Losing One Family and Finding Another: The Story of a Scholarship Student from Africa
Names and identifying references have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Who am I?
James Dahn (pseudonym) is my name and I am from Nimba County in Liberia. I am only 27 years old, but in my lifetime I have lost my parents and two siblings, lived through two wars, roamed three countries as a refugee/displaced person, and slept in streets, parking stations, market places and church yards while struggling to survive.
Somehow, I am still alive and thriving. Today, I am attending university in Ghana and serving as vice president of a student’s association. How a young man like me who has faced death, starvation, torture, humiliation, hard labor, rejection and condemnation can still be alive and a student leader is only by the grace of God and by the discerning kindness of a group of committed, resolute, unchanging women called United Methodist Women.
I am the first child in a family of three boys. Growing up, my mother and father always reminded me to set a good example for my two little brothers. Some of my earliest memories are of starting primary school at the age of six. Dressed up in my smart uniform of blue and white, my little brother Luke who was approaching the age of three at that time, looked at me with doting eyes full of admiration and awe. I vowed in that moment to provide a good example, a good path for him to follow.
It was also at primary school that news of the First Liberia Civil War first broke and my life changed forever. That day news hit the campus that rebels had entered the city, so the school authorities closed the doors on us. While we were inside, some parents forced their way through to collect their children to cross over to the neighboring country, Ivory Coast. During this time, I too managed to escape from school, but when I got home, no one was there, so I dropped my books and started crying. Thirty minutes later, I saw my mother coming towards me, crying with her 2-month-old baby boy on her back, and saying they had taken our father away. One of her friends took the baby from her back to help her. As my mother held me in her hands, the rebels entered our home and started shooting at us, and that is how we separated. My mother’s friend took my little brother with her in one direction, while my mother and I fled together in a different direction. My mum could not run very fast because of her age and recent pregnancy. I ran with a group of people into a bush right by the roadside towards the Ivory Coast border, but my mother was caught by the rebels, who started saying to her, “so you are the one who has been praying for the government troops.” She said no, she was just a prayer warrior, and pleaded with them to let her go. But they refused and started cutting her into pieces like dog. I am in tears writing this, as I was on the spot but could not do anything to save her because those in the bush with me held my mouth and hands, or else they would have killed every one of us.
Life in Tabou (Ivory Coast)
The group of people took me with them to Ivory Coast, where I started school at a refugee school called AWRE. After school, I had to sell cold water in the streets in order to eat, but many days I slept without bathing and eating, when the business did not go well. I worked and slept in market places, where I encountered difficulties and ill-treatments from many. Some would humiliate me as a refugee or condemn me. Sometimes, a family would kindly take me in. However, they would ask me to walk a long distance to get supplies or wood for cooking, preventing me from studying which caused my grades to suffer. One day, I was called in the room by my step-mother and beaten badly after I had successfully completed the ninth grade national exam 1998. I cried bitterly that day and will never forget it because that day I thought about my late mother. In that moment, I took a decision to get on the voluntary repatriation bus to Monrovia, Liberia. This was after the 1997 presidential election in Liberia, and I did not know anyone in Liberia who would take me in.
Life in Monrovia (Liberia)
In Monrovia, I started sleeping in the streets, lorry stations, market places and church yards, until three months later I introduced myself at a United Methodist church service and met a man who said he was my uncle. I was thankful to find out I had a relative alive. He explained that he was my mother’s elder brother, and that he did not have much money, but wanted to ensure I got the best education. With his help, I re-enrolled in high school and completed odd jobs for the church priest to help pay my school fees.
Unfortunately, on September 18, 1998, war broke out again between President Charles Taylor and rebel leader Roosevelt Johnson. Remember, I had just come to Monrovia from exile and did not know the country well. Because the school I was attending had a rehabilitation center, the Taylor-led government kept coming there, collecting people to go on the battle field to fight against rebel forces. I sustained an eye problem as a result of my refusal to comply with the troops by going on the battle field.
My uncle and I were victimized through torture, beating and flogging by government troops. They took my uncle away, and since then I have not seen or heard anything about him. From that day forward, the situation became uncontrollable, and everyone in my uncle’s house became afraid. I lost my foster sister while holding her hand when a bullet took her life. I cried and was scared to get home, but in the midst of all of these things, by God’s grace, I successfully completed my high school education — while enduring hunger, trials, temptations, fears and war. Around this time, I fell very ill and do not really know how I got to Ghana in 2002.
Life in Ghana
I entered Ghana very sick, with a swollen head as a result of the bad treatment I received from the government troops. The lady that brought me to Ghana was a friend of my late uncle. I was told last year that he passed on, but again God saved me through her help. My life in Ghana was no different from that of Ivory Coast and Monrovia. I started gathering children in the community, teaching them how to sing and dance. I acquired my dancing skills from Ivory Coast and the singing from my United Methodist Church in Monrovia. I later started a children’s study class at the school voluntarily. God touched the hearts of some church members, who assisted me with food to survive. The lady who brought me to Ghana had to return back to Liberia due to the hardship and difficulties in Ghana, and I was told she died in the last war 2003. I had no option but to move from one place to another, helping others with their housework, washing for them and just waiting around to eat. All of that and much more I did until God, through United Methodist Women came in to save me by offering me a college scholarship. Now, I no longer have to wait for other’s charity just to eat. United Methodist Women put a smile on my face and have served as my parents since 2012.
Glory be to God that since my studies, I have gained a high level of maturity. People tell me that my way of thinking, speaking, dressing and doing things has changed greatly. My leadership skills have made me well known in the Liberian community and at school. I cannot believe that people can come to me for financial assistance and food — every time I see them, I am reminded of my own difficult days.
Nevertheless, a few challenges persist: I have not received treatment for my eye and I am going blind in that eye. Since the separation from my family in 1994 up to the present, I do not know the whereabouts of my two brothers and my dad. Unconfirmed information that reached me recently states that my father is still alive, but also very ill and at the point of death in his hometown in the bush. I want you to know that my life is absolutely incomplete without my family; I can’t wait to start working and go looking for them all over the world. Since that day of separation, I have been my own mother and father. Thanks to United Methodist Women’s care and provision, I now have a family that cares for me.