Bill McClellan: From Liberia to St. Louis – An immigrant’s story

By Bill McClellan a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Mary Tugbah greets her son, Peter, after his plane arrive at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
Bob Elliott

In 1990, Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor led his army against the government. The casualties were mostly civilian. Approximately 200,000 people were killed. An even greater number were displaced.

Among them was Mary Tugbah. She and her four teenaged children fled on foot to the Ivory Coast. Imagine thousands of people slogging through the dust and heat of western Africa.

Their new home was a United Nations refugee camp. It was intended to be a temporary stop, but the economy of the Ivory Coast was not sufficient to handle the influx of refugees, and the developed countries were not eager to take them.

So life in camp took on a sense of permanence. Everyone wanted to get out, and everyone filled out papers, but nothing happened. Mary sold fish heads. Her kids had their own hustles, their own lives. Mary said there was some kind of paperwork mistake, and she and her kids were separated. Mary is a survivor, but she is not a paperwork person. She has very little education.

She is, however, a devout Christian.

In 2004, 14 years after she fled Liberia, her prayers were answered. The paperwork had gone through. She was coming to America.

She had been sponsored by the International Institute of St. Louis. The institute put her in an apartment on the city’s south side. Caseworkers helped her get a job cleaning offices.

The official language of Liberia is English, but many people speak only tribal languages. Mary’s native language is Grebo.

She was 52 when she found herself, magically, in St. Louis. She had no car, and she had to learn to navigate around by bus, made harder by the fact that she could not read English.

Her concept of time was less precise than ours, but she understood that she could not be late to work, so she always arrived early. Sometimes, hours early. She would arrive at her job site and then wait until she saw her colleagues arrive. She would follow along.

She took no help from the government. She had a vague understanding that accepting government help would be a mark against her when she tried to bring family members here. And that was her goal. She had children, and then grandchildren, in Africa.

There is paperwork involved in living in America, and Mary got help with that from the Institute and from New City Fellowship, a local church that believes that Christianity is an international, multiracial sort of thing.

Mary inquired about bringing family members to this country. She got good advice. You need money, Mary.

She lived frugally. She was able to save money. But she faced a question. Mary knew the life she had escaped. Her grown children could use money right now. Would it be better to send them money as she earned it, or save money to bring somebody here?

Mary tried to do both.

She eventually saved about $40,000.

She went to the paperwork people. You can probably bring somebody over. One somebody.

Daniel was her oldest. But he had three children. One of Mary’s daughters had died. The other was herself a mother and how do you take a mother away from her children? Peter, the second son, had one child. He was the logical choice.

Peter arrived here earlier this month. He is 49.

Last week, I met Peter and Mary at Mary’s apartment in south St. Louis.

Also present was Melissa Elliott of New City Fellowship. If you ever need to depend on the kindness of strangers, she is a stranger you’d want to encounter.

In fact, her husband picked Peter up at the airport.

Mary’s English is still not very good, so Peter acted as our interpreter. He said he learned English from friends. Like his mother, he has little formal education. The flight to this country was his first time on an airplane.

He said he is eager to get to work, but apparently, this involves some more paperwork. His work experience is farming and construction. Subsistence farming, unsophisticated construction. I imagined cinder blocks.

I also imagined my grandmother and her family. They came from Belfast in the early years of the last century. First, the father and the oldest son came. They lived in an apartment with other recent immigrants from Ireland. Zoning codes today would prohibit so many single men crammed into an apartment.

My great-grandfather and his oldest son worked for a couple of years and then sent for the rest of the family.

They were the face of immigration in those days. Also, Italians. Also, Jews from Eastern Europe.

None of them was welcomed.

Today, the face of immigration is darker complected.

Not everybody welcomes them.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump complained about immigrants from Haiti and Africa.

“We need more people from Norway,” he said.

Peter is already thinking about bringing over his daughter.

“America is a dream,” he told me.

Maybe he will get a job cleaning offices and then one day his daughter will work in one of those offices.

Before we left, Mary led us in prayer. I could not make out the words, but it was a joyful message.  

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