Serving disadvantaged communities in West Africa by empowering local leaders who have a positive humanitarian vision for their community.
This blog maps the evolution of the organization's vision through the thoughts, experiences, and collaborative projects of our team. Visit GroundUpGlobal.org for more information and how you can help!
“It takes a lot of people doing little things to make change happen.” - Dr. Alfred Curtis
Staten Island, New York hosts the largest population of Liberians in the US, and SILCA is the primary governing body for this community. Last night GroundUp Global had the privilege of attending the Inaugural Ball for the newly elected Staten Island Liberian Community Association (SILCA) leadership. The community celebrated and honored their first woman president, Mrs. Oretha Bestman-Yates, with speeches, dinner, and dancing.
SILCA President Oretha Bestman-Yates
Bestman invited Camilla Hermann, GroundUp Global’s executive director, to speak on behalf of the Liberian refugees on the Buduburam camp in Ghana. Hermann asked for the support of the Staten Island community in raising funds necessary to transport the unregistered refugees back to Liberia.
“The unregistered Liberian refugees need the help of their friends, family, and compatriots to return home. Each day the struggle for survival grows harder - as President Bestman said so eloquently, unity is fundamental to progress. Without your help, this amazing opportunity of homecoming for the Liberians in Ghana would be impossible. It is only through many people contributing their small portion that we will succeed in transporting the Liberian refugees home. And when we succeed, we will have accomplished something no other community has been able to do.”
The Liberian Market Women performing a dance and song
In her inaugural address, Bestman said, “To approach the community, you have to love that community.” She added, “I am ready to serve you. My doors are open to you.” Having worked previously as the Vice President of SILCA, Bestman is in the unique position of being able to build on and expand her past accomplishments within the community. For example, the hall in which the Inaugural Ball was held, in addition to the new administrative offices, are all credits to Bestman and her team. At GroundUp Global, we look forward to deepening our partnership with SILCA. There is serious work to be done, and together we can accomplish more than any one of us can do alone.
GroundUp executive director Camilla Hermann is living and working on the Buduburam refugee camp from November 14, 2012 - December 18, 2012.
By 8am, when we begin our walk to the SCHEFO Office, the sun is already aggressively hot. Each footfall kicks up fine brown dust that settles on one’s skin, clinging to a mix of perspiration and sunblock. The calls of “Obruni!” ring out as I pass, a way of welcoming foreigners, often followed by the question “how are you?” to which one always responds, “I am fine.” Our walk to the office takes twice as long because Keith stops every few feet to greet members of the community and exchange news. He knows and cares for everyone here, a fact which always becomes apparent when we move through the camp.
In many ways, “Liberia Camp” is a world unto itself, formed in a moment of great tumult and anguish as thousands fled the brutal war in Liberia. Those who live here know every narrow passageway between the earth-block houses and live within the network of their closely-tied community.
As we arrive at the office, three young women are already seated outside waiting for us. Mr. Chea produces a key and opens the door while Ephraim and Keith tote our fan and extension cable inside. There is one plastic table, one wooden desk, and two long, low wooden benches that run along either wall. The SCHEFO team welcomes the young women inside and sets up their laptops in order to take down the womens’ information. They are here because they do not have UN-issued ID cards, and so cannot benefit from the limited repatriation packages offered by the UNHCR.
GroundUp Global has been working with The SCHEF Organization to provide safe repatriation and holisitic reintegration for the Liberians who remain on Buduburam, but wish to return home to Liberia. This is a monumental task, as anyone on the team will tell you. But that is precisely why we are a team. No one person, nor organiaztion could do this alone (The UN, arguably the largest organization in the world, has not been able to account for all the refugees who came in as a result of the Liberian civil wars, though they have done their best.) Ultimately it takes a dedicated collaborative effort, first and foremost from the refugees themselves, and then from nonprofits on the ground (SCHEFO) international nonprofits (GroundUp Global) the Ghanaian Government, the Liberian Government, and the United Nations.
