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Liberian refugees take first steps towards new life in US

Liberian refugees take first steps towards new life in US

Sixteen Liberian refugees have left years of exile in Sierra Leone to start afresh in the United States under a resettlement programme that started in June. They know that life will not be easy in the beginning, but are eager for the chance to live in peace.
26 August 2004
After years of exile in Sierra Leone, these Liberian refugees are off to a new start in the United States.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, Aug 26 (UNHCR) - A group of Liberian refugees left Sierra Leone today to join scores of compatriots who have embraced a new life in the United States under an ongoing resettlement programme.

On Thursday, 16 Liberian refugees flew out of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, where many of them had lived in exile after fleeing fighting in Liberia in the 1990s. They were the latest group to travel to the US since it started accepting Liberian refugees for resettlement in June this year, joining 144 others who have made the same journey so far.

These refugees buck the trend at a time when many of their compatriots are returning to Liberia - some on their own, others waiting for UNHCR's repatriation programme to start in October. The end of the country's 14-year civil war has enabled thousands of Liberian refugees to go home, but for a small minority, return is still not an option.

Among those resettled to the US are refugees who have survived torture and violence, those who have seen their family members killed, as well as those with serious medical problems for which they cannot receive proper care in Sierra Leone. Most have been away from Liberia for more than a decade, cannot return for various reasons, and have no option of integrating locally.

While resettlement offers them the chance to start anew, they know that life in the US will not be easy. The US government sponsors a sensitisation course for all refugees prior to their departure to teach them about life in the States. Even then, culture shock is inevitable.

A small group of refugees met with UNHCR staff a few days before their departure. Aminata, Jimmy, Joya and Wilson were all set to leave on Thursday, while Adolphus had to postpone his trip in order to accompany his 12-year-old niece at a later date. They were all visibly excited, and had many questions about their new home.

One of their biggest concerns was whether or not they could find cassava leaves in American supermarkets.

"Who will show us how to buy food and use the bus?" asked one refugee. UNHCR staff explained that non-governmental organisations will appoint staff members to help them with their practical concerns, like getting a driver's license, going to the supermarket and choosing the most economical food.

When told that UNHCR would put them on a tight budget for the first three months and that they would have to learn to live with very little money, they laughed and said, "We're already used to that!"

The refugees will also receive skills training so that once the three months are up, they will be able to find a job and provide for themselves.

Practical concerns aside, they also learned about socio-cultural differences during the sensitisation course. On the subject of tipping, they understood the concept, but were reluctant to do it. A UNHCR worker explained that they should tip people according to the service they provide, that maybe one day they themselves will rely on tips to survive.

Then Wilson asked, "Do I have to answer the door if someone knocks?" He was told about peepholes, but that there is no law that requires him to open the door just because someone knocks, unless perhaps if it is the police.

"And be sure to give them a good tip for their hard work," Aminata added enthusiastically.

The UNHCR worker clarified immediately that this was not the practice in the US, and that police officers are there to help people without taking money from them. The refugees were very surprised.

There will undoubtedly be more surprises in store when they arrive in the US. The refugees were cautioned not to expect everything to be easy in the beginning, that there may be days when they wished they had never left West Africa.

"Whatever it is," Aminata chimed, "we expect both the positive and the negative. We know it will be hard but we are ready. We just want to live in peace."

The United States is one of 16 countries that are currently committed to taking a regular annual quota of refugees for resettlement. In 2003, it accepted 28,420 refugees, more than half of the 55,000 resettled worldwide.