Artwork by Tom and Phillip, two refugee boys I met at Budaburam Refugee Camp in Ghana. They are now both in Liberia, struggling to make a living.
Washing hair in the camp.
Neighborhoods in Buduburam, 2011
Myself with Philip and Tom, 2011. Both young men had to return to Liberia with their families in 2015.
To see the daily blog I wrote while on my first trip to Ghana and the Buduburam Refugee Camp in 2010, click here.
Shortly after completing my doctorate, I took a position at the University of South Florida, Sarasota Manatee campus in 2005. I chose it because the main campus (which had no openings at the time) was in close proximity to organizations that resettled refugees in the Tampa Bay, FL area, just an hour from Sarasota. Florida is always in the top three states for refugee resettlement, so I knew that a position in this state would be a good place for me to settle, given my research and interests in refugees during my days at Emory University achieving my doctoral degree.
I was very connected to the Vice Chancellor, given his interests in world politics and Africa. When he retired, he took on consulting at the University of Ghana. Soon after, he emailed me that his wife had come upon the largest refugee camp in Ghana about an hour's drive from the university, Buduburam. Immediately, I began to search for funding, and he and his wife were remarkable in creating entrance for me to the camp. I spent two weeks there in January 2010 conducting a needs assessment at some camp schools.
At that time, the winds were blowing the sand of the Sahara hundreds of miles, and after a short time out each day, we were covered in sand. At the camp, I spent most of my time at three schools: a new UN school, an older local camp school, and one sponsored by an international NGO. A friend had given me a computer to donate, and I chose to give it to the principal at the older school, as they did not have a single computer at their school. He was beyond delighted and chose to place it with the administrative staff to help them with their duties.
He was the one who said to me, "From day to day, you will not see all the children at school. This is because they are often hungry, and many of them spend time begging for food for their families." His school had the least funding of the three schools I evaluated. However, the students were grateful to be there, and I found the level of studies to be remarkably high for children who often had deficits in daily survival needs. The UN school had sufficient supplies such as school books and art supplies. The NGO-sponsored school also had more than the other camp school, and they had a visionary leader who has since started two new schools in Liberia, as people have been forced to leave the camp. At his school, I conducted an art project. During that time, I came across two remarkable young artists. I have remained in touch over the past eight years and helped them both to complete their secondary school and associate's degrees. I just wish I could bring them together with someone in the States connected with the arts to bring them here for more training and opportunities.
While at the camp, I stayed with a teacher at the UN school and her husband. I will never forget when she asked, "Do you eat meat?" and I said, "Yes." How I regretted that when shortly afterwards we walked to an outdoor market where meat had been hanging in the hot afternoon air for hours. I was grateful when, two days later, my hostess greeted me with a live chicken as I awakened and asked what I thought. I knew it would be fresh! Every day, we began early in the morning and spent hours in the camp as I observed in classes and interviewed teachers. I slept on a bed of two-inch soft foam on top of wooden slats - I suspect this was the bed of choice in the home.
Along with the physical challenge were many cultural challenges. Although I had traveled to some poor areas previously in Panama and Costa Rica, and I had also spent two weeks in Durban, South Africa, for a UN Conference in 2001, these differences were more challenging for me, and I often felt myself uncertain about how to proceed and how to take care of myself while being a polite guest.
What I learned was the need for both cultural sensitivity while maintaining boundaries and what it might feel like to be the minority. Even so, I knew I would be able to leave this place where I was a minority. I had a similar experience in Panama during a language intensive trip. I might feel awkward, but I would go home in two weeks. Not so for the thousands of refugees and migrants coming to other countries in hopes of a new life, and particularly not for their children who do not make that decision. There is no going back.
After several days at the refugee camp, I returned to the apartment of my former Vice Chancellor and his wife. I had a severe GI issue, and my body ached from the wooden slats of the bed at the camp. An unforgettable moment was upon returning to my own bed in the States. Never had I realized just how remarkably comfortable my mattress is. Or how easily I can depend on my faucet to give me an endless supply of safe, potable water. Or how simple it is to maintain a comfortable body temperature in my climate-controlled, spacious home. Or cook what I want, when I want. Or hop in my own car to drive where I want to go.
We take so much for granted. I am no more deserving of these luxuries than anyone I have met in a camp or in a rural village where women may spend hours of each day traveling to a water pump and carting large 10 gallon yellow jugs on their heads back to their homes with water for cooking and washing. When I hear racist remarks, when I see the current president of my country refer to African countries as "shithole countries," I think of all the generous, intelligent, struggling people I have met, and my heart aches for them.