My daughter Nanu Twaloh Sungbeh, who is a rising junior studying public health at metro Atlanta’s all-women’s Agnes Scott College, embraced the opportunity this year to do her summer internship in Africa.
Her first choice obviously was her ancestral homeland of Liberia. But because Liberia is not on the list of countries participating in the month-long program, she chose Cape Coast, Ghana, and interned at Kotokuraba’s Ewim Hospital.
After her rigorous study in Kotokuraba ended, Nanu decided to travel to Liberia for two weeks to see relatives and spend some time in a country she only knows from textbooks and from stories told her by her mother and me.
As a frequent international traveler, I expected Nanu to be an experienced traveler; which means keeping up with her departure time, knowing when to leave her hotel or host home, knowing her environment and surroundings, and keeping up with her medications.
Unfortunately, Nanu got caught in the emotional moment of meeting and spending quality time with her relatives. When the time came to go to the airport and leave Liberia, she couldn’t get a cab on time to catch her flight. As a result, she missed her flight and had to spend another two weeks in Liberia.
However, because she missed her original flight out of Liberia, the airline refused to accept her return ticket. The only solution was to purchase another ticket, which did not play well with her mother and me in these tough economic times.
In this post-war era characterized by economic hard times, fragile peace and uncertainty in Liberia, it is a sacrifice when any native-born Liberian or those born to Liberians outside of Liberia attempts to visit Liberia. When that decision is made and the individual finally is in Liberia, the person should be wholeheartedly welcomed, applauded and encouraged to return. Unfortunately, it was not the case with Nanu.
In this era of nation building, however, every Liberian counts, and the government must make all efforts to genuinely encourage Liberians to visit home or move back home to help in the development process.
However, because she missed her first flight out of Liberia, I nervously instructed family members to do everything possible to get Nanu to the airport not two hours early; but perhaps six hours early, which a very anxious Nanu was more than willing to do, since she’s now out of money and medications, and school is about to resume for the fall term.
Unfortunately, when it was time for Nanu to board her plane to the United States, a Liberian government official at the airport told her that she couldn’t leave Liberia because she overstayed her visitor’s visa. Whether this guy wanted bribe from this unemployed student, is unknown but he kept her waiting until the last minute.
However, his behavior towards my child did not play well with me, and did not make the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government look good, either.
Confused and in total shock Nanu began to cry uncontrollably, knowing very well that she could miss her flight once again. The drama finally came to an end at the last minute when another gentleman, a government official, who felt my daughter’s pain intervened by convincing his colleague to allow her to board the plane to leave Liberia.
It is a common practice, and I am led to believe that a person who violates the immigration law of another country, should be deported to his or her country of origin. The situation is totally different when the individual who is visiting is believed to have committed a felony, a heinous crime that prevents the person from returning to their original country. Violating a country’s immigration law by overstaying a visitor’s visa is not a felony.
The question now is why detain Nanu when the only ‘crime’ she’s charged with in the first place is overstaying her visitor’s visa? As a child of Liberian parents who is unfamiliar with the country but wants to visit and know Liberia, isn’t it good public relations to embrace her courage to visit Liberia, and isn’t it also prudent to advise her or lecture her about the new Liberia, and what is expected of her to be a productive citizen in society?
Is this not what President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been talking about – that Liberians and their children in foreign countries return home to contribute to their country’s development? Is it wise to return to a country that make people uncomfortable when they visit, and also wise to visit or move to a country that refuses to change with time?
It is so true that Liberian politics went through tremendous changes over the years. Such overwhelming political change should also come with real change that transform institutions that caters to the needs of Liberians at home and abroad.
What happened to my daughter weeks ago in Liberia is not a pleasant experience. I would have preferrred for her to be deported and bar from returning to Liberia, but not be held against her will and put through an emotional ordeal. By making her cry because she did not leave Liberia sooner is unfortunate.
This is a bad experience for Nanu who was excited to visit Liberia after her internship in (Kotokuraba) Cape Coast, Ghana ended, and also a bad experience for me. This is also an experience no parent wants to see their child or children go through in their own country, never!