Living Life as a Refugee
June 21st, 2011 by admin
June 20th is the date that many countries have assigned to recognize Refugees — to honor their courage, to bring awareness to their difficulties, to shine a light on their sorrow. This date has become particularly well-known in Africa, and is known as “Africa Refugee Day,” but I’m sure there are several other important dates and observances meant to bring attention to this cause as well — and there should be. This isn’t a situation anyone asks for — “No one wants to become a Refugee,” as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon has poignantly stated.
When I first began to write this piece, I started in my usual way. I was going to address the subject from a woman’s advocate perspective. From that point of view, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned. Refugees are at risk. It is known that they face murder, rape and terror. And if not these horrible options, these individuals face uncertainty, fear and illiteracy. But before I could finish writing my piece, I received a letter from a friend, who works with refugees. I thought it would be much more powerful for you to read something firsthand from a young woman who has experienced the hardships of life as a Refugee.
And so, hereunder is a letter from Grace.
My name is Grace Freeman and I’m 21-years-old. Today is World Refugee Day — and it’s the first one in my life I will not spend as a refugee.
When I was 8-months-old, my family fled the civil war in Liberia. We made our way to the country of Ghana, where we lived in the sprawling camp of Buduburam Refugee Settlement with 40,000 other refugees.
Life in the camp was hard. We slept on the ground when we first arrived, drinking water from mud puddles. There were snakes and many other dangers. As the time passed, we got tents and then were able to build small houses but life wasn’t much easier. Our father left. Our mother tried to find food for us. I always begged my mom to let me go to school but it wasn’t free and we couldn’t pay. Finally my mother gave me to an important “big woman” in the camp, who promised to send me to the camp school.
At the age of 7, I left my family’s small tin house and moved in with the important lady. She had been rich back in Liberia. Her larger tin house sheltered her many children and grandchildren. I was happy to finally get a chance to learn. But my dream quickly became dark.
Instead of sending me to school, she made me her servant. The words for this in my culture are “outside child”. I was beaten and made to work long hours caring for her family. I learned to make fires, fetch water, scrub clothes, carry large cookpots full of hot food to sell on the road to make money for the woman, who forced me to call her “Mommy.” I wore the same two dresses for years. I would sleep in both of them to stay warm, on the floor of the house. I was not allowed to be called Grace, only Dog. She told me I was a “born slave.”
I was allowed to see my real mother sometimes but if I ever complained to her, I knew she would go to the important lady to complain and then I would get a beating. I knew my mother could not feed me, even if I came home. And sometimes the woman would let me go to school for a few hours, which I wanted more than anything. Usually though, she made me stay home or go work on the road.
One day, I had a chance for freedom and I took it. I gathered my courage and finally ran to someone to help me. By then, my mother had passed away and I was 18-years-old. For the first time in my life, I spoke out and told the world, “No, I will not be a slave. I am not an outside child. I am Grace.”
I tell you this for one reason today: to ask that when you think about refugees and the lives they are forced into, please remember what put them there. Before being a slave, before losing my mother — my troubles began with war. Most refugee troubles begin with anger and guns and scared people running. If we are talking of helping refugees, let us first talk of helping to keep people from BECOMING refugees.
Somewhere today there is a girl who has a home in a troubled land. Maybe war will come there, maybe not. Maybe she will lose her home and her mother and all she knows. But maybe — if we focus on finding peace and removing guns from the hands of people who destroy life — maybe she will live in her home, with her own mother, for as long as she wants. It’s up to us. My name is Grace. I am not a refugee. But I speak for those who might one day be.”