World Refugee Day VOICES

Today, on World Refugee Day, I’m re-posting this message from a hero of mine, Lovetta Conto and, by extension, her friend Grace.

After the jump is today’s blog from Ann Curry. I know I’m like Twitter here, re-posting the work of others, but it is a statement of respect–they say it so much better than I.

Today is World Refugee Day.

“The Akawelle necklace is made from bullets that put my friend Grace in a refugee camp.  They are the same bullets that, with your help by being an Akawelle supporter, has taken her out.  This is her story.” – Lovetta Conto

FLEEING WARMy name is Grace Freeman and I’m 21 years old. Today is World Refugee Day – and it’s the first one in my life I will not spend as a refugee.

When I was a baby, my family fled the terrible war in Liberia. We made our way to the country of Ghana, where we lived in the sprawling camp of Buduburam Refugee Settlement with 40,000 other refugees.

Life in the camp was hard. We slept on the ground when we first arrived, drinking water from mud puddles. As time passed, we got tents and then were able to build small houses, but life wasn’t much easier. Our father left. Our mother tried to find food for us. I always begged my mom to let me go to school but it wasn’t free and we couldn’t pay. Finally my mother gave me to an important “big woman” in the camp, who promised to send me to school.

At the age of 7, I left my family’s small tin house and moved in with the important lady. She had been rich back in Liberia. Her larger tin house sheltered her many children and grandchildren. I was happy to finally get a chance to learn. But my dream quickly became dark. Instead of sending me to school, she made me her servant. The words for this in my culture are “outside child”. I was beaten daily and made to work long hours caring for her family. I learned to make fires, cook for twenty people, fetch water, scrub clothes, carry large cookpots full of hot food on my head to sell on the road to make money for the woman. She forced me to call her “Mommy”. I wore the same two dresses for years. I would sleep in both of them to stay warm, on the cold mud floor of the house. Insects and rats would crawl on me and bite my skin. I was not allowed to be called Grace, only Dog. She told me I was a “born slave”.


One day, I had a chance for freedom and I took it. I gathered my courage and finally ran to someone to help me. By then, my mother had passed away and I was 18 years old. For the first time in my life, I spoke out and told the world, “No, I will not be a slave. I am not an outside child. I am Grace.”

I was found by the Strongheart Fellowship organization which is a program for exceptional young people from difficult backgrounds. Through them, I moved back to Liberia to a big house called Strongheart House that they built with money raised by selling beautiful necklaces made from transformed bullets from the Liberian civil war. These necklaces – Akawelle – were designed by another refugee, Lovetta Conto, who is also part of the Strongheart Fellowship organization. The remarkable thing about these bullets is that it is these bullets that made me a refugee – and it is also these same bullets that took me out of those horrible circumstances.

Today I live at Strongheart House, with my brothers and sisters, and other young people who are also celebrating World Refugee Day in a home of our own – where WE are FREE – where we are no longer refugees.

I tell you my story today for one reason: to ask that when you think about refugees and the lives they are forced into, please remember what put them there. Before being a slave, before losing my mother – my troubles began with war. Most refugee troubles begin with anger and guns and scared people running. If we are talking about helping refugees, let us first talk of helping to keep people from BECOMING refugees.

Somewhere today there is a little girl who has a home in a troubled land. Maybe war will come there, maybe not. Maybe she will lose her home and her mother and all she knows. But maybe – if we focus on finding peace and removing guns from the hands of people who destroy life – maybe she will live in her home, with her own mother, and she will get to live her childhood – free.

My name is Grace. I am not a refugee. But I cry for those who one day might be.

