Twenty-five years ago today I became a refugee. Technically I suppose I still am one. We’ve never gone back.
In April 1990 we were living in Monrovia, capital of Liberia (West Africa if you need to find it on a map). A civil war had started on Christmas Eve. Government troops seemed mostly ineffective, and the rebels were moving ever closer to the capital.
The British Embassy was looking out for us Canadians, as Canada did not have its own embassy in Monrovia. When the British said it was time to leave, we began to make arrangements.
The city was pretty calm, but everyone knew the rebels were getting closer. We knew one couple who had been running a medical mission station up-country who had been killed in the crossfire between government and rebel troops. Both sides blamed the other.
So we book our flight and left Liberia 25 years ago tonight. I admit that driving to the airport I felt a little nervous. There was a military barracks between our home and the airport terminal. The thought did cross my mind that discipline might be a little lax, our vehicle might be commandeered. But we made it unchallenged…
The flight was sold out. Anyone who could leave the country was doing so while they had the chance (the airport would be closed by the fighting a few weeks alter). Our plane though, left half empty.
That might have been because the pilot made an arbitrary decision to get off the ground as soon as the plane was fully fueled. I didn’t want to ask. I just know that we were in the air about 45 minutes before our scheduled departure time, with a lot of empty seats.
I assumed most if not all of the no-shows were people who couldn’t get their paperwork together on time. We left those details to the organization we were working for and arrived at the airport with letters from the police and power company and I forget who else, saying that we had no outstanding warrants or unpaid bills and could be allowed to leave the country. That was a time-consuming process at the best of times.
We were fortunate. We left by commercial airliner for a country that was more home than the place we were fleeing. We went from comfort to comfort, with just a bit of disquiet (and a lot of regret at leaving so many friends behind, people who did not have our option to leave to avoid the war). We were refugees, but only technically.
Today there are millions of new refugees each year. Most cannot return to their homes, it just isn’t safe. It may be the most pressing humanitarian problem of our time, and not enough is being done. A friend of mine was recently observing refugee efforts surrounding the four year old civil war in Syria. He told me “there are millions of dollars being spent, and it is hardly making a difference.” Hardly is better than nothing.
Our experience was the exception to the refugee reality. We fled, but there was no hardship. We had a place to come to, a home to. We didn’t miss any meals, didn’t have to live in tents in the middle of winter.
There was only a little bit of uncertainty, and even then we were pretty sure we would get out okay. The reality for most refugees is that the experience is as close as they will ever come to living through hell on earth. It is death, destruction, deprivation and at times unimaginable suffering. So today, which I remember hat flight out with gratitude, I am thinking about today’s refugees in places like Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Kenya and dozens of other places throughout the globe. They need a place to call home, since staying home is no longer an option. They need help from all of us who are not refugees.
(By the way, it was 40 years
ago today that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese forces, which led to a different refugee crisis with more than 7,000 people being evacuated by helicopter alone.)