I arrived at the Liberian refugee camp in darkness. Without electricity, it was hard to see much of anything in this settlement outside of Accra, Ghana, where more than 40,000 asylum seekers lived. Our van’s headlights offered us myopic glimpses of our surroundings as the driver slowly navigated the maze of rutted, dirt roads toward the volunteer guesthouse.
A crumbling brick wall…
A pile of garbage…
A group of men shielding their eyes from our lights as we lurched past them.
What the frig did I get myself into? I thought as the van bounced me and the other international volunteers around in our seats. Sweat poured down my face as my stomach churned — partly from nerves, partly from the bumpy ride, partly from the dodgy mystery meat I had eaten at the airport.
It was May 15, 2005, and I had signed up for a two-month stint with a local water and sanitation NGO. I hoped I would last two days.
The next morning, the hot African sun made things a lot brighter. I got to know my little corner of camp. I successfully untangled and set up my mosquito net. I met some of the neighbours and played with the throngs of kids hanging outside the guesthouse. Still, I had a lot to learn.
I got lost constantly attempting to find my way through twisting streets and the cramped alleyways that ran between squat concrete shelters. The refugees’ thick accents and Pidgin English led to more than one awkward exchange. Even the currency in my pocket took some getting used to as I discovered when I forked over 10,000 cedis for a beer instead of 1,000.
Everywhere I turned, my senses were assaulted and confused. A man charged past me using a wheelbarrow as a makeshift ambulance to carry his friend to the clinic. The unfamiliar smells from food stalls at the top of camp made me queasy. Loudspeakers blaring sermons at five in the morning wrenched me out of fitful sleep.
Gradually though, things started to make sense. I learned which food vendors sold the best goat soup and which ones were guaranteed to give me ferocious diarrhoea. I got my head wrapped around how the camp was laid out — learning the configuration of the different Zones and the shortcuts between them. I even figured out how to flag down a tro-tro mini bus and which one would take me to Accra.
Most importantly however, I started to get to know the residents. At first, the throngs of people were nameless faces. I painted them all with the same “Liberian” or “Refugee” brush. However, as the days and weeks wore on, I learned more and more of their names and stories.
I got to know James and Whinnie, a lovely couple who had recently had a baby. They welcomed a few of us into their extremely modest home where they made us cassava-based fufu for dinner.
I became friends with 25-year-old named Samuel, who was the same age as me. He showed me the pot-holed dirt field he and his friends played soccer on, gave me a tour of the camp high school he attended and introduced me to his family who had fled the war in 1998. His father wasn’t there. He had been murdered in front of Samuel back in Liberia.
I met 13-year-old Rebecca, who was writhing in agony on a bed in the clinic. Her dad looked on, clearly suffering from a different pain of his own as he watched his daughter suffer. “The medicine is there,” he said. “But I can’t afford it.”
I also spent many hot days digging wells alongside some of the refugees. Between the swings of the pickaxe, I got to know Bernard, Patrick, Friday, Isaac and the other members of the WATSAN crew. These people, busting their asses off to provide safe drinking water for their families, all had powerful — and too often, horrifying — stories to tell.
I soon realized how insultingly narrow and reductive the term “refugee” was. These were teachers, agriculturalists, engineers, parents — everyday folks, forced to endure unspeakable atrocities, leave everything behind and flee for their lives. By the time we capped the new well in Zone 1, one thing was abundantly clear: these were some of the strongest people I’ve ever met.
I arrived on the Liberian refugee camp in darkness. But with time, effort and an open heart and mind, I began to see things a bit clearer. After two months in Ghana, I had only scratched the surface. But getting to know a bit about these people was a good first step.
Refugee Rhetoric: Finding our way through the darkness
Here in Canada, there’s been a lot of hullabaloo around the government’s decision to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country. I for one am thrilled with it and hope we can do even more. But others are upset with this decision.
Yes, some of the hooting and hollering going on has its roots in racism and xenophobia. But I think a lot of it stems from good old-fashioned ignorance. We’re not taking the time to really understand the situation. We’re not double checking the misinformation we so eagerly share on Facebook. We’re not seeing the faces behind the facts.
Educating ourselves can help alleviate our fears and tap into our empathy. Because it’s one thing to rant about how you think Ben Affleck is going to make a terrible Batman. But these are the lives of real people who deserve more than a misinformed, knee-jerk response. So if you’re weighing in on whether or not we should close our borders to families in desperate need of help, please take care and do so from an informed and sensitive position.
Not making an effort to really explore the issue is like my late-night van ride into camp. At best, we’re only seeing bits and pieces of a much larger and more complex world.
Want to learn more? Here are a few resources I’ve found helpful:
- Why Canada Can Safely Meet Its Refugee Commitments
- History suggests refugees can only make Canada a better place
- Syria Profile – Timeline
- The European Refugee Crisis and Syria Explained (video below)