By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published January 8, 2004
Sitting at the dining room table in his apartment in front of a picture of Mecca, Layee Toure, a native of Liberia, reads from a 1998 letter from a friend informing him of his little brother’s execution by government forces.
Sorting through newspaper clippings and old employment badges, Toure recalls how his 20s were spent fleeing mass murders in his hometown to live for years in a Guinea refugee camp and, after returning to his homeland, being incarcerated and later hiding out before escaping to the United States.
Toure loves this land of hope, in which he is able to live in peace and continue his work to aid the suffering members of his Mandingo tribe in Guinea and Liberia. January 4-10 is National Migration Week, during which the Catholic Church recognizes the dignity and plight of Toure and other immigrants and refugees around the world and affirms its solidarity with them.
Life had been horrific in Liberia, where rebels routinely raided houses in Toure’s hometown of Bahn, targeting members of his tribe, which had supported former president Samuel Doe. It was not unusual to see looting, destruction, bodies strewn on sidewalks or dumped in rivers, and executions by firing squads. Toure fled with his family from the civil war, which began Christmas Eve 1989, to a refugee camp in Guinea. He returned to Liberia in 1997 with his younger brother, who wanted to finish high school there, as fighting subsided before elections. He worked as an immigration officer where he said he learned of Charles Taylor’s election fraud of transporting aliens into the country to vote for him in his presidential bid. Toure was incarcerated for three months for sending aliens home, and later, while he was in hiding, his house was looted and his brother arrested.
“I couldn’t stand it—tension, lawlessness in a country. Everybody killed, so we had to flee,” he said. “Sometimes you go out of your mind.”
His uncle, still in Liberia, helped him escape to the United States, and he arrived on Feb. 13, 1998, at John F. Kennedy Airport. In Atlanta, Catholic Social Services’ Immigration Services helped him to gain asylum, and he received a similar status for his wife thereafter.
His uncle “knew the danger; he was married to a lady supporting Taylor’s people.” Toure said. “Without him I wouldn’t be here today. I was really, really happy (to arrive in America).”
After he and his wife resettled in Atlanta, Toure was able to obtain refugee status for each of their families through CSS’ Migration and Refugee Services resettlement program. While he is Muslim, it was natural that he turn to CSS, as he received a high quality education in Liberian Catholic schools and had cared for the elderly in the refugee camp through Catholic Relief Services. Toure, 33, is grateful to be able to build a new life here.
“Living here is the only peaceful life we’ve ever known. I don’t worry about lawlessness, dictatorship.”
The theme of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Migration Week is “Together on the Journey.” In a letter on the subject, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, noted that the World Refugee Survey 2003 documented over 12 million refugees throughout the world, most surviving in desperate circumstances; however, in 2002 the United States admitted barely 27,000 refugees for resettlement, the lowest number allowed to be resettled here in 20 years.
The number of refugees coming into the country increased in the 2003 fiscal year to approximately 28,000, but 70,000 could have been admitted. The decline comes in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
About a quarter of all refugees are typically resettled through the USCCB; approximately 7,000 were resettled in 2003. The United States has approved the admission of up to 70,000 for the 2004 fiscal year as well, including 25,000 from Africa; 6,500 from East Asia; 13,000 from Europe and Central Asia; 3,500 from Latin America and the Caribbean; and 2,000 from the Near East and South Asia. A refugee is defined as a person forced to flee his or her country and who cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution.
Last year CSS in the archdiocese resettled 79 refugees, mainly from the former Yugoslavia, Vietnam and various parts of Africa. In 2004 they will only resettle 68. CSS only handles family reunification cases, and the decline is part of a national decrease in that type of case. CSS voices a plea for acceptance of refugees into the community.
“They get jobs and contribute like any member of society and, plus, they bring diversity into the Atlanta community,” said Tanya Zeiliger, program director of CSS Migration and Refugee Services. “Some of them come from very, very adverse conditions. This is bringing them to a place of safety and security.”
The number of refugees resettled in the United States had dropped dramatically after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, primarily because of added security background checks. The USCCB cites other reasons including the slowness of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to travel to various spots around the world to interview applicants for resettlement. USCIS must wait until receiving security approval by the U.S. State Department, and places previously determined to be secure for conducting interviews are now being reconsidered. Efforts to identify other locations have proceeded slowly.
“With the growing and often justified anxiety about our national security, there may be many of us who would prefer not to undertake this journey at all. We struggle with the ever-changing face of our own communities. It is tempting to give in to our fear and retreat into the mindset of a fortress America,” wrote Bishop Wenski. “As Catholics, however, this is not an option. It is precisely in times like these that Jesus calls us anew to welcome the stranger among us, to be traveling companions to those on the move.”
The Judeo-Christian tradition is filled with images of migration, including those fleeing danger and persecution. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” acknowledged the right to migrate to sustain one’s family. “Exsul Familia,” Pope Pius XII’s response to the unprecedented populations of refugees and displaced persons following World War II, called the Holy Family the “archetype of every refugee family.”
The USCCB Web site points out that resettlement is an important tool for protecting refugees and saving lives, as those approved for resettlement can neither return to their home country nor remain in their host country, and relocation to a third country is their only durable option, without which they are placed at risk of persecution or death. “The United States is an international leader in refugee protection and provides examples to other nations,” it states.
