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Ivory Coast Refugees Give Thanks for Welcome

By Helen Blakesley

If your neighbor knocked on your door, asking to stay for a while, what would you do? Get out the spare bed and put the kettle on?

Pagasie Neamen with Michel Zinon.

After fleeing violence in Ivory Coast, Michel Zinon, right, and his family found refuge in the home of rice farmer Pagasie Neamen, left, of Liberia. Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS

Now imagine they're not really a neighbor. They're not even from your country, and they've brought their whole family along. How long would that welcoming smile of yours last?

Up in the leafy hills of northern Liberia, Catholic Relief Services is supporting families who have opened their doors to some of the hundreds of thousands of people pouring out of neighboring Ivory Coast. These refugees fled violence in their country following the disputed elections of November 2010.

The family of Pagasie Neamen, a rice and plantain farmer from New Yourpea, is one of those compassionate neighbors. Sitting outside his mud-daubed hut in the sunshine, he's chatting with the man he welcomed into his home, Michel Zinon.

One night in December 2010, Michel and his family heard gunshots getting closer to their village on the other side of the Ivorian border. Michel, his wife and their two children carried what they could and started the 2-day walk through the forests to refuge in Liberia.

"We were given a good welcome," says Michel. "We're well looked after here; we're at ease now. There are friends everywhere. Whatever I ask Pagasie for, he helps me. Thanks to him, I'm glad to be here."

Who Is My Neighbor?

Pagasie never questioned what to do. "I'm hosting these refugees because they're human like myself. After the war broke out in Ivory Coast, I couldn't let them just go into the bush and live there, so I brought them here, and I take care of them like I take care of myself."

In Pagasie's case—like many other Liberian families—he's repaying a debt of gratitude. Many Liberians sought refuge in Ivory Coast during the 14-year civil war, some spending several years there.

"I went to Ivory Coast in 1990 as a refugee," remembers Pagasie. "That's why the Zinon family is so dear to me. They took care of me, gave me food, did everything for me. The whole time I was there, no one beat me or did me any harm. So I thought, Let me do the same for them."

Jaqueline Vodjiro

A CRS-built shelter in northern Liberia houses Ivory Coast refugees Jaqueline Vodjiro and her 9-month-old daughter Assema. Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS

In nearby Old Yourpea, 24-year-old Jaqueline Vodjiro has just returned from collecting water. She has the metal container expertly balanced on her head as she readjusts the scarf tying 9-month-old Assema to her back.

Jaqueline's husband is still in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's economic capital. He went to visit friends there November a year ago, but then violence erupted and now he's stuck there. That left Jaqueline—8 months pregnant and with little Alexi and Arita too.

"I saw bodies, people the rebels had killed," she says. So she walked to Liberia heavily pregnant and with two small children.

Things haven't been easy for Jaqueline. Her boy, Alexi, fell ill; it's hard to find the things her baby needs; and she misses her husband. But at least her little family now has its own place to stay: a two-room shelter, walls of sticks and mud daub, with a zinc roof.

Their little home is one of the 1,000 shelters constructed through CRS' shelter project in eight communities in northern Liberia's Nimba County. With the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, CRS helped the refugees and their host families erect the shelters, which have housed an estimated 5,000 people.

Marvin Paye is the village chief of Old Yourpea, the place that's housing the largest number of refugees in the county. He remembers how crowded the village was when they first arrived. "We're thankful to CRS," he says. "When the refugees came out of exile from the bush, it wasn't easy. There were so many of them. But the shelters are here now, and things are improving. Life in Old Yourpea is better. We're seeing many changes."

Reaping What You Sow

Finding enough food for everyone is one of the greatest challenges to communities' generosity. Nevertheless, hosts share what they have with their guests, and many have even given small portions of their land so that the refugees can do their own farming.

CRS has also stepped in with the FRESH Farms project to strengthen the communities' ability to produce food. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and in partnership with Caritas, the program helps refugee families and host communities prepare land to grow rice.

Thiero

CRS' FRESH Farms project helped cocoa farmer and Ivory Coast refugee Thiero Nioulejean, center, plant fields in Liberia so he could feed his family of eight. He sits outside his CRS-built shelter with his wife, mother, and two of his five children. Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS

CRS' signature seed vouchers and fairs provided seeds, tools and fertilizer to 28 host communities along the border. And part of the program is the rehabilitation of swampland—a way of gaining more planting space while providing families with money through a cash-for-work system. On average, a family in northern Liberia makes $36, meaning 51 extra days of food for a family of six. CRS has also organized classes to teach alternative farming methods to help increase the food supply.

Thiero Nioulejean is feeling the benefits of the project. A cocoa grower back in Ivory Coast, he spent a month living in the bush with his wife, Rose, their five children and his elderly mother after they fled their country.

"We thanked God when we arrived [in Liberia]," says Thiero, "though there wasn't much to eat. Then, one day, we were given what we needed for planting. It's thanks to CRS that we were able to sow the fields. The work we did on the swampland earned us some money for the family pot."

Aly Kanouté, CRS' livelihoods program manager in Nimba County, oversees the farming project. He's impressed by the teamwork he's witnessed. "I've been really quite surprised by the cohesion I've seen between these two communities that are separated by the border. During my assessment visits, it's even been hard to work out who is a refugee and who is a host in the villages! The bond is so strong."

A Long Road Home

Despite an August 2011 agreement among Liberia, Ivory Coast and the United Nations to help repatriate the refugees, most are still too afraid to go home. Supporters of former President Laurent Gbabgo fear reprisals from rebels loyal to current President Alasanne Ouattara. Others just feel that the general situation is not yet safe.

Leonce Puiti

"We're scared, so we're staying put," says 20-year-old Léonce Puiti, center, with her husband and their children in Liberia. The family lost two daughters and Léonce's mother to violence in Ivory Coast. Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS

"We don't know whether the 'war' is over yet; we don't know if they're still killing people," says Léonce Puiti, a 20-year-old Ivorian who lost her mother and two of her daughters in the postelection violence. "We're scared, so we're staying put."

With no clear end in sight for the crisis in Ivory Coast, the day-to-day situation in Liberia is already problematic. For Kanouté and the team at CRS, the need was already there and it's a need that's ongoing.

"There are many more development problems than the ones created by the Ivory Coast situation," says Kanouté. "For me, the crisis has served as a warning to alert people that there are serious structural problems and food security problems in Liberia. What's needed is a long-term answer to help the Liberian people, even outside of the support given for the Ivorian crisis."

Helen Blakesley is CRS' regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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