WORLD REFUGEE DAY
It’s World Refugee day and it got me thinking of the role Ghana has played over its history in hosting whole groups of people who migrate as a result of hardships back home. The most recent example is that of Ivorians streaming across the borders as a result of a post election dispute between current president Alassane Ouattara and deposed leader Laurent Gbagbo. In the 90s, Ghana opened its shores to Liberians fleeing their decade-long conflict. This Ghanaian hospitality has been on display though since the late 50s when intellectuals from all over Africa and the diaspora settled in the newly Independent State.
Despite this welcome and efforts to make people feel at home, it is never easy leaving familiar confines to an unknown world. This was made evident in January when I spoke to a young woman who was suddenly thrust into the role of parent, guardian and protector of her siblings who had been sent from Abidjan to Accra to escape what was then inter communal violence. The story I wrote is below. On this World Refugees Day, I am reminded of the costs of war, famine and hardship; refugees.
“It is New Year’s Eve and Alida Bohoussou was in church in Accra, Ghana with four of her six younger siblings to ring in 2011. Like many in this Catholic congregation she had a laundry list of requests for the upcoming year. But foremost on her mind was a new place to live. And she needed to find that quickly. She had been given an initial deadline of December 31 to move out of the hostel she lived in. After church, she trudged home with her brother and sisters, the thought of going to New Year’s parties inconceivable.
Alida is from Cote d’ Ivoire, Ghana’s neighbor to the west. For the past decade, it has flirted with civil unrest but tightly-contested elections held November 28 and the resulting electoral dispute have brought it dangerously close to the brink of armed conflict. And as though this protracted post-election crisis in her country is not enough, the 30-year-old Ivorian national is now forced to contemplate being homeless. The hostel owners’ plan is to construct a hotel in its place.
In the last two months, Alida has switched roles from student to guardian. After the first round of the Ivorian elections, tension slowly built in the Abidjan residential area where their parents’ home is, forcing her 24-year-old sister Larissa to relocate. Then three more younger siblings, two sisters and a brother added to her responsibilities after the second round of voting which resulted in competing claims to the presidency. The two youngest remain in Cote d’ Ivoire with their parents, a university lecturer and a businesswoman.
Meanwhile, the crisis drags on with no end in sight. President Laurent Gbagbo maintains that he is the rightful winner and refuses to heed the calls of many in the international community to hand over power to Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader who is widely acknowledged to have won the elections. The latest news is that diplomatic efforts have resulted in an agreement for both leaders to hold talks and resolve the impasse amicably.
It is tempting to analyze the actions of the main protagonists as though they were pieces on a chessboard enacting a power play – until you are exposed directly to the human costs.
Alida came here two years ago to study networking at the Intercom Programming and Management Company (IPMC). Prior to finishing her course in November she looked forward to a return home to apply the skills she had acquired. Now she is left with few job prospects and mounting duties.
“We are praying to God to solve this problem because we can’t stay like this,” she says.
She says she was in Cote d’ Ivoire at a time when some Liberian women, displaced by the conflict in their country were left with no choice but to become sex workers. She is determined not to suffer a similar fate. “We can’t do prostitution here to get money. Never!” she affirms.
Alida and Larissa express an unshakeable faith that the situation in their country will become normal again. Still, their search for six-month leases and their plans to enroll the Larissa, Jocelyn, Ursula and Benjamin in English language courses betrays an uncertain future.
Larissa finished studying fashion last year and unlike Alida, she only speaks French. She says that she would like to return to Cote d’ Ivoire as soon as possible so she can look for a job. But she is also eager to make the most of her time here and she hopes it starts with classes at Alliance Francaise.
In the meantime, they resign themselves to an unusual situation, a split family across borders reconnecting daily via phone calls. They stay current with news from home through those calls and news bulletins on international broadcasting stations.
With Ivorian food like ‘attieke’ that they prepare, they are brought as close to home as is possible – waiting for the first indication that home is safe again so they can regain some normalcy.”
NB: Alida Bohoussou would not have been counted as a “refugee” in any official count.