I remember one of the hardest days—it still breaks my heart every time I think about it. The war was really difficult, and there was a lot of gunfire going on so we couldn’t go outside. We had gone for more than twenty-four hours without food. We had nothing, so my mom finally went out, but she came back later, still with nothing. The little kids were crying for food and milk. My little brother had found a big tomato, which had been overlooked in our backyard garden, so my mom sliced that tomato and gave it to my younger siblings. As one of the eldest, I could not take any of the tomato for myself. In my mama’s face I saw that she was thinking, I am sorry, I have nothing to offer you. I had already seen my mom sell everything she had—her jewelry, her clothes and special things that meant so much to her. She had nothing left. It was both touching and sad for me. Watching my mother mentally and emotionally collapse was very hard, and I could not take it anymore, so I went out to find something else for us to eat. I knew that I would do whatever it took to get something for my mom that day so she wouldn’t have to cry, even if it was necessary for me to steal.
I went to a market called Bakarah. Bullets flying in my neighbourhood made it very unsafe to go there, but I went anyway. I asked to carry an older man’s bags of food. He said, “I don’t want to give you money.” I replied, “You don’t understand; you have food. You give me the bags and I’ll carry them for you. If you think that’s helping and you can give me money, that’s what I need. I am not going to beg and I do not want to steal. I am young, but I can work. Give me this chance so I can feel good about it.” And he said “Wow!” He was very supportive and paid me much more than he needed to. That night I came home with two bags full of food. But my mom, she had been worried and anxious because I had gone out into the fighting. She said she could have lost me forever. At that time I was eight or nine years old.
At eight my brain didn’t function as an eight year old’s, because I really didn’t get a childhood. We all had to grow up quickly. I started thinking as though I was a twenty year old. I was tired of war. I wanted a regular life. I wanted to go to school. I wanted to know what life was like before everything was changed by the war. There is a whole generation that has grown up in Somalia and doesn’t know about government, or police, or laws or rules. I wish my childhood had been like a regular child’s, filled with more opportunity. A childhood where I didn’t have to worry about bombs dropping on my head or seeing my family, especially the ones I loved, going through hardship. That was heartbreaking.
Throughout the conflicts in Liberia I had tried to go to school. Whenever there was a cease-fire and it was safer, I would go back. I was able to complete my schooling to grade 12 before moving to Ghana. I was thankful for this because when I got there I was given the opportunity by the UNHCR to go to a nursing school in the city of Accra five hours away. The UNHCR wanted to train Liberians to help their refugee community. It was a fast-track program. We went for 3-week periods at a time and then would stay in Buduburam in between. My first priority was my family, and I felt that with this opportunity to live in the city, would come food and, hopefully, a chance to meet different people who could help us. I thought maybe once I got to know people there, I could bring my family to Accra. Initially that was my plan, but when I got there it was totally different. Unfortunately for us, the Ghanaians did not understand us refugees. They thought we were all just bad people who fled our country because all we wanted to do was kill our brothers. We felt very misunderstood and unaccepted.
I had two Liberian friends at school and we talked about this lack of understanding. We felt the Ghanaians were not educated about what refugee life was like. They just didn’t understand. We thought that although they saw us differently, we should help them to know us better. At lunch hour in the cafeteria the Liberian and Ghanaian students sat at separate tables with no interaction. So my friends and I made a plan. One lunch hour we hurried ahead to the cafeteria and bought all of the food there. It was a small cafeteria, but we did not have much money and so it took all of our savings to do this. When the Ghanaians came for lunch there was no food left. They could not understand why there was no food and when they asked the cafeteria worker she told them that the Liberians had bought it all. We went to them and invited them to come and eat with us. We told them we had already paid for it all. They sat with us and got to know us. We told them about why we had fled Liberia and explained that we were just people who didn’t want to be killed. They really appreciated my story about the way I lost my biological dad and about the courage my new dad took to help my family. When they knew my story they told me that I had been through a lot and they were impressed that I chose to go to school and continue living as I was. They said, “We have to put our hands around Chris.” Once we explained our stories that really changed things. You never get to know people until you interact personally. We presume people are all the same. We all started to become friends. Later, once we graduated from nursing school, some of our Ghanaian friends came back to the refugee camp to work with us. They didn’t even get paid; they volunteered their services. In fact, one of my Ghanaian friends Julius even went on to move to Liberia and work there.
I believe that people in Manitoba like helping and are willing to help, but I think “how to help,” that is where the challenge is. Some people confuse helping with telling someone what they should do. There can be an attitude of superiority: You are the one who needs me and my country because you are coming here. This does not help us. For me, helping is based on respect and an understanding of each other. To say, I don’t have anything to learn from you; you are the one learning from me creates the impression of inferiority. If we don’t courageously learn about each other we will find ourselves in the position of master and slave. We might be scared to call it that, but let’s call it by its name. As newcomers, we sometimes hear the message, You don’t have anything to give. Some individuals may not say this, but their actions show us.
As refugees we continuously risk losing our identity. When we come here, to this new country we call home, yes, we come needy and weak, but we do not want to stay stuck in dependency on others. We want to become fully mature as Canadians, and as human beings. And we see a difference between short-term and long-term help. With the large number of refugees coming to Canada, people say they would like to give a cup, or a bed or a television. They really care. That is a good start, but I believe help like that is for the short term. You can buy me a bed, a huge beautiful bed, but if I cannot sleep, then it is just for decoration. I know that it was not meant for decoration, it was meant for sleep, but in order for me to be able to have a restful sleep I need to feel like a contributing, valuable member of the society I live in.