Grace Freeman is a Fellow of Strongheart Fellowship, a healing and learning program for exceptional young people from extreme circumstances. The goal of Strongheart Fellowship is to facilitate deep healing, learning, and innovative thinking in young people who have experienced tremendous loss or deprivation in their lives due to challenging life circumstances but who have shown marked levels of resilience, social or emotional intelligence, and resourcefulness. Our commitment is to create the conditions that will assist these individuals to integrate their past experiences and unfold into their most authentic selves – into living their lives on purpose, aligned with their own unique blueprint – deepened and informed by their past rather than limited by it. Our belief is that by focusing on deep, personal transformation of individuals with enormous potential, those individuals will become key influencers and advocates who will ultimately bring sustainable systemic



“It was not safe and I had nowhere to go.” — Hiroe Nagase

These were the words I heard my mother speak as she remembered the day World War II  arrived on her doorstep. At just 16, she had emerged from a bomb shelter and saw virtually nothing left standing after the air raid that made her run for her life.

I imagined her terror in that chaos, and tried to empathize with her feeling that she may not survive.

Still, only recently did I connect the experience of hearing her story in our living room in tiny Ashland, Oregon, to what motivates my constant effort to give voice to refugees of war, hunger, disease and especially genocide and ethnic cleansing.

I realize now that I don’t see these refugees as people of another world but rather as us: our mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. They suffer the tragedies that have persistently haunted our human history, so persistently that it is reasonable to ask, how many among us aren’t the progeny of refugees in one generation or another?

Even today as I write this, refugees are fleeing from Syria into Turkey, from Yemen into Europe, from Sudan’s north-south border at Abyei, just as we have seen refugees flee Rwanda, Kosovo, Congo, Burma, Darfur and Germany, to name just a few in our own time.

When, at age 12, I first heard about the Holocaust, what stunned me most was discovering that not only did people risk their own lives to save Jews, they risked their children’s lives as well.

Imagine what a world it would be if every human being had that kind of courage. Those brave people who stood against Hitler must be the forerunners for the greater, more compassionate humankind we are evolving into.

In my own experience, nowhere is this compassion more evident than in the refugees themselves.

On the edge of Kosovo, I watched refugees fleeing into Macedonia, the sounds of war at their backs. But they were not safe even when they finally stopped to rest, with Macedonians pointing guns at them to stop them in their tracks. Yet, despite her desperate, weeping state, a woman who had nothing offered me a bite from her little can of food.

On the edge of Darfur, I met a black African woman who was pregnant when she and her little sister were attacked by an Arab militia. She told us that in order to save her sister, she sent her in the opposite direction; she waved her arms so the men would follow her instead. They did, and she suffered so terribly she barely survived. When I asked why she did it, she said, “My sister was too young to have such things happen to her.” She didn’t lose the baby, and as I took his photo in a refugee camp in neighboring Chad, I realized that at two years old, he was already not just a refugee, but a survivor.

And in Congo, where the deadliest war since World War II is still raging, I met Sifa. She was about 16 when she saw her mother and father killed. The killers then kidnapped her and chained her to a tree, and kept her tied there, using rape as a weapon of war. When she could no longer walk, they left her for dead. Men from a nearby village risked their lives to rescue her. She was, it turned out, pregnant, but she was so broken the baby died.

By the time I found her, she was in the operating room, where a doctor told me he was trying to repair all the physical damage that had been done. She looked deep into my eyes, her expression almost pleading. Now 18, shivering naked under a blanket, her hand was shaking violently from the cold and fear. I took her hand and held it, reassuring her as best I could until it was time for the doctor to begin.

Returning the next day, I found her in the recovering room, where she told me all that had happened. And so I asked her if she wanted revenge. And this is what she said:

“No. All I want is to rise from this bed and thank the people who rescued and took care of me.  And work for God to help others. And maybe if I am lucky someday, I will feel a mother’s love again.”

These refugees and internally displaced people have a lot to teach us about resilience and courage. They seem to embody what the author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once wrote: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

My mother was beautiful in this way, and helped move me to compassion. World Refugee Day is a reminder that there is no “us” and “them.”  There is only us, one human family, connected in ways we sometimes forget.

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