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Rebuilding Liberia | The R.I. Connection: Supporting Family from Afar

Gallery: Rebuilding Liberia: The R.I. Connection, Part 3
Courtesy: Providence Journal
Philip Marcelo/The Providence Journal
Rhode Island resident Rachel Bloe’s nephews Teddy Keller, 18, right, and Paul Keller, 15, center, with their guardian Albert Decardo and his 3-year-old son, Nacarter, outside the shop Decardo and his wife own in Monrovia. The boys worked in the shop this summer while off from boarding school.
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pmarcelo@providencejournal.com On twitter: @philmarcelo

Part three of a four-part series

Philip Marcelo

About this series: Journal staff writer Philip Marcelo spent two weeks in Liberia in August to report on Liberia’s progress 10 years after the end of a devastating civil war. The project, called “Rebuilding Liberia: The R.I. Connection,” was funded by a reporting fellowship from the International Center for Journalists, in Washington, D.C.
MONROVIA, Liberia — For almost three years, Rachel Bloe had been sending money to support her late brother’s young sons in Liberia before she finally met them in person.

Then in 2006, the Rhode Island resident arrived — unannounced — at the Monrovia home where the three boys were living. She was shocked by what she saw.

“They were so dusty. They didn’t even have slippers. They were barefoot. Wandering the streets,” Bloe recalls of that trip, her first to Liberia since leaving 16 years earlier. “I just wanted to grab them and take them far, far away.”

Bloe made an offer. She asked the aunt who had been caring for the boys for permission to take them to a rural orphanage she knew.

She hoped more structured days and a change of scenery would help. The aunt did not protest. Bloe took the boys to the orphanage that day.

For the next seven years, Bloe and her husband, Trobel, who live in North Providence, provided for their basic needs. They paid for boarding school and found new guardians for them when school closed for the summer.

On their return visits, the Bloes talked to the boys — now 18, 15 and 13 years old — about their future in a country slowing recovering from 14 years of civil war.

“I just wanted what was best for them. A place where the child came first,” Bloe says. “They really didn’t get that attention, you know? Nobody sat with them and got them to talk and listen to them. So I did that.”

Supporting family back home is a common story in Rhode Island’s Liberian community.

More than 80 percent of Liberians in the state send money, according to a 2011 study by Rhode Island College professor P. Khalil Saucier. Some said the remittances were the only source of income their families and friends in Liberia had.

Overseas support is also critical to the Liberian economy.

Remittances totaled $360 million in 2011, roughly equivalent to 31 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. The single largest source — $161 million — came from Liberians in the United States.

“Everybody supports people back home,” Winston Gould, head of the Liberian Community Association of Rhode Island, said recently. “Our country is a country where if I have enough, I can share with you.”

Gould, a Providence resident, left Liberia in 1985 after being beaten and forced out of his job in the country’s immigration division over a dispute with a military leader.

Leaving a young family, he eventually settled in Rhode Island and its growing community of Liberian refugees.

But Gould continued to send money back for his three children, who lived with their mother outside Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.

Now re-married, Gould says he still supports them, even though they are adults. The financial dependency, he says, has its drawbacks.

“Because of how things are in that country, most people just relax and rely on people in America to take care of them,” Gould says. “But look, if someone calls you from Africa and tells you they don’t have food to eat, what are you going to do? There’s no way you’re not going to send money.”

Rev. Matthew Kaipastor of the Westside Tabernacle Baptist Church, in Providence, has a similar story.

He and his wife, Antoinette, support their grown son, Matthew Kai Jr., who was born in Liberia and deported after being arrested and charged with robbery in Rhode Island in 1997.

Kai says his son had trouble adjusting to life in America.

“He chose to break my heart by living the American ghetto subculture,” says Kai. “I’m still struggling with that. I could see it coming and I could not avoid it. He just wouldn’t listen.”

Kai believes Liberia has been better for his son, despite the circumstances.

“He would have ended up dead or killed someone,” Kai said. “Now he’s Mr. American living in Africa.”

Bloe says it has not been easy providing for her nephews. Their living expenses run at least $12,000 a year.

