Ryan Johnson, Published July 03 2012
Refugees celebrate Fourth ‘just like an American family’
All that changed in 1996 when his mother, father and sister were shot and killed in the midst of a bloody civil war and “freedom went away” as he fled with his family to a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast.
“Once we got to the refugee camp, freedom was a tough thing,” he said.
But Thomas, 48, regained that lost freedom in 2007 when he was resettled in Fargo through Lutheran Social Services. He said they now can celebrate their new country’s Independence Day – and a return to the basic rights and security he had lost in the war – “just like an American family.”
Lutheran Social Services’ New American Services has helped thousands of refugees resettle in North Dakota since 1946.
After being plunged into two civil wars following a military coup in 1980, hundreds of thousands of Liberians were killed and thousands more fled.
The United States was under “a lot of pressure” to accept refugees from the country that has maintained strong ties since freed American slaves were sent there beginning in 1820, said Darci Asche, community support supervisor for Lutheran Social Services in Fargo.
“With the people that were fleeing Liberia and going into the neighboring countries, it seemed to make sense that many of them would be given the chance to resettle,” she said.
Since 1998, about 250 Liberians have come to Fargo to start new lives and escape the conflict that eventually spilled into the refugee camps of the Ivory Coast and caused them to once again flee for safety to other African countries.
After six years in the Ivory Coast, Thomas was separated from his wife, Maude, and their four children when the conflict spread to their new home.
His family assumed Thomas had died and relocated to a Ghana refugee camp before being resettled in Fargo in March 2006.
It wasn’t until August 2006, when a friend of Maude’s spotted Thomas in a Guinea refugee camp, that the family realized he was still alive. Thomas arrived in Fargo in September 2007 to reconnect with his family.
Maude, their sons, Ransi and Abednego Jr., and daughters, Patience and Queen, have since become U.S. citizens. Thomas said he plans to take the citizenship test next year to gain the one American right he now lacks – the right to vote.
Thomas said he has had to start anew in many ways, including his education, even though he already holds a bachelor’s degree from Liberia.
“I didn’t really mind that, because I wanted to start over and be able to achieve my American dreams,” he said.
Thomas is about a year away from earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a minor in psychology from North Dakota State University, with the hopes of eventually working for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Maude is completing training to be a licensed practical nurse.
He said after more than a decade of the “limited” freedom they had in the refugee camps, he and his family enjoy the American freedom that he sees as “a lot of opportunity” if they follow the rules and don’t infringe on others’ rights.
“Freedom is obedience,” he said. “If you can obey the rules and go by the rules and regulations, you’re free.”
Thomas said his family already has been able to meet many of the goals he had when he moved to Fargo – achieving the American standard of education and making sure his kids are healthy and safe.
“I’m hoping to have a home and have a family that will live happily, which I’m trying to do even though financially we’re not that equipped,” he said, “but we try to live the level we can until we can get there.”
Thomas’ family did not experience quite the same level of culture shock as many other resettled refugees in the community. Liberia’s long ties to America meant most people dressed in T-shirts, jeans and other Western clothing, spoke English and were well aware of what was going on thousands of miles away in the U.S.
The country has a similar three-branch government and an identical red-and-white-striped flag, but Liberia’s flag only has one star.
Many of Liberia’s cities and counties even took their names from American locations, such as Louisiana and Maryland.
And Liberia has celebrated its Independence Day each year on July 26 since 1847, making it the oldest democratic nation in Africa with a constitution much like America’s.
‘Independence Day fever’
Thomas said even with the similarities, the one big difference between the countries seems to be the importance of Independence Day to its citizens.
In America, he said, people realize what the holiday is meant to celebrate, but treat it as “just another holiday” that gives them a day off work.
But Liberians have “Independence Day fever” for the entire month of July, Thomas said, with people making big meals and celebrating with colorful parades, indoor programs with speeches on the history of the country, fireworks and weeks of gatherings – a tradition he said they still followed in the refugee camps.
“You have the fever and you know that Independence Day is getting close,” he said. “It’s almost like Christmas, so you’ve got that sense of independence before you even get to the 26th of July.”
Thomas said he and his family will celebrate the American holiday today, making a good meal at home and enjoying a day off together as many Americans do.
The unrest in Liberia has eased in recent years, but he has not decided if they will try to return one day.
Thomas said he has made peace with feeling “somewhere between” being a Liberian and an American as his family moves on with their new lives.
“I feel like I have the opportunity to go to places and go to school freely and get insurance and other stuff if I’m qualified or eligible for it,” he said.
“There is no feeling different. I feel like a human; I feel like every other person. I feel happy and comfortable.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587