International Ministries

United Methodist Women: "An Oasis in the Desert"

For Liberian Refugees, Scholarships Are a Way out of Poverty

United Methodist Women:
Scholarship recipients at the Buduburam refugee camp pose for a photo with Donna Akuamoah during her visit in 2013.

What happens when a refugee camp closes down? To many of us who have never lived as refugees, the journey of a refugee seems simple enough — you flee from your country to a different country during war, and when the war ends, you return to your country. However, the reality is a lifetime heartbreak and anguish — more than we can ever imagine. In 2013, working with the international ministries of United Methodist Women, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, which currently houses nearly 6,000 Liberian refugees. I was honored to meet a General Board of Global Ministries pastor who has helped four male students and two female students in the camp receive college scholarships from United Methodist Women.

Pastor Kaifunbah is a tall, soft-spoken man with eyes full of kindness and a hint of sadness. The pastor invited me to the United Methodist Church in the camp and gave me the opportunity to meet separately with children, youth and women of the church to hear and document their concerns. What I learned is that in June 2012 the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) ceased to recognize the majority of people living in the camp as refugees. For those without family in Liberia and with no social support in Ghana, the lingering question is, “How will I survive in the long term?” I am from Ghana, and even my family and friends who were born there still find it hard to survive and afford the basic necessities — how will a refugee manage, who doesn’t have much support? Conditions in the camp were heartbreaking: Water is bought for a price at the community borehole and therefore used scantily, children and youth are no longer attending school, families find it hard to put meals on the table, medical care is a luxury even in necessary situations.
 
In the story below, Pastor Kaifunbah helps us understand what it means to be a refugee living on the Buduburam camp, the options — or lack of thereof — for the future, and the difference United Methodist Women support is making.

There is not such things as a war — not even a so-called just war — that doesn’t have far-reaching effects on people and the social structures that sustain them. This is one lesson that all peoples can draw from the brutal Liberian civil war — and hopefully avoid the path to conflict.
 
The Liberian war, fought from 1989 to 2003, killed over 25,000 people, wounded thousand others physically and psychologically, and displaced thousands more to other countries, mainly in the West African sub-region. Some 64,000 displaced Liberians became refugees in Ghana. The bulk of these refugees took residence at the Liberian refugee camp at Buduburam in the Central Region.
 
By 2012 the number of refugees had fallen to 11,295 as a result of resettlement to western countries, voluntary repatriation and movement to other refugee camps in the sub-region. When the cessation clause was invoked on Liberian refugee status on June 30, 2012, around 2,173 persons opted for exemption from cessation, some 4,000 chose local integration, and the rest opted for repatriation.  

Choosing to Stay

This means that over 6,000 Liberians who sought refuge in Ghana as a result of the civil war in their country will continue to live in Ghana, either as refugees or as foreign residents. Lingering fear is the main reason these Liberian refugees are delaying the return to their country.
 
Interestingly, a good number of those who opted for continued refugee status or local integration are young people who have finished or are completing high school. Their greatest need is to move on to post-secondary education, which will offer them sustainable employment and ultimately enable them overcome poverty, sickness, hunger and homelessness. Unfortunately, neither the UNHCR nor the Ghanaian government is ready to offer scholarships or financial assistance to help these youths get a vocational or university education and become a valuable member of their community.
 
Refugees who opted for local integration are being given a one-time cash grant of $400 per family head and $200 per dependent, plus health insurance coverage, residence and work permits, together with a Liberian passport. However, the refugees know that the high cost of living will soon exhaust these cash grants. They are anxious about the cost of renewing their health insurance coverage, and are worried because the insurance does not cover certain drugs and conditions. They also know that a work permit does not guarantee a job, since they often lack employable skills. Thus, the integration package does not seem to go very far in addressing the lack of educational opportunities as well as the homelessness, hunger and sickness that these refugees face daily.  
 
It may seem that the best option for these refugees would be to return to their country. But the prolonged presence of peace-keepers in Liberia means the current peace in the country is fragile, and that the departure of the peace-keepers could mark a return to a state of war in the country. Without having experienced the traumatic events that these refugees endured during the civil war — such as wives being raped in front their husbands, mothers made to sleep with their sons, or loved ones mutilated to death before family members — it may be hard to understand why so many Liberian refugees opt to remain in Ghana, which has hosted them since 1990.

The Need for Education

But the lack of educational opportunities for these refugees is a need that cannot be ignored. The destitute refugee parents of these young people cannot provide for their children’s university education, and the cycle of poverty, sickness and homelessness will continue. How can a refugee father who cannot afford to give his family three square meals a day be expected to give a child a university education at the cost of $4,000 or more per year? And without an education and job prospects, these youths could turn to prostitution, gambling, drug dealing and other illegal practices to make ends meet.
 
The hope is that United Methodist Women recognizes the importance of maintaining its present scholarship program among Liberian refugee youth in Ghana. There is also a need to expand the program, so that more young people can become beneficiaries. Given the extended family bond in Africa, when you give one Liberian refugee youth a college education, you pull a whole generation from the shackles of poverty. The donor community and policy makers must recognize the education of African youth as an effective poverty reduction strategy in African countries both on a long-term and short-term basis.
 
I recently spoke with recipient of a United Methodist Women scholarship of how blessed she was, given her background as a refugee youth. She broke down in tears and remarked, “Pastor, for me the United Methodist Women is an oasis in a desert. Without this group, my dream of becoming a human resource manager would have suffocated to death. Thank God for the United Methodist Women.”
 
In the end, I could find no better way to describe the story of these refugees than with the girls’ words:  “United Methodist Women: An Oasis in the Desert.” I pray that this “oasis” will always contain water to quench the thirst for education of the many Liberian refugees in Ghana.

Posted or updated: 6/26/2014 11:00:00 PM
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