Liberians hope move to US is smooth as palm oil

On a stylish street in the residential Cocody area of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a 14-room villa has been turned into a transit center for more than 300 Liberian refugees.

Next stop: America.

In a matter of days, 44 of them, already far from their homes in neighboring Liberia, will be leaving troubled West Africa to begin a new life in a country they have only dreamed of visiting.

But before that dream comes true, they're here to receive "cultural orientation" to help them with the shock of moving to the United States. And they're beginning to discover just how different - and similar - things are going to be.

"Is there really snow to your knees in America?" some ask. "Can you buy palm oil?" - the basis for much West African cooking - others wonder.

Sandra Holmberg is a US citizen working for a company called the Overseas Processing Entity, which handles all refugee cases before going to US immigration officials, and also gives the refugees survival training before they begin their new life stateside.

Using interpreters and picture cards for those who can't read, Ms. Holmberg and her team of five teach everything from how to write a check and the importance of health insurance to how to dial 911 and to recognize the difference between the men's and ladies' restrooms.

Because it was founded by freed American slaves, Liberia has historical and cultural connections with the US that give the West African nation some awareness of American culture.

Holmberg says that the younger folk have a pretty good idea what the US will be like. Many of them already wear secondhand Chicago Bulls T-shirts and Nike sneakers, and they've seen the music videos and the Hollywood films.

For the older, rural people like Emily Barlee, who has no education and speaks little English, traveling to the US is like preparing to go to another planet. She and some of her fellow travelers wonder what to do if they are targeted by witchcraft or "juju," since many people here attribute illness to curses.

"Are there tablets?" a woman asks through an interpreter. Some rural people still rely on traditional remedies for various ailments, but they have heard that there are pills and trained doctors to help. And, teachers point out, "juju" isn't practiced in the US.

'Rapid reaction' program

The refugees in this program are being moved quickly - as fast as six weeks. It's a "rapid-reaction" program developed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), for use in crisis situations. Other programs in places like Guinea and Ghana can take years to complete the application process. This gives refugees more time to adjust and learn about what awaits them.

According to Sanda Kimbimbi, the UNHCR representative in Abidjan, the program was first developed in 2000 at the peak of a crisis in Ivory Coast. The country's first-ever coup in December 1999 was followed by contentious elections where ethnic rifts were exposed. Foreigners, including Liberians, who had traditionally been welcome in Ivory Coast, were suddenly the target of hostility. Thousands had their homes destroyed by the government, and hundreds were killed in the violence.

Those who were able, fled to their homelands.

But some were unable to return home - particularly those who had fled persecution from President Charles Taylor and his henchmen in warring Liberia. Many of these people ended up at the offices of the UNHCR pleading for help.

Despite a Liberian peace deal signed in August, 80 percent of the country remains under the control of rebel groups and armed militias. Though Mr. Kimbimbi hopes that repatriation will one day be an option for Liberian refugees, he says that time is still some way off.

No more 'pow wow wow'

For the Ivory Coast program, the UNHCR took the unusual step of actively seeking recipient countries for 8,000 people considered most at risk. The bulk of those, up to 7,000 people, will go to the US.

So far 800 refugees have gone to America, settling in Maryland and Washington, D.C., as well as rural states like Kansas, Nebraska, and North Dakota. Local agencies are there to help them with the transition, including finding work. Some have even enrolled in night classes.

Kimbimbi is happy with the progress being made and hopes that the success of this program will encourage other countries to consider accepting high-risk refugees in similar rapid-reaction programs.

Meanwhile, Ms. Barlee, though still unclear as to what to expect in the US, says she is "fearless." Others in the camp remind her there will be no "pow wow wow" of guns as she's seen in Liberia's decade and a half of civil war. Still, there are some things that she can't take with her.

"She will miss her friends, her people," her daughter Susannah explains in English.

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