In the June 3 Howard Extra, the article "New Struggles, but No More Horror" should have said the cost of plane tickets for James Jimmy and his family to fly from Liberia to the United States was about $15,000. The cost was paid by Robert Ferguson, Jimmy's former boss at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia, and Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, defense attache in the Ivory Coast. (Published 6/17/04)
Sarah Jimmy likes to sing. Though her shy brown eyes never look up from her song sheet, she smiles broadly and taps her fingers on her desk as she belts out the words to a little ditty during her English as a Second Language class at River Hill High School.
A shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather.
A quiver in my lips as if I might cry.
Well, by the force of will my lungs are filled and so I breathe.
Lately it seems this big bed is where I never leave.
She used to sing a lot at her church back home in Liberia -- one of her favorite hymns was "You Are My God." Sometimes she would even dance. But that was before the fighting among the country's rebel groups grew so violent that she could not leave her house. It was also before she left her village with her mother, father and eight siblings to go into hiding, emerging weeks later only because they had run out of food. It was also before the family finally procured immigration papers and plane tickets and boarded a 24-hour flight to the United States one chilly night last December.
In Liberia, Sarah went to school sporadically. Sometimes the fighting kept her away, and sometimes there simply were no teachers and no books. The government did not pay teachers, and most of the elementary and secondary schools that stayed open have shut down in the past five years.
Life has changed dramatically for Sarah and her family since they arrived in the United States and made their way to Columbia through the help of family, friends and sheer luck. The first priority of her father, James Jimmy, was to enroll his children in school. Sarah, along with her older brother and younger sister, ended up at River Hill because the semester system best accommodated their midyear start.
During lunch recently, Sarah kept her eyes on her food, glancing up every now and then to stare into space. She never looked around at the tables of chattering students, the kids in tie-dye T-shirts and the girls in high heels and ruffled miniskirts.
They rarely looked at her, either. Most of the students probably have little idea of the horror she has endured.
"Only my teacher ask me about the war," she said. "No one [else] ask us about it."
It was cold outside when the Jimmys stepped off the plane Dec. 15 and onto American soil. It was worse than cold, said James Jimmy, 55, searching for the right word. It was freezing. He had never felt anything like it before.
Liberia was hot, always. The seasons consisted of rainy and hot, and dry and hot. But no matter what the climate, there was always one constant: violence.
Warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor began the conflict in 1989 with an insurgency. The 14 years of bloodshed, in which rebels fought Taylor after he became president in 1997, ravaged the West African country. Boys on the brink of adolescence toted automatic rifles and patrolled the streets. The fighting destroyed the country's infrastructure and killed an estimated quarter-million Liberians.
But James Jimmy had hope. Last year marked his 15th year as a chauffeur for the U.S. Embassy in Liberia -- the length of service required for him and his family to become eligible to immigrate to the United States.
He had been looking forward to that from the day he was hired.
The dream, however, had cost him deeply. His employment by the embassy had provoked the ire of Taylor's government. In 2001, his second-oldest son, Lawrence, was kidnapped and killed at the home of a government official, Jimmy said.
"They said they wanted to see what the American government would do," he recalled without tears. But his son was not a U.S. citizen, and the government did nothing.
Jimmy's wife, Cecelia, was so distraught by Lawrence's death that she stopped eating for several days. His oldest daughter, Madelan, had fled to the Ivory Coast in 1990 to escape the fighting, only to find herself trapped there during that country's own civil war.
Jimmy kept working. He still had eight other children to feed -- Togar, now 24; George, 22; Bill, 17; Sarah, 16; Linda, 15; James Jr., 11; Jeamima, 10; and Evelyn "Trusted," 7. But soon Jimmy got caught in a vicious circle. When he had money, there often was no food to buy. If there was food to cook over the wood fire, Jimmy was scared someone would smell it and kill his family for a bite to eat. The family had no running water and no electricity.
"If you buy [a generator] and bring it to your house, say goodbye to the world," he said.
Yet not every day was so bad. At least the family was together and relatively safe in its three-bedroom home in Paynesville, an outer suburb of Monrovia, the capital. At least family members could still attend church dressed in hand-sewn lapa, brightly colored traditional African dresses. At least they were alive with the hope of leaving someday.
But as 2003 slipped by, the Jimmys' visa applications became mired in bureaucracy and red tape.
One morning in May, Jimmy took a bus to his job at the embassy, 13 miles away, and Cecelia left for her job as a housekeeper. She came home a little early, but by the time Jimmy was ready to leave work fighting had erupted in the streets. His boss refused to allow him to leave the embassy compound.
For two weeks, the battle raged. Jimmy could not send word to family members, and he had no idea where they were or if they were safe. After the violence died down, he returned home and found his wife and children hunkered down. They had not set foot outside.
Jimmy was relieved, not knowing that the incident foreshadowed what was to come.
"That was not the hard part," Cecelia Jimmy said, shaking her head. "That one passed."
