International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Helping Ivorian refugees in Liberia feel at home

I watched from Liberia as the situation in Ivory Coast worsened following the presidential elections held last November.  The incumbent candidate, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to cede power to the recognized winner, Alassane Ouattara.  Violence sparked by the standoff forced more than 100,000 Ivorians to flee to neighboring Liberia, a nation still recovering from its own long-running civil war.  Though Gbagbo has been captured and Ouattara now controls the nation, Ivorians remain fearful that the violence — including sexual violence, looting and threats of reprisal — will continue.

Recently I visited Zorgowee, a town in Liberia’s Nimba County where the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is providing emergency aid to the refugees.  There I met Kou Wonbah, a Liberian mother of three who told me she feels a particular connection to these uprooted Ivorians.

Kou was once a refugee herself. Like many other Liberians, Kou found safety in then-stable Ivory Coast during the Liberian conflict. For six years, she lived in an Ivorian family’s home. Now, she shares her own crowded house and overstretched food supplies with four Ivorian refugees. 

“The same thing that has happened to these people happened to us,” Kou explained. “They welcomed us, so we must welcome them too.”

Demonstrating a generosity that challenges the images of war and trauma often associated with West Africa, Kou and her neighbors have found a way to share their limited resources with their Ivorian guests.  They have also offered the refugees one thing they have in unlimited supply — their friendship.

“We need to help them forget the war they saw and violence they faced and make them happy,” Kou said. “It is safe here, and we must provide them with a safe place to live.”

Though the two communities share a history of violent conflict, they also share an openness and compassion that astounded me.

Karwee with some of her own children and their new Liberian friends.
Karwee and 13 family members who fled the chaos in
Ivory Coast are living with a Liberian family in their home.
(Photo: Rebecca Balis/IRC)

Karwee and 13 members of her family, including her five children, have been living with a local family since they arrived from Ivory Coast a few weeks ago.  Speaking with a serenity that belied her traumatic experiences, Karwee told me about the violence and harassment she had faced in her own town.  She recalled how she and her relatives hid in their homes in fear as chaos swept through the streets.  Finally they fled into the forest and made their way across the border into Liberia. 

Karwee told me that she feels at home here.  

“There are many of us — children are everywhere — but it works. There is no palava,” Karwee said, using the local term for conflict. “The Liberians have given us food and, little by little, we are working together and are able to give them something too.”

Karwee’s children attend French-speaking primary school classes at Zorgowee School and already have Liberian friends.  “Our children play together — they teach each other French and English and speak Yakuba (the local dialect) together,” Karwee said.

The IRC helped Zorgowee and other towns near the border set aside classrooms and community spaces where Ivorian refugee children could continue their education. We also recruited teachers from the refugee community.

While the children are in school, some of the adults join their Liberian hosts at work on their farms and in their rice fields.  Others earn money by braiding hair or selling “GB” (a local specialty made from pounded cassava) in the market so that they can begin reestablishing their lives. 

“We want the refugees to be able to stay with us — we want to work together, play together, get water together from the same pump,” one of the Liberian teachers at Zorgowee School, Caroline Sewah, told me.

Local families in Zorgowee have no hesitation about sharing with the refugee families.  But like many Liberians, they are still struggling to recover from years of war and poverty. That is why the IRC is committed to continuing our work supporting Liberian communities while we provide emergency services for the refugees.

In Zorgowee and other towns that are hosting refugees, we are also organizing soccer matches and other gatherings so that neighbors and newcomers can get to know each other better. During my visit I saw how these seemingly simple activities can accomplish more than just strengthening new friendships.  The sense of community that is being created along the border will hopefully allow Ivorians and Liberians to attain two precious things that eluded them at different points in their shared history:  safety and peace.

Rebecca Balis is a Princeton in Africa Fellow working with the International Rescue Committee in Voinjama, Liberia.  In her work as a grants intern, Becca supports IRC programs in Liberia, including our response to the Ivorian refugee crisis.

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