By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch
Lucy looks frail, but sweet. A single tear wells up as the Liberian refugee and Buduburam resident speaks. “My children got missing from me,” she says. “I went to Sierra Leone and Guinea trying to find them, but I could not locate them. And luckily I came and found them here.”
When we hear the words “refugee,” and “Liberian civil war” certain images come to mind. But, at what point do refugees stop being refugees in our eyes? People have been living in Buduburam for decades, and now the refugee settlement is in a period of flux. A number of players and forces will determine what happens next: the Ghanaian government and the UNHCR, as well as stability and conditions for returnees in Liberia.
Lucy volunteers with a local peace-building organization called Population Caring Organization, so she keeps busy. But her heart is heavy. Her children were deported from Ghana two years ago. “Because of the protests that took place here,” she explains, “a lot of people left unprepared, and my children happened to be among those. So, I’m only alone here.”
In 2008, hundreds of refugees from Buduburam gathered on the settlement soccer field for five weeks. Lucy says they were protesting living conditions and appealing for more help from the UNHCR for education, health care, and sanitation. Media reports specifically say the women wanted better repatriation support because the package provided was insufficient. According to Lucy’s count, 686 women were arrested by the Ghanaian police and kept in detention for 15 days, herself included. Sixteen people were repatriated to Liberia.
At the time the U.N. was offering one hundred dollars per person and a small luggage allowance to return to Liberia. Today the U.N. provides a host of services for refugees who choose to repatriate, including transportation to refugees’ hometowns, basic goods like blankets and soap, as well as job training.
The streets of Buduburam look like almost any other neighborhood in Accra, except the streets are made of dirt instead of concrete. The people living here face problems similar to those in other Accra neighborhoods. Still Buduburam is nice enough to attract Ghanaians and Nigerians to move into houses left behind by Liberians, who’ve moved out to return home or emigrate abroad.
One lady named Teresa motions me over and shows me a pot of burnt rice with corn. “It’s leftovers from yesterday because I don’t have money to buy other food,” she tells me. “So, me and my son, we’re coming to eat it.” She points to her little boy, Junior, peering around her knee, holding a frying pan. I ask her how it tastes and she laughs and says, “I prepare it well!”
Teresa has been living in Buduburam since 2003, but she doesn’t really like it. She says, “This place is looking too bad, man. See the gutters, the mosquitoes eating us? See my son’s face? The mosquitoes did that…” She points to a small welt on Junior’s cheek. “No, I don’t want to stay in Ghana.”
I ask Teresa where she wants to be. “During the war I lost my family,” she says, “so how will I return to Liberia? I want the U.N. to help me. Anywhere they want to carry me, they should take me there.”
All around the camp, buildings express the refugees’ desires to go to countries like Australia, the USA or the Netherlands. “Dutch Embassy” is hand-painted in black lettering on one yellow house.
While there is obvious hardship here in Buduburam, it’s also hard to dismiss the signs of resilience and self-reliance everywhere. People open businesses catering to the neighborhood’s wants and needs, where CDs, bootlegged movies, haircuts, and food are sold. They bake bread and sell it in the camp, like the woman I interviewed for the story, Eres Leona Johnson. As UNHCR support has gone down (“way, way down,” according to Refugee Welfare Committee head, Varney Bamolay Sambola) people rely on each other in the camp, and on relatives who have made it to other countries. Before cell phones took over, a 2002 UNHCR working paper by Shelly Dick pointed out how the most important businesses here in Buduburam were “communication centers” to call relatives abroad to arrange remittances.
Buduburam should teach the outside world that refugees are innovative and entrepreneurial people — not passive recipients of fate, or degenerate troublemakers. Buduburam’s Liberian refugees are people who live in cement houses (not tents) and bake bread to sell to their neighbors (not stand in line to receive handouts).
Buduburam is also a lesson in how we think about human tragedies around the world. What might be considered a small blip in our consciousness, involves real people with real lives that don’t stop when the world stops paying attention. While big events make the news, the complicated and perhaps more subdued legacy of their lives unfolds for decades afterwards.