A few weeks ago I sat down with the Liberian Ambassador to Ghana and his Consul General to discuss the necessary steps in facilitating repatriation of former refugees across international borders. It soon became apparent that we shared a vision for how this work should be accomplished, and with the Ambassador’s blessing, the Consul General generously offered her time and support to the cause. Two days later Keith, Mr. Jallah, Ephraim, and I were sitting in a hotel restaurant sharing plantain chips with five other Liberian women the Consul had engaged to be part of a planning committee for a fundraising event to benefit the repatriating refugees.
The date was set for December 15th, and our work began in earnest.
We are thrilled about this amazing opportunity to both showcase the talents of those living on Buduburam and to engage with the Liberian diaspora in helping to repatriate the unregistered refugees who do not have the means to return on their own.
Much more to come!
That is the amount of money Liberians living in the United States send annually to family in Liberia. These remittances account for over 6.2% of Liberia’s GDP.
The significance of the diaspora’s economic contributions begs an important question: if these skilled, educated men and women were permitted citizenship in both Liberia and the US, would they be able to have a greater impact on the reconstruction and economic development of their country?
The majority of the diaspora population in the US immigrated as a result of the Liberian Civil Wars, which ravaged the country and destroyed its infrastructure. Many applied for US citizenship in order to benefit from scholarships and find employment that could support their families back home. Because Liberia does not allow dual citizenship, however, the diaspora is now unable to fully participate in the reconstruction and development of the country.
The concept of a diaspora is at the heart of GroundUp Global’s work with Liberian refugees in Ghana. Our fundraising strategy empowers the Liberian diaspora to invest in the future of their country by helping over 2,000 refugees return home.
The push for dual citizenship is gaining momentum in the diaspora community, but has its detractors as well.
I am very worried about this generally and feel strongly that dual citizenship would further entrench this diaspora divide and the inequality and social hierarchies it creates, reinforces, and sustains.
- John Sheehy, Grow2Feed Project
The issue is admittedly complex, and as a result there has been more talk than action surrounding dual citizenship in Liberia. The Liberian Symposium, organized by Ambassador Sulunteh and Press Minister Gabriel Williams, sought to galvanize these conversations into the beginnings of policy. Ambassador Sulunteh assured the Symposium that a full report of the speeches, discussions, and opinions expressed that day would be submitted to the Liberian government.
Major takeaways from the conference include:
• Many Liberians living in the US applied for citizenship in order to take advantage of the scholarships and job opportunities they knew would allow them to help their families back home. Doing so, however, meant they lost their Liberian citizenship.
• The Diaspora is Liberia’s middle class: an critical argument for their inclusion into the country’s decision-making process.
• Capital flight is an issue raised by both sides of the dual citizenship debate. Interestingly, recorded capital flight in Liberia actually reversed between 1999-2010 and, according to Tax Justice Network research, is now reversed to -2.2bn. Flight stock, however, was estimated at a considerable $5.5bn in 2010.
The former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Madame Olubanke King-Akerele, encouraged the creation of a private sector program that would allow members of the diaspora to invest in enterprise and entrepreneurship in their home country. She told the group “You have to be on the ground. You cannot sit in America and say ‘we are waiting for the government of Liberia.’ … Our economy for all practical purposes is in the hands of foreigners…We have to act. We cannot wait.”
Many panelists echoed this sentiment. Dr. Sakui Malakpa gave a beautiful speech whose refrain, “there’s no place like home,” became a mantra of the Symposium. Malakpa spoke of lasting trauma created by the Liberian civil wars saying, “the hurt cannot continue endlessly” and encouraging Liberians to focus on unity as a means of healing.
A long line formed behind the microphone as the Q&A portion of the first panel began. GroundUp Global Executive Director, Camilla Hermann spoke on behalf of the Liberian refugees on Buduburam, asking the panel what they thought the role of the diaspora should be in helping the displaced Liberians return home.
Many others told personal stories in support of dual citizenship. GroundUp Global asked our twitter followers to weigh in on the subject:
We need to proceed with caution, weigh the pros and cons, and reform the constitution.
- Saran Kaba Jones, FACE Africa
The vast majority of Liberians had no means to make it to the US [during the Liberian civil wars] and so they were stuck here and suffered through the conflict. There is a fair amount of resentment around that within the society, particularly as the new government has many of its more prominent leaders and ministers coming from exiles and the diaspora. There is a sentiment of, ‘where were you when we were barely surviving?’
