready to absorb the refugees.

According to a September 2006 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services press release, “the conditions that formed the basis of the designation have improved such that they no longer prevent Liberians from returning to their home country in safety.”

Now that a democratic government exists and the armed conflict has abated, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also changed its policy, moving to “promote” the voluntary repatriation of Liberian refugees.

John Bartee, an African studies senior granted political asylum in 1999, said Homeland Security’s proclamation is ignorant of the economic reality in Liberia.

Despite the end of the war and popular elections, Bartee said the Liberian economy – with an approximate unemployment rate of 85 percent – can’t provide jobs for those who are to return, and that remittances from Liberian refugees in the United States form the backbone of the economy.

“The tragedy is, you send people back to a country where there are absolutely no jobs, and the thousands of people who depend on those people, you throw out their only livelihood,” Bartee said.

Cooper also stressed the moral implications of forcibly returning refugees, some after 10 years of asylum who have since cultivated a way of life and raised families in the United States.

“Sure, I could go and struggle, but a child, an American-born child, needs my care, needs everything a parent should give,” he said.

Cooper, Bartee and Mulbah all expressed the desire to return to Liberia with their educations to aid the recovering society.

“I have been able to network with Liberian and other African students who share the vision I have, and I think the University has provided me with the opportunity to strengthen my quest for that bigger goal,” said Mulbah, who plans to get his master’s degree in international conflict resolution.

But now, Bartee said, is not the right time for the return of Liberian refugees.

“Our appeal is that we are not demanding U.S. citizenship,” he said. “All we want is to get a fair share of the American dream and let us have a place to go to learn and to work to provide for our families here and back home as the country stabilizes.”