Running for Their Lives
Jimmy pressed his boss for information about his family's visas. His boss assured him that once the United States had ousted Taylor, he would push for approval of the family's request.
By late July, the violence had grown worse. Grenades were exploding near the Jimmys' home. Heavily armed rebels set up a roadblock outside their house. As one of Jimmy's teenage sons walked home from school, he was shot at by government officials who recognized him as Lawrence's younger brother, Jimmy said. Jimmy then made a decision: It was time to go.
One night, the family started walking, leaving behind their seven dogs and most of their belongings. Cecelia carried her youngest, Trusted, on her back. But they were dogged by gunfire throughout the night.
"While they were shooting, we had to run for our lives," Cecelia Jimmy said.
Eventually, they arrived at the Samuel K. Doe Sports Complex, on the outskirts of Monrovia, which had been converted into a makeshift shelter for refugees, James Jimmy said. Everyone seemed to be sick -- fevers, cholera, dysentery -- he said. Still, he said, the situation could have been worse. A friend told him that on the night the Jimmys escaped, rebels had ransacked their house, sprayed graffiti on the walls and killed all their dogs.
They stayed at the sports complex several days before moving into a friend's cramped home a few blocks away, waiting for their nightmare to end.
In mid-August, Taylor agreed to exile himself to Nigeria. On Aug. 18, the government and two rebel groups reached a peace accord. By early December, the rebels were handing over their AK-47s.
True to his word, Jimmy's boss expedited the family's visa requests after Taylor stepped down. The family was on its way, though not without one final ordeal. Madelan, the oldest daughter, had come back to Liberia from the Ivory Coast a few months earlier. But she was ill, and James and Cecelia found little solace in her homecoming. Doctors at the rudimentary local hospital could not diagnose her sickness, and she died days before the Jimmys were scheduled to leave for America. The Jimmys never found out what killed her.
They buried her Dec. 12. Two days later, the family boarded the plane for the United States.
Life in America
The Jimmys arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Dec. 15 with only a few changes of clothes. James had $11,000 in severance pay from his job at the embassy, some of which he used to pay for the plane tickets. He was not sure how long the rest of the money would last.
His sister, who lives in Riverdale, had found the family two rooms in a house occupied by several other families. The rooms had no furniture, and the children slept on the floor, Jimmy said. The rent was exorbitant, he said.
A friend from Liberia who was living in Columbia suggested the Jimmys look for an apartment there and helped the family find a place in the Hannibal Grove complex off Little Patuxent Parkway.
Almost all the children are enrolled in school. Bill, Sarah and Linda attend River Hill. James Jr. goes to Wilde Lake Middle School, and Jeamima and Trusted attend Running Brook Elementary School. George is looking to enter the Job Corps or enroll in Howard Community College. The oldest son, Togar, remained in Liberia.
Their five-room townhouse is furnished with two secondhand couches, a lamp with the shade still wrapped in plastic, a television and a VCR player -- all donated by friends, friends of friends and nonprofit groups. By Liberian standards, their home is a palace, yet it is still far less than what most of Sarah's classmates at River Hill have.
County services for families such as the Jimmys are thin. Like many poor and immigrant families, the Jimmys have relied on a complicated patchwork of community and nonprofit groups -- and sometimes simple goodwill -- to help ease their transition into American life.
When Trusted and Jeamima showed up wearing the same clothes for the first few days of school, Running Brook teachers knew the Jimmys were struggling, said Margot Chaffee, who works with the school's Parents as Teachers program to reach out to needy families.
So she contacted James Jimmy to see if he needed any help, she said. Soon she learned that he needed help with everything -- getting his driver's license, finding a job, buying enough food to feed his family.
"All he's asking is for someone to help him connect the dots in the community," she said.
Slowly, she began to help him navigate the web of social services. She introduced him to a man from Saudi Arabia who works at a local food bank.
When the schools called to say that the children needed flu shots, she used money from a grant program to pay for a bus to transport them to the hospital. Chaffee enlisted her boyfriend to move a used sofa on his truck to the Jimmys' home. Teachers at Running Brook also donated a couch.
"That woman," Jimmy said of Chaffee, "she come second to God."
Two months ago, Jimmy was hired as a mechanic. He makes about $1,300 a month after taxes. The rent for his home is $1,965. His wife still has not found a job. Money is running out.
"The school system here is okay," Jimmy said. "I really love to stay, but I wish I could find somewhere I can afford."
On a recent afternoon, Sarah smiled broadly as she played a video wrestling game on the PlayStation her cousin in Riverdale had brought to their home. Sarah pushed the buttons on the controller wildly, causing her character to kick and flip and body-throw its way to an unintentional victory. Cecelia watched the action from a chair near the living room window as she braided Jeamima's hair and then Trusted's.
Jimmy knows that he will have to move the family again soon. His six-month lease ends this month. He does not know where he and his family will go.
Maybe the family will get another break. So far, the Jimmys count themselves among the lucky ones.
"God just sent people my way," he said. "We suffered a lot."