- John Sheehy, Grow2Feed Project
I personally support dual citizenship but as a former student leader who has advocated for equitable distribution of our resources and realizing how most of our well-to-do have everything outside Liberia, I think we must proceed with extreme caution. We don’t want to give citizenship to folks who have no heart in Liberia. Capital flight, and the using of our country’s resources to acquire homes in other countries could stagnate our growth. There is a reason fo anti-diasporan sentiments. I personally think that our constitution is discriminatory. The entire constitution needs reform.
- Sheikh Kafumba Dukuly II, former student leader at the University of Liberia @sheikhkdukuly2
I think the anti-diaspora sentiments come from anger. We have it better. [We] had a chance to leave the suffering. Other’s didn’t. That’s why people are so mistrusting.
The Staten Island Liberian Community Association (SILCA) hosted a celebratory banquet in honor of the 165th anniversary of Liberian independence.
Vamba S. Fofana, Chairman of SILCA, addressing the banquet
(from left to right) Mrs. Sulunteh, Ambassador Sulunteh, SILCA President Teele Brown
The celebration continued on Sunday with a Ministerial Alliance Intercessory Service, where our Executive Director spoke to the congregation about the challenges faced by the remaining 2,000 refugees on Buduburam. Many people from the community passed through Buduburam before coming to the US, and some still have family members there.
Executive Director Camilla Hermann speaking at the Intercessory Service
all photos by Oliver Hermann
Liberian Refugee Mama Davies shares her story on the Reclaiming Rights crowdmap
For the past two years, our team has been in the same geographic location and so meetings, tasks, and projects were all done locally, face to face.
Recently, we graduated. This means a few things: as an all-volunteer organization, we no longer have to divide our time between academics, work, community, and GroundUp Global. It also means we are currently living and working in different states.
Luckily, we are a part of the technology generation.
Along with the tech revolution, the concept of sustainability has become popular in development. Yet in a perpetually uncertain world where climate change, political revolution, and economic collapse are a serious reality, we see adaptability as a far more advantageous goal. The reasoning behind the sustainability trend is that by creating projects that regenerate rather than deplete resources (be this donor dollars or fossil fuels) long-term solutions to major problems, like hunger, poverty, and illiteracy can be managed more effectively.
If a project or organization cannot adapt to changing circumstances, however, what hope does it have of being sustainable?
In our work with Liberian refugees, sustainability also seemed secondary. Refugee circumstances are especially difficult because, while people do need sustained education, food, and health programs, their status as refugees or displaced persons is not sustainable, nor should it be. In this case, the only sustainable solution is the uncertainty of relocating to Liberia.
Placing the strategy of adaptability at our core means that instead of despairing at the team’s dispersal, we saw it as an opportunity to increase transparency. Our weekly staff meetings, once conducted in a conference room, are now held via google hangout, open to everyone, and broadcast live. They are also recorded to our youtube channel so that supporters, volunteers, interns, and even staff who could not make it to the live meeting have an opportunity to participate when it is convenient for them.
Using google hangout is not without its difficulties, but the ultimate outcomes of increased transparency and more complete information for our volunteers & supporters, make the small struggles worthwhile.
International Rescue Committee report on Domestic Violence in West Africa
One of the daily challenges we face at SCHEFO is sustaining communication between our Buduburam and New York Offices. The frequent electricity outages, low-bandwidth internet, and unreliable cell phone service all contribute to regular headaches for both teams running fundraising campaigns and projects respectively. This is why we are so excited for two new technological innovations that will help improve our communication and our interactions with the world at large.
This week, Skype released a new, low-bandwidth version of its uber-popular video chatting freeware. The program, Bespoke, will be used specifically by the UNHCR to improve communications at refugee sites. When our New York Director, Camilla Hermann, is on Buduburam in January, she will meet with the head of the UNHCR branch on Buduburam to get SCHEFO set up with Bespoke capabilities. We expect this exciting improvement will have a huge positive impact on our communication between the two sites.
The second, and arguably more profound technological advancement comes from Ushahidi. An innovator whose peer, FrontlineSMS, is also doing amazing work. Ushahidi is a crowdmapping platform extremely useful in the event of violence outbreak or natural disaster in the developing world. In a recent blog post, the author describes lessons learned in their Liberia operations. A thorough and useful examination of what the organization has done well, and where it can improve, the post emphasizes a need for multiple approaches to data collection and implementation.
