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.”

There are rights, and then there are refugee rights

I attended the court hearing for the case of the 23 detained Liberian women and children today. The 16 women and 7 children (ages 4 to 17 years) are being held by the National Immigration Service (NIS) of Ghana and are facing deportation. The claim by the government is that they are illegal immigrants, and pose a national security threat, and, as such, should be deported.

This is the 2nd hearing – apparently, according to a journalist present at the first one, the NIS had already chartered a plane to deport the detainees, confident that the first hearing would be the last and a judgment in their favor handed down. Fortunately, the judge called off any further deportation until the case was resolved – and that called for additional arguments from both sides.

Basically, the prosecution (human rights lawyers) are challenging the claim that the detainees are illegal immigrants – instead, they categorize them as “undocumented refugees”. People arrived in Buduburam in waves, and while most were either registered through the UNHCR or accepted on a prima facie basis, some applied for refugee status as asylum seekers, only to see their claim fall through the cracks, being neither rejected nor accepted. Furthermore, the prosecution argues that the undocumented refugees can derive refugee status from their family members if the latter are officially recognized as such. That, to me, is a crucial point.

Indeed, one of the challenges we are faced with, as organizations and individuals engaged with refugee communities, is the issue of how to offer protection and support to undocumented refugees. It seems unjust that because of some bureaucratic failure to process claims, groups of people should be left with absolutely no protection whatsoever. In fact, the defense counsel on the behalf of the Ghanaian gov. said : “If they are unregistered, then they have no status, and they have no rights“(emphasis added) She went on to say that “rights are not absolute” and that refugees “ought to go home”.

In any case, these people are the ones who are supposed to leave Ghana for their home country with zero assistance – keep in mind these people are barely able to sustain themselves on a daily basis, so expecting them to be able to move and re-establish in another country (which is 2 international borders away) is a big stretch. These are people who were already forced to abandon their lives and families during the war, and who managed to recreate some sort of normal life for themselves as refugees. To ask them to leave everything behind again…. ? I realize that people’s rights are trampled all over the world on a daily basis, but I am just shocked at the total lack of institutional or large scale support these people receive (none). For instance, there was no UNHCR representative at the court hearing today – even though the outcome of this trial is absolutely crucial for the refugee community in Ghana. UNHCR — Is it that hard to send a rep to a trial?? Even your intern could have gone!

Meanwhile, in the Buduburam settlement, those who are registered with the UNHCR are signing up for voluntary repatriation, worried about the conditions that they will face when returning to Liberia… Again, this community has no higher authority to turn to – not their own government, not the UNHCR, not the “international community”. Of course, large scale violence did not erupt, and no one died – I suppose if that had happened, you would have seen a lot more attention given to the issue. Why does it have to come to this to mobilize the world’s attention? All the lofty rhetoric about “prevention” rather than “intervention”…. Empty shells that make policy makers feel good about themselves, but seem to be rarely adopted in practice.

The verdict for the trial is April 24th – looking forward to it.

Back in Budu

Been back in the Buduburam settlement for a little over a week now, and it seems clear that we arrived just as tensions were easing between the different parties. While the overt crisis seems to be under control now, there are still many, many unresolved issues at a number of different levels. The refugee community receives only limited, fragmented information concerning their future and the decisions made on their behalf, which leads to the elaboration of many rumors and theories that only contribute to increasing anxiety and uncertainty.

The UNHCR is essentially nowhere to be seen, found or heard – at least, not in the field. Voluntary repatriation has been reopened for registered refugees (it had been closed in August 2007), but to all the unregistered refugees living in Buduburam, going “home” seems like an almost unsurmountable hurdle… For those who can be repatriated, they are all very worried about leaving with only 20kg of belongings and $100 – imagine if you had to rebuild your life (again) with only this, and in extremely difficult conditions (Liberia, while it is in the process of post-conflict reconstruction, still faces enormous challenges)

I’m going to the court hearing of the remaining 22 women (including 6 children aged between 4 and 11) who are in custody of Immigration Services on Monday. Since internet access is – at best – frustrating in Buduburam, I will probably update then….

Random Thoughts

Riots in Senegal over food prices turn ugly – and in Cote d’Ivoire as well.

I just wrote about the potential unrest soaring food prices could cause… Funny how it works. I have to say, I think IRIN is particularly fond of this particular topic, and reports on it quite often. Nonetheless, I really do believe that food insecurity can cause tremendous damage – not just because of its obvious consequence (food is less affordable, particularly for the poorest), but also because, as we see in above examples, the tensions it can create between the authorities and civil society can be damaging. I’m curious to see how this issue will be addressed in months and years to come…. Anyway….

I’m leaving for Ghana tomorrow, and I’m really looking forward to being there. With all that’s being going on, I’m eager to see our friends and the people we work with, and get a better sense of the reality of the situation. I’m also looking forward to meeting all the new people I have been corresponding/working with over the past few weeks, and seeing what kind of long term strategy for engagement with the refugee community we can come up with.


I’ll write some posts from Buduburam – hopefully I will have not just bad or sad news to report. Meanwhile, please feel free to leave comments or write me an email with comments, feedback, ideas…. We’re going to be shooting a promo video for Niapele with my friend Val, who has just started her own organization, Ayoka Productions. We’ll try and get some footage that we can use for advocacy purposes as well – in light of recent events, it seems clear that we have a role to play in offering this community a voice, a channel to express themselves.


On this note, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from the latest Secretary General’s Report on the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL), which was made public on March 19th:

54. Although the humanitarian situation in Liberia has continued to improve, the
country still faces serious challenges, particularly in the health, education, food, and
water and sanitation sectors. So far only 62 per cent of the $110 million needed to address the high priority humanitarian needs outlined in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, including the delivery of basic social services, the provision of productive livelihoods for returnee communities and the strengthening of civil society and local authorities, has been received. During the reporting period, UNMIL organized a number of medical outreach activities, which provided medical treatment for some 24,000 patients.
55. During the period under review, UNHCR conducted a post-voluntary repatriation verification exercise, which revealed that 75,509 registered Liberian refugees are still residing in various countries in the subregion. There are also 10,327 refugees from Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and other countries residing in Liberia. The United Nations, in collaboration with the Economic Community of West African States and the Government of Liberia, is trying to find durable solutions for the integration of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia. The successful reintegration of returnees into communities continues to be a major challenge.

Sunset near the ARCH house, at the edge of Buduburam – August 2007

Keeping up

The situation in Buduburam seems to have stabilized – at least for now. My biggest concern – which is shared by the people I am in touch with regarding this situation – is for the well-being of the women and children still in detention at the Kordeabe center in the Eastern region.

Here is a message I just received from one of the human rights advocates (name withheld for obvious reasons…)

Its very difficult here in Ghana with xenophobia and people in government making certain statements, it does not help the course.The Minister of Interior has declared Kordiabe a refugee camp and UNHCR say the place is comfortable and the women and children do not want to leave […]
In terms of items that they need immediately, I was there a week ago, they need water, food, hygiene products. Yes, your colleague can get the items and then they could be dropped off there.

If you want to make a financial contribution, please visit The Niapele Project’s website – there is a link on the homepage where you can make a donation to help us provide basic necessities to the detained women and children. We have set up a special “emergency fund” specifically for this purpose.

I promise to get back to more “entertaining” posts in the near future – for now, my entire consciousness is mobilized by the ongoing crisis in Ghana…