Saturday, March 24, 2007

Home is where the heart is

A tent city is what comes to mind for most people when they think of refugee camps. Buduburum – a Liberian refugee camp an hour west of Accra - is a small city, a 17-year-old settlement with about 45,000 residents. There are cement and wooden shacks and small buildings that house families, restaurants, stores, a hospital, churches and schools.

There is a makeshift movie theatre, which has old wooden benches and a TV and DVD player suspended from the ceiling. There are bakeries that make darm good cinnamon rolls; I was told Americans introduced these tasty treats to Liberia.

In short, the Buduburum camp is a home, a place where Liberians have raised and schooled their kids, and buried their dead.

I went to the camp for the first time two weeks ago. A group of refugees publish a monthly newspaper there about life in the camp and events back home in Liberia. It's called The Vision, and is primarily about social justice issues. We went there to lay the groundwork for workshops JHR will conduct over the next five months.

Come visit Wednesday, The Vision people told us; it’s Decoration Day, the day of the year that Liberians clean up the gravesites of their dead relatives. It’s a national holiday in Liberia, and one here at Buduburum too.

We arrived at 8 a.m. that Wednesday (March 14) and headed straight for the graveyard. I was taken by complete surprise when we arrived there. I expected an air of solemnity, perhaps a quiet ceremony to honour the dead; instead, people were hard at work and the mood was for the most part celebratory

Most of the dead are buried above ground. Family members were clearing weeds and grass, and some were re-painting the concrete tombs. Some were bowing down over the graves in prayer or sorrow; others were clutching bottles of beer and dancing. You rarely see people drink in Ghana, so this was indeed an unusual sight.

We were with reporters from The Vision, so we had the opportunity to talk with people about family members they had buried here and what this day meant to them.

One man stood beside the graves of two close friends who died shortly after they graduated from high school in the late 1990s. I asked what he remembered about them. He said they were very close to each other, and were affectionately called the “politicians” by their friends, because they were always talking about politics. He said the students were so upset by their deaths most of them didn’t go to the graduation ceremony. They died of an illness that remains a mystery to this day because it’s not common to conduct autopsies.

We talked to an older man who was cleaning the gravesites of his brothers. His mother had also died in the camp, but he had shipped her body back to buried in Liberia. I asked what he and other people at the camp would do with the graveyard if they returned to Liberia. He said many people who have returned already dug up their relatives’ graves and shipped home the remains.
Figuring out where “home” is is a hugely controversial subject here, especially these days. The UN has begun a voluntary resettlement program, and will pay the costs of moving. But it has set June 30th as the deadline for people to take advantage of the program. It’s not clear what will happen then. Will people lose their refugee status? Will the UN cut off funding for the camp? Will people still here after the deadline be resettled in other countries? These are the questions that pre-occupy people here.

The camp was established in 1990 after a civil war erupted in Liberia. There have been brief interludes of peace since then, but the camp has continued to grow with each new outbreak of violence back home. Liberia has been at peace since 2003, and the UN would like to see people go home. Some are willing to return, some are not. There are varying reasons why many don’t want to go back. Some don’t trust the situation in Liberia; they think that war could break out again at any time. Some still hope to settle overseas in places like Canada or the U.S. Some have made a home here in Ghana, and want to stay.

I am continually struck by the ways in which the refugees have made Buduburum “home.”

There is group of young people that have formed an “intellectuals club,” where they meet every Wednesday to debate important issues. The most recent topic of discussion: is the Buduburum camp going to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty worldwide by 2015? The MDGs were crafted for countries; these young people feel so at home here they want the camp meet them too. As you can imagine the problems on the camp are many – poor sanitation, water and food shortages and inadequate health care. The group plans to present recommendations based on their discussions to the camp’s political leaders.

Then there is the newspaper, The Vision. A British NGO pays to print the paper once a month. The Liberians who work there are volunteers. They are all youthful and idealistic. They are all motivated by a love for the camp and a desire to learn skills that will help them rebuild their lives when they are no longer refugees. They are incredibly patient (some have been here for 17 years) and focused on publishing stories that will help make the camp – their home for the foreseeable future - a better place to live.

- Mark

P.S. I will file more entries from the camp in the coming months. If you’re interested in learning more about The Vision, the Millennium Development Goals and the situation in Liberia, click on the links at top left-hand side of the page.


vee said...

Very interesting post to read. I had just learned about the UN Millenium goals last night when I clicked on your blog and read about the refugee camp discussions.

Peter Smit said...

Amazing how you leave us bites and detailed stories of your travels and experiences on such a regular basis. Refugee camps and how life goes on, I only hope that there will be less optimists, who have to wait for 17 years or more, before experiencing any positive changes.
thanks, best wishes and regards,

Janet & Mark in Ghana said...

Thanks for the comments. It's amazing to me to think that people have spent so many years there, yearning to return home or go overseas, but at the same time manage to build a life at the camp. - Mark

Anonymous said...

Janet, Have read you story so many times and relate to it in so many ways. So many of Big Mamas family had returned home as they got older. I will tell you many of these stories when you get home. Also with my dear friend Brenda that I visited with in Calgary in 1993. They all wanted to come home after spending many years away. like the others we really are enjoying your blogs. I know this is a lot of effort on your part especially when you are so busy.
As Always, Love, Mummy and Daddy

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark and Janet, The note I wrote meant to be for the two of you. I am sure you noticed this. Love, Mummy and Daddy