By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Simpson has tried to adjust her immigration status, but she said lawyers told her the only option is sponsorship by her employer, and her bosses said no. Ami aspires to be a doctor. In Liberia, Simpson worries, Ami could not see a doctor for regular checkups, let alone become one.
"I just try to keep a straight head because I have to take care of my kids," said Simpson, a single mother who had another child, 7-month-old Jamal, last year.
Liberians long have come to the United States to study, and many have returned to their homeland. More began to stay in the 1980s, after a coup put dictator Samuel K. Doe in power. In 1989, when a rebel invasion led by Charles G. Taylor sparked war, an influx headed to the United States. Today, large populations live in Minnesota, Philadelphia, Rhode Island and the Washington region.
Census data indicate that about 5,000 Liberian natives live in the Washington area, although community leaders say the figure is much higher. Most live in the Maryland suburbs, many working in health care and financial services, leaders said. The community has spawned soccer leagues, a Georgia Avenue nightclub that pulsates with African music on weekends and a Liberian Community Association that has lobbied for green cards for TPS holders.
Many Liberians with TPS became permanent residents through marriage or work. But those without sponsors have renewed their permits each year, paid their taxes and stayed put, hoping for a solution. TPS holders cannot leave the United States except in extreme circumstances.
One chance died last month with the failed Senate immigration bill, which would have given them a path to residency. Now, as they have each year since 1999, they are pinning hope on legislation sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) that would grant permanent residency to Liberians in the United States. A similar bill has been proposed in the House.
It is "an issue of fairness," Reed said. "They've worked very hard, and they have been part of the community."
Each year, the bill has gone nowhere. Liberians fear that current national tensions over immigration might doom it again.
That is likely, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports limits on immigration. He predicted that the administration might come to the rescue, as previous administrations have for other nations whose TPS was terminated. Regardless, he said, the 16-year limbo for Liberians shows that the TPS program, under which hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Somalis and others live and work in the United States, needs review.
"It really does highlight the absurdity of 'permanent temporary status,' " Krikorian said. "If we're going to grant temporary status to somebody, it should be temporary. Either we make them leave or we convert their status to something permanent."
Many Liberians say they would happily return to Liberia -- if Liberia were more developed.
Marpue Stewart arrived in 1989 seeking medical treatment, and the fighting began while she was in the United States. With TPS, she has found steady work at a nursing home and filled a Takoma Park apartment with plush furniture. She thinks if she walked down the streets of the Liberian capital of Monrovia now, she would get lost.
Stewart, 58, is especially worried about her hypertension. Stories abound about bad doctors doling out poisoned drugs in Liberia, she said.
"I've been here 20 years. I can't just go back now and see any kind of drug and take it," said Stewart, a vivacious woman who wears shaded glasses. "If America sends me to Liberia, maybe they send me to die."
Luwah Moe left Liberia at age 7 for a teeming refugee camp in Ivory Coast. Four years later, he joined his mother in the United States and attended school for the first time.
Now he is an 18-year-old rising senior at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, where he studies mechanics and plays soccer. His reading skills are wobbly, so he practices with a battered book of love poems. He has come to love hamburgers and PlayStation 2.
Moe, stocky and quiet, said he wants to return to Liberia someday, to "build something." But he also wants to go to college.
"I got my education ahead of me," Moe said in a soft voice. "My life is not even halfway done yet."
Community leaders say panic is mounting. Some TPS holders have lost jobs because their employers noticed their imminent work permit expiration dates, Lloyd said. She said some will go underground in the United States rather than return to Liberia, joining the illegal immigrants with whom they so dislike being compared.
On a recent Sunday, a group of women gathered after a spirited service at the Little White Chapel in Silver Spring, a Liberian Pentecostal church. The sermon was about having faith. The women said they were losing it.
"We are not a liability to the U.S.!" shouted one woman, sounding like a preacher. "We are not!" echoed Stewart, a church regular.
"We contribute to the community!" the first said. "We contribute!"
"We are not going," vowed Gaithersburg resident Jandera Bamah. "We are going to hang onto any branch on the tree."