Transcripts

Liberians Living In Washington Seek To Help Homeland

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
As people in Southwest work to build a new future for their neighborhood, some other local residents are working to build the future of a place thousands of miles away. That place is Liberia. And the residents we're talking about are members of the Liberian Diaspora, many of whom fled during their nation's brutal civil war. The D.C. area's Liberian community numbers in the tens of thousands. That makes it one of the largest in the United States. And now, as Jacob Fenston tells us, many former refugees are trying to help the country they left behind.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:32
In the West African nation of Liberia, there's a county called Maryland and a few hundred miles away, a city named Virginia. These place names date back to the early 1800s when lawmakers in Annapolis and Richmond authorized funding to establish the Republic of Maryland on the West Coast of Africa and a few years later, New Virginia. Free African-Americans were offered five acres of land and a one-way ticket across the Atlantic. Thousands of black Americans made the voyage to what is now Liberia. But in the 1980s and '90s that migration reversed, as thousands of people from Liberia fled civil war and landed here in the Mid-Atlantic region.

MS. NEE ALLISON

00:01:12
We are basically considered the step-child of America, based on the history.

FENSTON

00:01:16
Nee Allison says she thinks her family has roots among those early colonists from America. They may have come from Virginia, where she's lived since fleeing the conflict in Liberia in 1996.

ALLISON

00:01:27
I survived the first six years, from 1990 to '96. I got caught up in the '96 war.

ALLISON

00:01:36
Allison is president of the local Liberian Community Association. She says she was granted political asylum in the United States because of her family's ties to the government deposed by Charles Taylor.

ALLISON

00:01:46
My uncle used to be the defense minister in the former government and those government officials were a target.

FENSTON

00:01:52
Her uncle was executed, so was her brother and a cousin.

ALLISON

00:01:55
I came to America not to live. I came to wait until the war subsided and go back home. So, initially, for the first two, three years, I was in between, do I want to stay or do I want to lose everything and go back home. I'm not certain if there's going to be another uprising.

FENSTON

00:02:12
But since the fighting stopped almost 10 years ago, more and more Liberians in the Diaspora have been going back and looking for ways to give back.

MR. K. ADVERTUS KARPEH

00:02:20
I think we're doing pretty good here. Are we doing pretty good?

FENSTON

00:02:25
Advertus Karpeh helped organize a recent conference in D.C. promoting dual citizenship. Supporters want the Liberian government to allow people in the Diaspora to hold citizenship in both countries.

KARPEH

00:02:37
Liberia is my mother country and America is my father country, if I may put it that way. But the mother, you are closely drawn to the affection of your mother, the love of your mother. So mother Liberia is what draws us to contribute to the development of our own homeland.

FENSTON

00:02:53
Advocates of dual citizenship say it would encourage investment in Liberia. Gaye Sleh, Jr., another conference organizer, says people in the Diaspora have acquired skills and education abroad that's needed back home.

MR. GAYE SLEH JR.

00:03:05
We got professionals, we got medical doctors, we got engineers, you know, we got nurses who want to go home and establish businesses over there to create employment because unemployment is very high in the country.

FENSTON

00:03:15
Liberia's constitution prohibits foreigners from owning land. That's a problem for people in the Diaspora who want to go home and start businesses. But others aren't interested in land ownership. When Checago Bright first went back to Liberia in 2009, he was struck by how the war had stunted development in the poor neighborhood where he grew up.

MR. CHECAGO BRIGHT

00:03:35
Folks that you grew up with, go like, oh, Checago, oh, my man. Good to see you. You know, the excitement. And you're looking at your peers that you grew up with, they're like behind, like 10 years, 20 years behind.

FENSTON

00:03:51
During the conflict, Bright escaped to a camp in Ghana and eventually to the U.S. as a refugee. Here Bright had opportunities his friends back home didn't have. He went to college. He got a master's degree. So when he returned in 2009 he wanted to give something back to the country and people he left behind. He decided to focus on sanitation and clean water.

BRIGHT

00:04:11
1.7 million of our population in our country lack access to toilet facilities and clean water.

FENSTON

00:04:17
In his free time, Bright started a nonprofit group, the Checago Bright Foundation. His first project was to build a gleaming six-room latrine in the community where he grew up. But rebuilding the country is about more than latrines or clean water or citizenship laws.

BRIGHT

00:04:33
Virtually all of our infrastructure was destroyed and so there's a rebuilding process. We have a democratically-elected president, but the challenges are huge in Liberia. So, as a result, it requires all Liberians' hands on deck.

FENSTON

00:04:47
All hands on deck, he says. Because that's the only way the country will move forward. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

00:05:06
Up next, a theater company with a bright future, looks to the pulpy past.

MS. ELEANOR HOLDRIDGE

00:05:11
It is this like lovely, fun, swashbuckling thing, but hopefully we've threaded throughout the language resonances to who we are today.

SHEIR

00:05:19
And a scientist invents an afterlife for a certain poultry product.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:05:25
Oh, it feels like weird. It feels very soft, like feathers.

SHEIR

00:05:31
That and more is coming your way on "Metro Connection" on WAMU 88.5.
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