Togolese refugee finds a new beginning in Liberia
MONROVIA, Aug 31, (UNHCR) - Paul Gbedji is a civil engineer. But the hardest thing he has ever had to build was a new life.
Staring out through the pouring rain across the construction site in Liberia where he has been working for eight years, he says with a smile: "I am doing a nice job
Paul is a refugee who lost his entire family back in Togo.
"Togo is a beautiful country," he sighs. "And I was living good, working in my brother's construction company. I could sit down, design and create."
Life was shattered in 1998 during the country's presidential election campaign.
Thousands of people became victims of systematic human rights abuses, including torture, murder, forced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests, causing the massive displacement of Togolese nationals within and through international borders.
Paul was one of more than 16,000 persons who fled to find safety. But it cost him everything.
"When I left, I lost my family," he said. "Almost everybody I left behind me. My brother died, my father died, my sisters - I lost all of them."
After weeks of persecution and fleeing from one country to another, Paul managed to reach the border between Ivory Coast and Liberia. However, his worries were not over.
"At that time war started in Lofa, and one day because of the war they arrested me. They wanted to know my identity, why I was here… they sent me to a military base."
Paul remembers meeting officials from the West African ECOMOG force in the middle of the night who helped him to contact UNHCR to apply for his refugee status. "They welcomed me, they gave me food, I ate. They called UNHCR; UNHCR said yes and came for me in a car."
He received his refugee ID several weeks later.
"When I got my refugee status I left and went to school where I was teaching 'ABC' in French from 1st grade to 9th grade. I was there just to survive, to make a life."
Years passed, and Paul continued to improve his life until Liberia signed its Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2003. "At that time I was selling tea, but people did not know I had training, or that I was an engineer, anything," he recalled, with a smile on his face.
Eventually, after proving himself through volunteer work, Paul received his first construction contract. He is still working with the same company to this day.
At last, despite his ordeal and the loss of his family, this Togolese refugee has a place to sleep, a car, and a secure job that allows him to live life as he did before in Togo. "I thank God for Liberia," he says. "In West Africa, the parable says anywhere you find yourself a life comfortable, everything fine for you, that is your home."
By Diana Diaz Rodriguez in Monrovia, Liberia