PHILADELPHIA –- A University of Pennsylvania Law School group is assisting in gathering information from Liberian refugees in Ghana for The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Five Penn Law students and Sarah Paoletti, the faculty member who heads the Law School’s Transnational Clinic, traveled to Ghana to interview refugees and take statements about their experiences in war-torn Liberia and as refugees in Ghana. They visited the Buduburam refugee camp, which has an 25,000-39,000 people living in a space originally designed for only several thousand people. The camp lacks a comprehensive food program and adequate health care.
“Some of the people were very humble,” Penn Law student Robert Manzares, said. “They said they survived through God’s grace. The presence of our group in the camp gave them hope that the international community would help them.”
During the week-long trip, the Penn Law heard refugees’ stories of seeing relatives murdered, raped or tortured by Liberian rebels and having their homes burned to the ground.
The refugees were allowed as much time as they wanted to tell their stories, and many people waited all day to give statements. Some refugees were in line for several days.
“They’re hopeful that they’re going to get help and their kids are going to go back to Liberia and help rebuild the country,” student Erin Argueta, said.
Some of people have been living in the camp for as long as 15 years, but as refugees they don’t have the same rights as Ghanaians. Legally, the refugees can’t be hired for jobs, and they struggle to find ways to buy food and water for themselves and their children, to pay to use the bathrooms, to access the medical care and to pay the school fees for their children. They pick up trash and plastic water bags around the camp to sell, braid hair, wash dishes and clothes for others and do gardening work.
The students say the most difficult part of the statement-taking process was not being able to help with the refugees immediate and tangible needs. “You’re hearing the worst story of their lives, and you have nothing to offer them,” Mazanares said.
“The only thing we could say was, We’ll carry your word to other people and hopefully get you help,” Argueta said.
The Penn Law group was in Ghana as part of a program from the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. The statements will be forwarded to The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which can recommend that the international community help the refugees re-settle in countries that will take them in.