“It’s challenging financially,” she says. “But the way I look at it, we’ve come so far from where we were. It’s important to give back.”

The Bloes came to the United States in 1990 on travelers’ visas. But they never made it back to Liberia because the Liberian president was deposed that year in a bloody coup.

Trobel, who had worked in the Liberian government, was eventually granted political asylum.

“They were searching for him,” Rachel Bloe says of the rebels. “When they want you gone, they want your whole family eradicated. Everybody.”

Teddy Keller, the oldest of the nephews Bloe supports in Liberia, says the day “Auntie Rachel” paid that surprise visit in 2006 changed his life.

“I was crying, rejoicing. I was happy,” Teddy, now 18, said on a recent morning in a snack shop in Monrovia owned by his current guardians. “I didn’t want to be on the streets with nowhere to go.”

In the first few years after their parents died, Teddy says the three boys were mostly on their own because their aunt worked long hours.

During the day, the boys, who were 8, 5 and 3 years old when their parents died, wandered the neighborhood. Most days they did not go to school.

“Sometimes we’d go to the marketplace and stay there,” Teddy says. “We’d sleep under the market tables.”

He says the boys never learned what happened to their parents, who succumbed to illness within months of each other in 2003, as Liberia’s civil war reached its climax in the streets of Sinkor, their Monrovia neighborhood.

Teddy only recalls the day a neighbor came to them after school to say they could not return home.

“I was so, so small,” he said. “The lady said our parents were dead. She said nobody was at home to take care of us. So she would help take care of us.”

Bloe spent nearly a month in Liberia during her first trip back in 2006.

She checked in often with the boys at Mother Blessing Orphanage, outside Monrovia. By the time Bloe left, she felt like they were settling in.

But to give the boys a chance at a better education, the Bloes eventually enrolled them at Bethesda Christian Mission, a boarding school outside Monrovia.

Teddy and Paul say they enjoy the school, where they are entering their fourth year.

Teddy has taken an interest in soccer and agriculture. Paul says he’s interested in basketball and Bible study and hopes to one day become a minister.

Bloe says it has taken effort to get the boys to this point.

Like many young Liberians who grew up during the war, they lost years of education as schools closed and families were scattered. Teddy, 18, is in 10th grade. Paul, 15, is in seventh grade. Attila, 13, is in sixth grade.

“It’s challenging. They are way, way behind in their grade levels,” Bloe says. “But they’re learning. They’re doing well. For where the country is at this point, they are in a good place.”

The boys spent this summer living with a couple the Bloes know, before returning to boarding school.

The temporary living quarters were tight: the boys slept on mattresses at the foot of the couple’s bed, which was in a one-room rental.

Bloe says the boys have come a long way from that first meeting in 2006. “As time goes by, the trauma of the war diminishes,” she says. “Like it does for all of us, I suppose.”

But with few job opportunities in the country, Bloe knows the boys face an uncertain future. “My heart goes out to the young people of Liberia,” she says. “Where do they go from here?”

She has encouraged them to develop practical life skills, such as farming or auto repair. Their late father, Bloe reminds them, was a chief mechanic at the local airfield.

“We spend a lot of time just talking about what they want to do in life,” she said. “They have big hearts. I can’t limit them.”

About this series: Journal staff writer Philip Marcelo spent two weeks in Liberia in August to report on Liberia’s progress 10 years after the end of a devastating civil war. The project, called “Rebuilding Liberia: The R.I. Connection,” was funded by a reporting fellowship from the International Center for Journalists, in Washington, D.C.

Marcelo, 30, has been a reporter at The Journal since 2006 and covers politics and government for The Journal’s State House bureau. He graduated from Georgetown University and earned a master’s degree from Brown University.

Sunday: A decade of peace

Monday: Rebuilding a nation

Tuesday: Families and remittances

Wednesday: Returning home


How to help

Liberia Concern Women Development Association

Somalia Drive, Paynesville (adjacent the Good Will Clinic), Monrovia, Liberia

Contact: Esther L. Dahn, founder

Phone, from the U.S.: 011-231-88457520 or 011-231-886466129

Email: concernwomendevelopment@yahoo.com


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