Ushahidi, although working in markedly different areas than The SCHEF Organization, has discovered what we too encounter regularly: a lack of education and adequate technology makes a difficult job all the more challenging. We applaud Ushahidi for readily acknowledging that their platform is not necessarily the best for all circumstances or groups. This is where FrontlineSMS comes in. Where Ushahidi requires organizations upload spreadsheets of data, FrontlineSMS uses text messages to plot the development of conflict and disaster.
Both Organizations are doing critical work in improving communication in the developing world. We hope that adopting these new methods of tracking conflict will help prevent repetition of the same heinous wars that sent the Liberian refugees to Buduburam nearly twenty years ago. In the present, however, The SCHEF Organization is working hard to provide for the most vulnerable members of this community and encourage repatriation.
Liberia belongs to all Liberians, not just a fraction of the population. It takes Liberians to build Liberia.
When we saw the recent New York Times article spotlighting Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and her efforts as the first woman on the African continent to govern a nation, we were excited for obvious reasons. Although The SCHEF Organization is active on the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana, our mission to aid the Liberian Refugees will likely take our base to Liberia when the camp eventually closes in the coming years.
Our Organization Director, Keith Kortu, responds to the article as a Liberian and as a refugee who has been unable to return to his home for the past two decades.
“I acknowledge President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s great achievement over the past years of duty, arguably the greatest example of which has been the cancellation of all foreign debts. I do strongly believe that good governance is the path way to lasting peace and development in Liberia. This also means that in order to reduce the 85% unemployment rate, a result of the debilitated economy, President Sirleaf should create a political environment that will attract potential foreign and local investments.
Women constitute a greater percentage of the Liberian population than men and by this fact alone it is vital that more Liberian women be allowed to play decision making roles in the government and private sectors. This inclusion is only achievable when more women and youth benefit from educational and economic empowerment. The issue now is that there are too few qualified female candidates to for President Ellen Johnson to appoint. It is vital that women and especially young girls, who are the potential future leaders of our country, be made free from all forms of subjugation and discrimination, and enjoy a gender balanced government.
It is my hope that President Sirleaf’s government find a more holistic means of improving the circumstances and security of Liberians who have existed almost all of their lives as refugees in other West African countries, and who want to return home. Liberia belongs to all Liberians, not just a fraction of the population. It takes Liberians to build Liberia.”
SCHEFO’s intern Carolyn reflects on her experience in the camp.
When I first applied for the internship position with SCHEFO at the Buduburam Refugee Camp, I really had no idea what to expect. I had googled some pictures of the camp and had images swirling around in my head from Blood Diamond, but those images were the extent of my conceptualization of what the camp might look like. In reality, Buduburam camp is a twenty-year-old town of 40,000 residents with its own ramshackle market, restaurants, bars, internet cafes, hair salons, schools, vocational training centers, and religious institutions.
Given all that, Buduburam seems to be, at least socially, a thriving community of refugees. But, Buduburam is stuck incomplete economic stagnation. There are no job positions on camp (most of the restaurants and salons are in a constant state of dilapidation. They were started by the few individuals who managed to get access to micro-finance loans.) and the refugees find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to get jobs outside the camp due to travel expenses and the nationalistic discrimination of Ghanaian employers. Several different people at the camp have told me, “Why should they give us jobs when there are Ghanaians who are poor and unemployed too?”
And so the entire economic infrastructure of Buduburam exists in a kind of Twilight Zone with buildings crumbling, electricity failing for weeks at a time, and other struggles. DVD stores with twinkling lights (when there is electricity on the camp,) clothing stores with the doors thrown open, and innumerable food vendors sat by the sides of the camp’s dusty roads are all waiting for customers who don’t exist because the incredibly high unemployment rate on the camp starves the people of cash. Fees are needed to purchase water, send your children to school, receive health care, and even use the public restrooms.
One of the most difficult aspects of camp life to cope with psychologically is the complete absence of opportunity for self-advancement. When there are no jobs to be had, there is no money to be had, and without money there is no higher education and no moving off the camp. Every day is a practice in waiting, and trying, and hoping.