Martina Hanulova meets with members of the Tribal Leader Forum.

Martina Hanulova meets with members of the Tribal Leader Forum.

BGSU senior sees hope, sorrow in Liberian refugee camp

Seen from a distance, the camp looks like an African village. But inside, it is a place where people who have experienced the most tragic and wrenching events are trying to make a new life, often side by side with those who have terrorized them or against whom they themselves have been brutal.

Hanulova teaches an English class.

That is the scene in Ghana’s teeming Buduburam Refugee Settlement, where BGSU senior Martina Hanulova worked last semester. The recipient of a Givens Fellowship from Bowling Green, the international studies and French major from Slovakia was able to continue her avocation of working with African people. Her stay was organized through the Global Volunteer Network, a private, nongovernmental organization based in Wellington, New Zealand.

Affectionately nicknamed Decontee, or “everything has time,” by the residents for her intense desire to “meet everybody, talk to everybody and see everything,” Hanulova said “living in the camp was a life-changing experience for me. I didn’t think it would have such a huge effect on me. But it was like a focused light that gave me a clearer idea of what I want to do in international development.

“Living in the poverty of refugees who have had to go through so much and have so little yet want to share, was inspiring. I’ve never seen more energy and even happiness in such a small space. There is so much music and dancing and the colorful nature of Africa itself. They have had a cruel life and yet they are able to hope and dream. They say, ‘There is a way out and we will survive and we will go back home.’”

They are also very appreciative of foreigners who come to help, Hanulova said. “They are very open and sharing, even if it’s their only meal of the day. You are the hope for them, and, because you are from the Western world, you are considered rich. And it is partially true since one dollar means a lot of money for refugees living in the camp. They have an open heart, open mind and truthfulness. They wanted to see and learn from our perspective.”

The camp, like much of Africa, presents deep contrasts between its colorful appearance and the innate joyfulness of its residents, and the harsh realities of the lives it contains. Refugees from Liberia’s two devastating civil wars, the roughly 38,000 residents struggle to sustain their lives while nurturing hopes of either repatriating to Liberia, resettling in another country, sponsored by the United Nations and the international community, or integrating into Ghanaian society. All options are fraught with difficulty, Hanulova said.

“They are so disconnected from their home country,” she said. “Even if they could go back, the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia, which they call the bush, were so destroyed in the war that there’s not much left. And they may not want to go back to their home village because that’s where their husband or family was killed or raped, maybe in front of them, and they don’t want to go back.”

Unfortunately, life in the camp will become even more difficult, Hanulova predicted, as the U.N. withdraws its support, scheduled to end in 2009.

Bridging differences
Hanulova chose to work through the Global Volunteer Network because of its emphasis on reconciliation, peace and education. Of the three jobs she did while in the camp, two were directly related to helping people work through their traumas and difficulties together. Liberia has 16 tribes, and tribal rivalries are still strong, in addition to the country’s political differences.

She helped organize and run daily reconciliation meetings in the camp’s 12 zones, known as “peace cells.” “Tribal hatred used to be more prevalent in the camp at the beginning, but now it is much better thanks to many organizations working to help their fellow sisters and brothers,” Hanulova said. “People who were persecutors during the war are at the same time victims, all crammed into one space.”

In daily meetings aimed at rebuilding relationships between the tribes, people are encouraged to share stories of their tribulations. “They see that they all went through the same things,” she said. “The idea is ‘everyone suffered, but we’re all Liberians and we have to live together.’” Getting people to contribute to the running and maintenance of the camp through volunteerism is another effective avenue of uniting differing groups toward a common goal, she said.

The second related job was conducting the Tribal Leader Forum. “The elders of the community, based on age and experience, meet to reconcile differences on a different level,” she said. Though at first they were skeptical and reluctant, “the more they met, the more they saw that the topics were relevant to the community. Soon they could talk like friends and discuss problems. For me, it was unique to work with them,” Hanulova said.

Because of the respect she felt for the elders, she was taken aback when they asked her for advice, she said. “Even though I’m only a student and I’m young, they seemed to look up to me and respect me because I came there to help them in their quest for a free and peaceful Liberia,” she said. “I tried to think carefully when I gave my opinion because I felt how greatly they valued and needed my help and advice.”

Bringing literacy
The work she enjoyed most was teaching basic reading and writing to a group of single mothers, which she did five days a week. The women, ages 40-62, “were so happy and so eager to learn. It was the most rewarding job I had,” she said. Even though it meant giving up time providing for their families, they came each day and progressed from not being able to form letters to writing sentences. “Some learned quickly, but for some, I actually had to take their hand to draw A, B, and so on,” said Hanulova. “The pace of the classroom was very slow.”

Part of their difficulty in learning, she discovered, came from the physical and psychic pain the women felt from what they had endured during the wars. “You could see the pain in their eyes,” Hanulova said. “The fear they had felt—one woman had seen her husband and four children killed in front of her—it becomes a physical pain. They were in sadness and shock.”

Joy amid despair
The culture and psychology of the camp is deep and complex, reported Hanulova. “My learning was every day, and it was life lessons,” she said. “The more I stayed, the more I understood, till at the end I was just getting to understand what refugee life is like.”

In their poverty and frustration, people do things they would not ordinarily do, she noted. “Prostitution, drugs and alcohol are huge problems in the camp,” she said. Crime, domestic violence, rape and child abuse are rampant, and young women who are orphans with “no food, no clothes, no place to live, often turn to prostitution or live with an older man. It’s a way of survival,” she said. Depression is also common. “In our country, if you have a little sadness, it’s treated like depression, but there, there’s no one to treat you or even talk to you. It’s a desperate situation.”

And yet, the refugees manage to maintain their sense of hope, she said. “It’s amazing. Their belief in God, that He is with them, is everywhere. You feel the purity of their belief.

“I never danced more than in church there. You’re there for three hours and you’re on your feet the whole time. They dance, they clap and sing—it’s beautiful.”

A proud people, Liberians love to get dressed up for church. Sunday nights are like festivals, with dancing in the streets and food booths. “People would spend money and maybe Monday there’s nothing to eat, but it’s important to them,” she said.

A calling in West Africa
Hanulova had previously worked for three months as an English teacher at a private school in Burkina Faso, and returned there while in Ghana to continue work on her goal of building a school in a poor village there. She has raised $10,000 from Rotary clubs in Toledo and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, toward its construction.

After graduating this May, she plans to enroll in graduate school in the U.S. and continue in international studies. She hopes to go back to Burkina Faso, and to Liberia itself, and to secure an internship or research position.

April 21, 2008