Truth & Reconciliation?

Buduburam refugee campt Thousands of Liberians have been trapped at Ghana’s Buduburam refugee camp since they fled their war-torn country in the 1990s. Recently, a group of students from Penn Law traveled to the camp to help these refugees get the word out about their struggles, both past and present.


Since the Buduburam refugee camp opened in Ghana in 1991, 25,000 to 39,000 people have called it home.

But for many of these refugees—escapees from a Liberia ravaged by two civil wars—the camp is hardly ideal. Liberian refugees in Ghana are not allowed to work and therefore cannot earn money, though they’re asked to pay to send their children to school. The camp has neither a comprehensive food program nor good health care. Even still, United Nations’ plans to resettle refugees have been put on hold. So they remain in Buduburam.

It was here that five Penn Law students and Sarah Paoletti, a clinical supervisor and lecturer who heads the school’s Transnational Legal Clinic, traveled to gather statements from refugees about their time both in Ghana and in war-torn Liberia. Students took these statements for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the organization charged with uncovering truths and investigating human rights violations during Liberian armed conflicts that ranged from 1979 to 2003.

“It was an opportunity to tell their stories,” says Paoletti of the Liberian refugees. “It was a very, very intense week.”

While in the camps, Penn students recorded stories of horrific crimes—murder, rape and torture—and many refugees were hopeful that the American students would help draw attention to their situation, says Paoletti. In fact, refugees lined up for days to speak with the students, with one waiting from Monday until Friday to finally tell his story.

Paoletti and the Transnational Clinic became involved in this project through the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, a non-governmental agency involved in statement-taking from the large Liberian Diaspora population in the Twin Cities area. Since Philadelphia also has a sizeable Liberian Diaspora population, Paoletti got her students involved in statement-taking here. She believed it would be a “great entree into one of the immigrant populations in Philadelphia.”

The semester-long course at the Transnational Legal Clinic provides students with opportunities to represent clients in asylum and immigration cases with human rights implications. The clinic was launched in Fall of 2006.

The work exposes students to a range of techniques integral to being a lawyer—from investigation and report-writing to litigation and community work. Sometimes, Paoletti notes, students learn the law doesn’t provide easy answers, and that cases aren’t settled as easily as those they’ve read about in their law books. “The mission is to provide pedagogical opportunities for the students [that] don’t exist elsewhere in the curriculum,” she says.

Before traveling to Ghana, Paoletti made sure her students were well-prepared to handle tough statements from refugees. They were briefed about the history of Liberia, transitional justice, techniques for questioning survivors of trauma and ways to spot warning signs in trauma survivors. “In the moment, they did very well. They stepped up to the plate,” she says.

The most difficult part of the trip, Paoletti says, was not only seeing refugees approach with a great need to tell their sometimes-horrific stories, but also with substantial needs for the basics, such as food and quality medical care. “Our role was just to write it all down,” she says. “There was nothing concrete that we could give them in return.”

While in Ghana, Paoletti and the students stayed in two hotels—one that was half-built—and were forced to contend with rolling blackouts that made it difficult for the team to record the day’s work on their computers.

Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights will compile all of the statements from Ghana and the Diaspora communities in the United States and then submit them to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This TRC will include the findings in their final report, which will be submitted to the Liberian government. The TRC can recommend either amnesty or prosecution and may also urge the international community to take in refugees.

While Paoletti says she does not plan to take another group of students to Ghana, students in the clinic will work on other immigration cases and with the Southern Poverty Law Center, examining labor rights violations of Indian guest workers. The ultimate goal, she says, is for the students to try on the mantle of being a lawyer and provide them with a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic experience.

“[We want] students to have a memorable written and oral opportunity,” she says. “As much as possible...is there a piece of that they can see through from start to finish?”

Originally published Jan. 24, 2008

Originally published on January 24, 2008