Strangers in a Strange Land

Fresh from war-torn Liberia, Oakland's newest residents struggle to make their way and adapt to a new culture.

Last September at Oakland International Airport, Robert Wilson, his wife, and two grandchildren debarked from their first airplane ride into a haze of culture shock. After more than a decade in Ivorian refugee camps they were, in the words of International Rescue Committee caseworkers, like “empty shells.” Donning layers of clothing and bath towels, they spent their first days in America huddled in a Fruitvale apartment, freezing in their new climate and wary of the intimidating world outside.

Wilson, a 65-year-old former subsistence farmer, and his wife care for two middle-school-aged grandchildren, Florence and Patience, whose parents were killed in Liberia’s civil war. On a day not long after their arrival, he watched in silence as volunteers raked up the glass, cigarette butts, and rusted nails of previous tenants from his small patio. “In Liberia you can go where you want and grow your own food and live; the bush is right there,” he said. “But we live here now, so we must learn how to survive.”

Their new home is a dark, boxy flat where toilet paper is rationed and family members, out of habit, still wash and bathe with buckets rather than use the shower, according to volunteers who work closely with the family. Outside is Fruitvale Avenue — a hub of Mexican-run lunch carts and colorful fruit stands alongside brick walls stained in Cambodian gang graffiti. But the Wilsons seldom stray far from the complex. Unaccustomed to city life, they still view with bewilderment such mundane tasks as buying things from a store, using appliances, and getting their kids to school. “It would be like dropping off a New Yorker in the middle of a forest in Africa and asking him to find his way around,” notes Les Casher, a Berkeley writer who spent seven years in the Peace Corps in Liberia.

The family is part of a loose community of one hundred Liberians the IRC recently resettled in East Oakland — roughly sixteen of them in the Fruitvale complex. They come mainly from rural, agricultural backgrounds, with little exposure to urban settings due to their country’s fourteen-year civil war, which has displaced some 840,000 Liberians, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. San Francisco IRC Director Don Climent expects that hundreds more of these displaced families will arrive in Oakland in the upcoming years.

Community volunteers have pitched in to help where they can. Meredith Bronson, who was introduced to the Wilsons by an IRC caseworker friend, recruited a small work crew of students, including a UC Berkeley landscape architecture student, to build a garden and play area at the Fruitvale complex. “When I first met them, they just embraced me and were so warm with me,” she says. “I thought, why wouldn’t I do all I can for them?”

As her volunteers shoveled sand for a new sandbox, neighbors stretched inquisitively over their balconies for a glimpse of the Liberian kids dancing and playing with a red ball in the parking lot. Wilson, meanwhile, stood over the freshly tilled soil explaining his methods for fertilization, and how he would shade his seedlings from the scorching Liberian sun. “He is so proud of his garden,” says Bronson, who borrowed tools froLm the Berkeley’s tool-lending library and raised $620 for the endeavor.

Refugee workers hope the new garden will help ease the transition for this group of Liberians, most of whom are civil-war widows and their children. For his part, Wilson recalls waking up to the sound of gunfire assailing his ethnic Krahn village. His family fled with smoke billowing behind them, leaving most of their relations behind. They walked two days until they reached the Ivory Coast. “You eat, you sweat, and they are killing you,” Wilson said. “The people are dying there for nothing.”

Liberia’s civil war all but ended in 2003, after a UN-backed court indicted President Charles Taylor for war crimes and exiled him to Nigeria. Since then, hundreds have been repatriated, while other Liberians, like Wilson, applied for refugee status through a family member already in the United States. “I feel happy,” he said. “I am looking for love, community, and I want to go to church.”

But even with community support and IRC aid, the nonprofit’s caseworkers say these refugees face a tougher transition than other groups who have resettled — refugees from Iraq, Iran, and Eastern European countries who have held jobs, been to school, and lived in urban settings. The Liberians have typically spent years in stark refugee camps, where Ivorian militia would recruit children as young as nine or ten to fight in the war. “It’s a minor miracle if they make it here,” Climent says.

As a result, notes IRC manager Sylvia Townsend, many Liberian kids have grown up without the chance to attend school — 30 percent of adults resettled in the United States aren’t literate enough to write their own names. What daunts Wilson is the prospect of covering nearly $1,000 in monthly rent, which the IRC pays for new arrivals until they are eligible for federal Refugee Cash Assistance and enrolled in the Cal Works job-search program. Refugees also are eligible for Medi-Cal, although it sometimes takes a month or two to be approved, notes IRC caseworker Owen Williams. Still, caseworkers say, the refugees still scrape by with just enough to pay rent and have a few pennies left over. And government assistance lasts only for a limited time.

Oakland’s latest residents are, at least, preceded by a Bay Area Liberian community of about three thousand who immigrated prior to the war and have previously worked or attended school in the capital, Monrovia. The refugees also have the advantage of speaking English, albeit in one of several dialects. Most Liberians also speak one or more indigenous languages, plus French or Creole.

Still, the dialects and vast cultural differences strain communication, and local jobs are scarce. Many refugees arrive with only the skills they learned in the camps: cleaning, cooking, and watching kids, according to IRC employment specialist Igor Radulovic. “We put all those skills on their résumé,” he says.

Rufus Berry, president of the Liberia Community Association of Northern California, who holds Oakland workshops for refugees on the dos and don’ts of US culture, says he gets calls ranging from the bizarre — such as whether a brick of cheese can be used for cleaning, or apple juice to oil a pan — to the serious, such as where to go if your child has a 105-degree fever. Although IRC caseworkers are working to ensure refugees know where the nearest health facilities are, and will accompany them to medical appointments to help out, Berry says some new arrivals need more than the IRC can provide. He is especially concerned about the refugees understanding the concept of a nine-to-five job, and their ability to pay back their plane fares to the IRC, a precondition for them to come here under refugee status.

“A lot of them are getting in debt and they don’t understand that,” Bronson says, noting that some families are already thousands of dollars behind on medical expenses. “I go through their mail, and it’s like urgent notice after urgent notice.”

The International Refugee Committee does what it can — securing affordable apartments, supplying furniture and household supplies, and helping to locate family members in Africa to join them here in the United States. The IRC has also sought funding for literacy programs and parenting classes for Liberians, whose ideas about collective parenting may be interpreted by Americans as neglect.

But the refugees’ first task is simply to acclimate to things we take for granted, such as not having to fetch water from a river, or how to cook on a stove — indoors. Back in his new garden, Robert Wilson firmly packed soil around a budding daffodil while the volunteers gave his grandkids their first taste of pizza. Life in the United States, he mused in his broken English, is just a different kind of struggle.


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