Kevin Appleby, director of the USCCB Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, spoke of the long, proud history of this country in refugee resettlement and the irony in that as the nation endures the heightened threat of terrorist attacks, it has become less open to others who are also fleeing terror.
“We have a time-honored tradition of providing safe haven to those who flee persecution. It is part of our tradition of democracy,” he said. “The program simply saves the lives of people who are seeking protection.”
His office works with Congress and the Bush administration to identify refugee populations that should be resettled to help strengthen the refugee program. He was preparing for a trip to Asia to identify possible populations for resettlement in countries including China, Vietnam and Thailand.
“Refugees are out there. It’s just a matter of identifying them and getting them through the processing and (having) the political will to do it. The security precautions are in place and that is not as much of a block as reaching out to find refugee populations,” said Appleby. “Family reunification cases have gone down because the government has argued that there’s a lot of fraud in these categories which we dispute to some degree … So there’s not enough avenues for people to be resettled.”
Toure’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Dukuly, 21, arrived with his parents and a brother and sister last Nov. 12, after having spent his teenage years in the Guinea refugee camp. He described “terrible” conditions in the N’zerekore camp, which is overflowing due to other refugees from the war-torn Ivory Coast. An estimated 5,000 people live in tents in the countryside with no jobs and exist on rations of rice, corn, buckwheat and well water when it hasn’t dried up, he said. He was at least able to attend school there, where he studied hard, and now hopes to study accounting.
“It’s very hard. People suffer in the refugee camp with a shortage of food, clothing … Only a few people are working in the refugee camp … You get a two-month ration of food. If you run out, you stay hungry. Sometimes there’s a delay in distribution.”
But the most haunting memories remain from Liberia where he would “go out to search for food and see bodies all over the street.”
He is now looking for a job. CSS has helped him and his parents, brother and sister with rent and clothes and helped them receive food stamps.
“I like being in America because America is safe. We have a lot of things here. My in-laws are carrying me all around,” he said. “It’s a fine place. I’ve been feeling very, very comfortable.”
While it’s unsafe for him to return to Liberia, Toure made a trip back to visit the Guinea camp last July.
“The entire refugee camp is desperate to come to the United States,” he said, “but they don’t have anybody to file for them and the means to come here. They know this is the only country where democracy really exists. You’re free as long as you don’t make any crime.”
He is “committed to promoting democracy in Liberia,” and is grateful that President Bush pressured Taylor to step down from office and leave the country.
Since Samuel Doe seized power in a 1980 coup, violence has gripped Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves in 1822. In 1989 Taylor led a revolt that resulted in Doe’s execution and triggered civil war involving several factions; an estimated 200,000 died before peace was mediated in 1996. Taylor’s faction emerged as a dominant force, and he and his party won in the 1997 special elections, but later rebels began attacking government forces to oust Taylor. Last summer, the conflict culminated in a battle for control of the capitol, Monrovia, in which hundreds were killed. Within weeks, Taylor had been forced into exile, and a ceasefire and transitional government were established. A West African peacekeeping force was dispatched to Monrovia followed by a United Nations force, which has been mandated by the Security Council to disarm fighters and establish law and order. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, if peace is maintained and established, then some of the 280,000 Liberians who remain in neighboring states can be expected to repatriate. But armed militias and fighting continue in areas outside the U.N. presence.
Toure is working to help other Mandingoes in Liberia and those who were left behind in the camp, including some of his siblings who were unable to come because they are over 21. While his hometown once was 80 percent Mandingo, he said now there are none because they were driven out or murdered.
He founded the nonprofit Mandingo Association of Atlanta in 2002, which focuses on providing clothing, food, medicine and other needed goods. It has about 50 containers of supplies to ship. They had a recent meeting where 105 people gathered at a nearby apartment complex.
“The Mandingoes, we are people really desperately affected in the war in Liberia … You can’t depend on the U.N. or other governments to help them out. It’s our people. I know how people are suffering,” said Toure.
Zeiliger said Toure’s entire family has adapted well to Georgia. To further ease the process for refugee families, her office is working to rebuild the volunteer component of the resettlement program and needs people to help with resettlement services, fund raising and, above all, to serve as tutors for middle-school students.
While he stays connected with Liberia, Toure is grateful for the help of CSS to bring over his loved ones, and appreciates the United States as much if not more than other Americans. He reports that his family is “doing great,” learning English and are in school. “They are self-sufficient right now with the help of CSS.”
He is proud to have a good job as a line trainer for Johnson Controls and hopes to complete his university education, which the war forced him to abandon his senior year, studying international relations, political science and mass communications. He is interested in sending his daughter, now 3, to a Catholic school.
“My American dream is to have my own house, a better education, a good paid job. I have a Nissan 2002, I’ve got a big screen 62-inch TV, furniture … In Liberia I never knew how to do computers. Now I do my transactions on computer,” he continued. “I don’t fear persecution and torture. I know I’ll be living a better life as long as I’m committed to work and country.”
And he no longer needs to hide his identity. Leaving to take Dukuly to Catholic Social Services for a meeting with his caseworker, his personalized license plate read “LTOURE.”
For information on the USCCB Office of Migration and Refugee Services policy and policy issues and initiatives call (202) 541-3208 or e-mail email@example.com. For volunteer information with Catholic Social Services, call Margaret Prickett at (404) 885-7271.