Liberian refugee starts a new life in Canada
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UNHCR) - After years of living in West Africa's hot zone, Liberian refugee Joseph Youssouf Morgan Fofanah is ready to cool down in Canada. The 34-year-old is one of the lucky few in the region who were granted resettlement to a third country and can look forward to a new life of peace and stability.
The journey from Liberia to Canada was a long one that saw Fofanah fleeing his country's civil war twice in the same year, and living as a refugee in Guinea and Sierra Leone for over a decade before being resettled in north America recently.
When fighting broke out in Liberia in 1990, Fofanah's ethnic Mandingo group was systematically hunted by rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in Lofa county, north-western Liberia. One of his brothers was killed while his niece was completely deformed by the attacks.
Fofanah also feared for his life because of his political affiliation to the National Democratic Part of Liberia (NDPL). So in 1991, he fled to neighbouring Sierra Leone. However, NPFL forces soon launched a cross-border attack, driving him into Guinea, where he lived in Ouende Kenema camp for two years.
In 1994, Fofanah arrived in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown, where with UNHCR sponsorship, he graduated with a degree in geography and economics from Njala University College. He went on to pursue a Master's of Science in human ecology at the University of Sierra Leone, paying for his enrolment fees of 2 million Leones (about $1,000) by giving private lessons in commerce and business management. But even with his qualifications, he remained unemployed due to limited job opportunities and the preference for local workers in Freetown.
Despite facing harassment and discrimination as a Liberian refugee, Fofanah was eager to contribute to his host community. While in Guinea, he helped UNHCR process identification cards for the camp's residents, and worked with Guinean authorities to identify ex-combatants among the refugees. In Sierra Leone, he did some volunteer work for a non-governmental organisation dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, reproductive health and youth counselling.
In 1999, Fofanah applied for resettlement in a third country and was accepted by Canada after a series of screenings, interviews and medical checks.
A refugee's eligibility for resettlement depends on different criteria, ranging from his reason for fleeing his country to his proof of refugee status and justification for migration. Generally, resettlement countries prefer educated refugees with strong familial and cultural links, and a high likelihood of smooth integration into society.
The UN refugee agency also tries to resettle urgent protection cases where the refugees' lives could be under threat in their host country.
In the last few months, some 500 Liberian refugees - out of some 8,500 who have been in Sierra Leone for over a decade - have been interviewed for resettlement. Fofanah, whose ethnic and political background makes him vulnerable to persecution, was one out of four Liberian refugees considered eligible for resettlement.
On January 29, 2003, Fofanah left Freetown on a flight bound for Winnipeg, Canada. After years of suffering, he was finally able to smile again.
In a letter to UNHCR after his arrival, he wrote, "I am very grateful for every little assistance extended to me while in Sierra Leone as a refugee.... Your kindness and assistance will always continue to stick in my mind. I am really grateful and greatly missing all of you, especially your ability to be patient and your willingness to listen to our numerous problems as refugees."
Fofanah has high hopes for his new life in Canada. He is confident of finding a job there so that he can support himself and contribute to his new host country.
But as much as he looks forward to a new start, he cannot ignore the call of home. He plans to trace his family, with whom he lost contact in 2000, with help from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). And ultimately, he hopes to go back to Liberia and help rebuild his war-torn country as a development planner for the government.
By Francesca Fontanini
UNHCR Sierra Leone