Story # 2
By Karen Stein
You may be wondering why Miatta didn't know when her birthday was or how old she is. I was wondering that too, and here is how I found out. While at camp, every day we met in small groups to get to know each other better and discuss the theme of the day. During one of these family sessions, the immigrants shared their stories of coming to America. They told about difficult journeys, hiding beneath garbage in trucks, and the impoverished conditions from their homeland. Miatta was not sharing her story.
After the group was dismissed, Miatta and I got into the golf cart to head down to the lake to go fishing. And on the way down she blurted out, "That was nothing."
"What was nothing, Miatta?" I inquired.
"They hiding in garbage trucks. In Africa people were hungry, real hungry. People had to eat the grass on the ground, people had to eat……….people. There was nothing to eat."
Miatta came from Liberia, a country at war. People were starving, soldiers were everywhere---shooting, killing. Miatta (who was about five years old), her older sister (about fifteen years old), and her older brother ran from the soldiers not knowing where the rest of their family was hiding. Her brother was shot in his feet. Miatta and her sister hid in the bush, covering their ears from the gunfire and watched as their brother bled to death. They ran and ran for days until at last they found a place to rest at a refuge camp in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone. Here they were given food, clothing and a safe place to lay their heads down to sleep at night.
Before long Miatta's sister married another refugee, who was living in the camp with his three younger brothers. She gave birth to a girl child, Miriatu. This was the first person in their family to have their birth date recorded. Miatta's niece was born on July 7, 2003.
Shortly after, Miriatu's father suffered a closed brain injury in a car accident. There was no medical care available. So it was, that this newly formed family of seven lived together, away from their war ridden country, in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone for the next five years, along with thousands of other refugees.
Representatives from Refugee Services in the United States came to visit and offer a chance for a select few to come to America, the land of opportunity. Countless wanted to go, not many were chosen. Miatta's family was among those seeking to come to America. Due to the serious injury of Mariatu's father, they were selected with the aim that he would be able to receive proper medical treatment. All that was required was for Miatta's big sister to sign an agreement that she would pay back $9,000, the cost of the airfare for her family to come to America. Not ever learning how to write, she put her X on the dotted line. In return, they would be given a place to stay for six months, a total monthly stipend of $400 for the family which seemed like a fortune to them, an opportunity for the children to attend school and learn how to read (a highly regarded skill that seemed an impossibility in their present condition), and medical care.
There were many hoops to jump through before they could depart. Passports are required to travel to another country. Only Mariatu had documentation of her birth. To obtain the official papers the others had to get their teeth examined to determine their age. January 1 of the year they were supposedly born was assigned to them as their date of birth. After completing all the necessary procedures, they were ready to embark on a journey over the Atlantic Ocean to begin a new life and new set of problems.
Unbeknownst to them, life in America was not as they envisioned it. Having limited English speaking skills and being totally illiterate, finding employment in a country where recession and rising unemployment was occurring was not happening.
Shortly after their arrival, Mariatu's father was admitted to the hospital. They found no effective treatment for his condition and he was released back to the family. Subsequently, he became violent and a restraining order was issued to keep him away from his family, for good.
Although they were given an apartment to live in, they were not given the information that a monthly water bill had to be paid. After the six-month adjustment period was over, the family was evicted for not paying the bill. Homeless, hungry, and unemployed, they sought refuge in a shelter. All the beds were filled, so they slept that night on the living room floor. In the morning, Miatta wanted their "African" food for breakfast. Her big sister went back to the old apartment to retrieve the remaining food left behind. There is a rule at the homeless shelter; Children are never to be left unattended. In her absence, Protective Services was called; the children were taken away and placed in foster homes. Miatta's foster mother enrolled her in school where I am a teacher. It was here where I met Miatta.
I invited Miatta to come to camp to celebrate her birthday.