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The New Refugees

Finding a house big enough for fifteen people isn't easy, even on the North Shore.

TOUR OF HOME: "Here is the bathroom, where we can wash..."

Victoria Fahnbulleh and her family are living in a green, three story, five bedroom house near downtown Wilmette. While the children have to share bedrooms, for the first time in their lives, each has his or her own bed. It's a long way from the three rooms in which they lived in Liberia's capital--Monrovia. That's where Lamin Fahnbulleh and his family once called home.
LAMIN: The house was a mud house. Mud. Build it with mud.

The tiny house was all Lamin could afford because work was so scarce.

LAMIN: When I was in Liberia, I used to make, I was a trader. But sometimes, I make farm. I farm sometime. But basically I was a trader. I used to buy clothes. Mainly I do business with clothes. I go to Monrovia buy a bale of clothes. Then we carry it. And go sell it. After selling, you go back to Monrovia you buy. That's the only business I did.

Each week Lamin traveled a route from the coastal city of Monrovia north to the city of Kongo on the southeastern bank of the Mano River. And it was in Kongo that Lamin had a second wife and family--an arrangement both legal and common in Liberia. Then, the country's civil war broke out.

LUDDEN: The chaos that swept Monrovia's streets just two weeks ago is hardly contained. Militia leaders say they've sent most of their young fighters to barracks outside the city...

In this this telephone report, NPR's Jennifer Ludden chronicles Liberia's civil war which began in 1989 and lasted a decade and a half. It was devastating. Tens of thousands were killed. The UN estimates at its height, the war displaced more than 700,000 people. For years, Victoria Fahnbulleh and her family lived in the midst of this fighting before becoming its victims.

VICTORIA: Because of the war, rocket went and damaged the house. So I left.

Rebels destroyed her home. So she and Lamin and their children sought refuge across town--along with thousands of others--in a house of worship. They were there for a week before the fighting caught up with them again.

VICTORIA: I went to Benson Street Mosque. There where I stay, the rocket came and killed my son.

Victoria and Lamin's oldest child, Lamijatu died when a rocket struck the mosque.

VICTORIA: Then I left Monrovia.

Victoria, Lamin and their surviving children walked from the capital city more than 50 miles to the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone. After weeks in a makeshift camp, the Fahnbullehs became officially recognized refugees and crossed into Sierra Leone. From there, they traveled to the city of Bo and settled in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' Gondama Refugee Camp.

VICTORIA: Gunama refugee camp, the life is hard but we was there managing because the food that UNHCR gave us-the Bulgar Wheat-it's not enough for you and your family. But you have to manage it. Then you find other means to support the family.

The bulgar wheat came on the 10th of each month. But it would run out long before the next delivery. Victoria and Lamin had to barter with their few possessions and take odd jobs around the camp to get buy. Occasionally they'd buy okra to fry with peppers--the family's favorite dish. For five years, they all lived in Gondama, in cramped mud and straw huts covered with blue UN tarps. Then, just over a month ago, Lamin got word the US had agreed to allow his family to come here, to Wilmette. And finally, says Lamin...

LAMIN: We having enough showers, we have enough bathrooms, we have enough everything so we're actually happy.

AMBI: "And when I look in your eyes, I believe what I see. And I like your mind and your heart"

AMBI: (kids playing)

Now, Victoria, Lamin and their children sometimes watch soap operas on the first TV they've ever seen. They're at home between trips into the city to visit doctors and immigration offices. Of course, refugees do not arrive on the North Shore without enormous help. The US State Department charged Chicago-based Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries with the Fahnbulleh's resettlement. Interfaith surrounds refugees with services to help them transition from living in near-constant crisis to something approaching normalcy. And for a family this large the first priority was housing.

SWEITZER: So we thought gee wiz, why don't we do our part to diversify and integrate Wilmette.

Rick Sweitzer heard about the Fahnbullehs from his wife Helen. They decided to donate--at least for a while--a house they own that usually rents for 35-hundred dollars a month. The Fahnbullehs arrived on a Monday afternoon. And that evening, Helen found herself explaining the intricacies of American life, including...

SWEITZER: Plumbing. How not to clog up the toilet in the basement, which they did within 24 hours and have done I guess once since then.

The Sweitzers aren't alone in helping the Fahnbullehs.

SWEITZER: I have a large network of friends in Wilmette and I just sent out one e-mail just asking people if they were interested in helping to get in touch with me. Within 24 hours I had almost 30 people who had replied saying we'll help you with anything you need. And they have.

CHUCK & LAMIN: sound of bags being brought into the house...

CHUCK & LAMIN: This stuff we're bring you is from an elementary school...

On one recent afternoon, teacher Chuck Sheftel and a group of students from North Shore Academy brought bags full of clothing and toys and school supplies. Practically every day, volunteers stop by with food or to take Victoria or one of the kids to an appointment. On Sundays, two first year students from New Trier High School--Alex Wetzel and Walt Lyon--come by to hang out with the kids.

ALEX WETZEL: They were just excited to play.

WALT LYON: We will go once or twice a week and sometimes we'll tutor the family on things they want to know and sometimes we'll go out and show them Wilmette or Chicago and show them how we live.

Eventually, the food and clothes will stop coming every day. Honeymoons never last. And Lamin Fahnbulleh knows he will be left to pay his own rent, make his own way.

LAMIN: My only concern now: Americans help us for children to go to school. And also myself, I don't know how to read and write. I want to learn how to read and write my name. So I'm happy of being here.

LAMIN & CHUCK: (kids playing)

In the coming months, Chicago Public Radio will continue to follow the Fahnbullehs as these refugees--immigrants not so much by choice but by necessity--learn to read and write, find jobs and start school, learn to take the train, go grocery shopping, and find a mosque. We'll chronicle what it takes to create whole lives in America out of broken lives from Liberia. I'm Jason DeRose, Chicago Public Radio.

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