I was walking along the sea a few days ago, contemplating the many aspects of my life that have completely changed over the last three years and my up-coming trip to Austin for the screening of the documentary Camp 72, when I heard so clearly, “All had to be taken away as there is something so much bigger for you to do.” “Really?” was my immediate thought.
Now I am reflecting on 36 hours in Austin and a most extraordinary turn of events. After brunch with friends on Saturday morning, I had a massage and then met Jerome from Liberia for lunch; he is featured in the documentary. We both had free time while others were making preparations for the evening’s film screening. As we sat on a large deck at Lakeway Resort over-looking Lake Travis, I said to Jerome, “So how did you get to Indiana? Is there a Liberian community there?” What I heard over the next two hours has completely changed my world.
In October 2005, the country of Liberia established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after South Africa, to investigate crimes that occurred during the brutal civil war. As an accomplished attorney, Jerome was appointed its chair. The commission heard testimony from more than a thousand people. The work was completed in 2009 and a report was delivered to the president in 2010.
Within a year, in 2011, following numerous death threats, Jerome had fled his country. His family was smuggled out of the country in an ambulance, ending up in a refugee camp in Ghana. When their lives became under threat there, Jerome found colleagues in an east African country to bring them from the camp safely to that country where they remain.
Jerome came first to New York; when discovered there, he fled to Delaware. His friend and pastor in another state was threatened and is now living under an alias with a Liberian family who immigrated to the US. The husband had died right before the trip to America, so the pastor assumed his identity once the family arrived. He lives as someone else to this day. With help, Jerome made his way to Indiana. He has applied for asylum, though the process has been dragging for two years. He has involved the FBI in his plight. He is living as a fugitive, “just like the TV show of many years ago”, he says. He is completely under the radar screen, certain he cannot return to his country until the end of the current administration two years from now, if ever. He changes his phone number regularly and uses a non-descriptive Gmail address. He has assurances from law enforcement in the US that if he makes a call, he will be surrounded by help within minutes.
I listened is disbelief. Complete and utter disbelief. There is a “Liberian mafia” operating in the US, hoping to find and eliminate Jerome. I could not believe my ears.
When I could, I explained to Jerome that I had just seen the Vice President of Liberia in New York the previous month; he was due to be back in America the middle of this month for a couple of weeks. “You must tell your story to the VP,” I said. I called the VP’s office and spoke to the head of security, my namesake Deborah’s father and my dear friend Arthur. After a short but important conversation, I passed the phone to Jerome. They know each other and are trusted friends and colleagues.
Arthur promised me he would send me the VP’s travel itinerary by Monday and would speak to him about a meeting with Jerome while he is in the US. I offered to buy the airplane ticket to get him anywhere the VP could meet him. This is all out of a thriller movie, not the reality I would ever dream of my treasured Liberia.
Jerome and I parted after our long lunch time together; we were due to meet up in just over an hour for the screening of the film followed by a panel discussion, of which we would both be a part. We watched the film with almost 200 other people, commenting to each other occasionally. At the conclusion, the panel assembled – Jerome immediately stood up and left the stage, only to return after several minutes with a handful of Kleenex. He was very open. “Today has been a very moving day. A dear friend listened to me tell my entire story. Then viewing this film again – it’s very emotional.” This was Jerome’s first appearance in public in America in four years. He left Austin immediately after the screening of the film to return to hiding.
Jerome has no idea when he will be able to come out of hiding. He has no idea when he will see his family again. “Thank goodness for Skype,” he smiles.
I am aghast. The next day, Sunday, I again called Arthur as soon as I returned to San Diego. I was told there are political and logistical issues. I told Arthur to make it a secret meeting for one hour anywhere, and again offered to fly Jerome to the VP. I then went on to say, “Now that I know this entire story, Arthur, I cannot pretend that I do not know it. Either there will be a way for Jerome to tell his story directly to the VP, or I will have to tell him when he comes back to Liberia the end of this month when I am in the country.” I was in tears. Arthur thanked me and said we would speak again tomorrow. We will keep speaking until my new dear friend’s voice is heard, not just by me and those who made the documentary Camp 72, but also by my dear friend the Vice President of Liberia. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine that a leader in the country of my second home would be seeking political asylum in the US.
I sent Jerome a text after my conversation with Arthur. “I am standing next to you forever with prayers and love.”
There is more to this story than this summary. A story appeared in the Liberian paper a week ago announcing the film screening and the fact that both Jerome and I would be participating in the panel discussion. There were payments from the Liberian government to a person in this country to eliminate Jerome. A government person refused to have Jerome do other work even after the TRC although fully supported by the UN and others. Someone used a maritime phone to eliminate the tracing of millions of dollars to lobbyists. This is not fiction. And then this Monday morning, I received an email from Liberia saying “It will not be possible for my brother to meet with my father at this time.” There is a promise that I will be able to share his story with the VP when I am in Liberia soon.
I surrender. I trust my steps are being guided.
I am in awe of what is happening constantly every moment in our human family, and what we never know about… Jerome and his reality and family – OMG – I know and because I know, I cannot pretend I do not know. Jerome will now bring his family to America. I will be one of his sponsors. They are forever part of our Foundation for Women global family.
Thank you God.
The work we do changes the lives of people every day! Today Jerome and his family!
With great love and gratitude for believing ~ Deborah