Fearful Liberians Face U.S. Deadline For Deportation
Monday, July 16, 2007
Last month, finally, Bendu Simpson told her young daughter about the ticking clock that keeps Mom awake at night: Come October, no more karate class, no more zoo trips to see the otters, no more zipping around smooth suburban streets on your purple scooter. No more toilets, showers or central air.
On a recent night, 8-year-old Ami picked at her popcorn shrimp basket in the cool confines of a Gaithersburg Red Lobster and described her feelings upon learning she might soon have to abandon their neat Clarksburg townhouse for the war-shattered terrain of her mother's native Liberia, a nation Ami has never seen.
"Mad," grumbled Ami, her dark eyes gazing at the table. "I thought, I'm not going back. I'm scared of the things that are there."
Fear and anger are pulsing these days through the Liberian community in the Washington region and nationwide. Barring action by the Bush administration or Congress, Simpson and about 3,500 other Liberians will be subject to deportation Oct 1. Since 1991, they have been allowed to live and work in the United States while civil war seethed in their homeland. They have had children, bought homes, paid taxes -- and they want to stay. But last year, the U.S. government deemed their West African nation stable, so Liberians with temporary protected status must go.
"You've come to a greener pasture and are trying to make a better life for you and your family, and all of a sudden it's going to be taken away from you," said Simpson, 38, a financial counselor, her words trailing off as she looked worriedly at Ami. "It's hard. Because I've worked hard here in America."
Liberia's bloodshed ended after 14 years in 2003, and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is trying to build democracy out of devastation. But Liberians in the United States say the country is still no place to return to. Electricity is scarce, as is running water. According to a 2006 U.N. report, 85 percent of Liberians are unemployed. The average life expectancy is 39 years, and just 26 doctors practice in the country of 3.4 million. Malnutrition and infectious disease are rampant. The CIA World Factbook refers to the security situation, which is aided by 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers, as "still volatile."
Besides, the Liberians say, if the United States takes mercy on any immigrants, it should be them. Liberia was founded by freed slaves in the 19th century, with a flag and constitution modeled after those of the United States. During World War II and the Cold War, the United States operated bases in Liberia. Some Liberians mutter that they are being treated like illegal immigrants who sneaked over the border.
"We consider ourselves the sister of America," said Saymendy Lloyd, a Liberian activist who lives in the District. "How can they do this to us?"
The Liberian government does not want them back -- not yet. The country has no jobs or homes for them, and an influx of jobless people could imperil the nation's tenuous stability, Liberian Ambassador Charles A. Minor said in an interview. Liberia's rebirth depends on expatriates, he said: According to a government analysis, Liberians in the United States sent $6 million to their homeland over the past 15 months.
Simpson estimates that her earnings support 10 to 15 relatives, nearly all of whom have no jobs.
She was visiting the United States in 1998 when a rebel uprising occurred in Liberia and she learned she was pregnant with Ami. She stayed under temporary protected status, or TPS, a permit granted to nationals of a few countries beset by conflict or disaster.
Calm and practical, Simpson launched a banking career and forged a steady life. She bought a three-bedroom townhouse and a Toyota Corolla. Ami, a U.S. citizen who wears rhinestone-studded T-shirts, has seen Liberia only in photos. It looks "grayish-brown," she said, her smile turning to a scowl.