WMU News

WMU professor helps Liberian youths rebuild lives

Nov. 13, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Rebuilding a society torn apart by seven years of bloody civil war would be a huge undertaking for even the wealthiest of nations.

Now imagine being an impoverished Third World country and consider that many of your young boys had been forced to fight in those wars and were turned into marauding soldiers. Then, after hostilities ceased, they were cast onto the streets into a life of survival of the fittest.

That's the scenario Dr. Susan Weinger, a WMU associate professor of social work, stepped into earlier this year when she volunteered to go to Liberia to take part in a new program aimed at helping teen-agers whose lives had been shattered by civil war and who had taken part in a no-holds-barred form of conflict.

"They were conscripting children as young as 6 years old and above to fight," Weinger says. "All of them had seen or had perpetrated atrocities. After the wars ended (in 1997), they were thrown back on the streets, where they stole to survive."

Weinger was understandably apprehensive about her assignment. Not only would she be working with an unlawful band of potentially violent youths, she also would be transported to a country known for political unrest, extreme poverty, harsh living conditions and woefully inadequate healthcare. She wondered if her life would be in danger simply by walking down the street. She soon found she had little to fear.

"I was very afraid to go to Liberia," Weinger admits. "It's politically unstable, there are health hazards and dire living conditions. But I found that the youth and the staff were so hopeful about starting this program. The staff was committed to making a difference in the lives of these youth. They gave their heart and soul to help them take a positive turn in their lives. And I saw the youth courageously trying to redirect themselves toward a path of social inclusion and contribution.

"I'm not saying it all went smoothly. But I witnessed that out of this terrible destruction of their society, staff members were still able to exude a strong humanity, believing in and accepting these youth wholeheartedly. They were trying to rehabilitate the trainees and the trainees were hoping to be integrated back into their society and do something for their country."

Weinger's trip to Liberia in June was through the American Refugee Committee, which was looking for volunteers to provide staff training and intensive counseling to 50 ex-combatant teenagers housed in a rural camp about an hour's drive from Monrovia, the nation's capital.

The program, which sought to retrain the youths and reintroduce them back into society, was put in place in February. In addition to much-needed socialization skills, the youths were taught agriculture and various trades that would help them lead productive lives.

Living arrangements and camp facilities were abysmal, Weinger said. There was no running water or electricity. The camp had over 10 buildings, but all had been bombed and only a few had their walls intact. Two of them had been re-roofed, with one serving as a boys dorm and classroom and the other as a staff boarding house with nurse's station and additional makeshift classrooms.

The teenage trainees slept on the floor with only a thin plastic mat between them and the cement. Clouds of mosquitoes swarmed in at night. The kitchen was outdoors, with only a torn plastic sheet covering the cooking area. The weather in Liberia is rainy and raindrops often diluted their food. "It rains some days," Weinger said. "And on the other days, it rains harder."

Pencils, pens and paper were in short supply. Weinger one day observed 22 students trying to draw the flag of Liberia sharing one red and one blue crayon. During vocational sessions in carpentry or agriculture, 15 students would share one hoe and one hammer. For games, the youths used what they could find, such as using bottle caps as checkers.

Weinger soon developed a close bond with the young trainees. In addition to being hard workers, they were fun to be around and were very active and social.

"It was a surprising delight," she says. "I wanted to be with them all the time. They were all trying so hard. I found them to be very hard working and very inspirational."

Though Weinger loved being with the boys and did many activities with them, she decided she could have a more lasting impact during her short one-month stay by working with staff on program development and training. Liberians, by nature, are very honest with their feelings, Weinger says. More than once, she was told in no uncertain terms that her strategies from the West would not work with Liberians. Though expressing their doubts, her hosts were open-minded and enthusiastically agreed to give her ideas a try.

Whether the program ultimately will be successful or not is unknown. The American Refugee Committee has committed to running the program for five years, Weinger says. After that, the program is to be taken over by the Episcopal Church, which owns the camp property and buildings, if enough funding for the program is available.

Weinger says the program was beginning to take hold and she could see the young trainees gradually getting back in touch with society and reclaiming their former selves. Regardless of how successful it becomes, the experience of living in Liberia and working with the youths there has made a lasting impact on her.

"I thank my lucky stars that I took the risk to work in Liberia," Weinger says. "It has given me a growth spurt in mid-life that I didn't think was possible. My life has been greatly enriched both personally and professionally."

Weinger hopes to go back to the country and volunteer again with the program. Until then, she is working to raise donations for it.

"These are such good human beings and these people are so trapped that I don't think it's a realistic position to give up on them," she says. "We need to reach out and help them."

Cash donations will be used to purchase mattresses, shoes and books, as well as board games and sports equipment. Those are the items both counselors and the boys singled out. Checks may be made out to the American Refugee Committee and may be mailed to Weinger at 2528 Lorraine Ave., Kalamazoo MI 49008. For more information, call Weinger at (616) 344-4518 or (616) 387-3196.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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