A win-win: Liberian village benefits as refugees assisted

Thursday, March 24, 2011

By Anja Paajanen

As the fighting became more ferocious in the small Ivorian town of Geanpea, Christoph Paye knew he had to leave his job as a cocoa farmer and tailor in order to lead his family to safety.  He and his wife Celin left home with their six children in search of the fastest route out of Ivory Coast – on foot. After rushing through the jungle as quickly as they could for seven hours, they managed to cross the river to Liberia. The crossing was not free: boat owners are now charging up to 20 dollars per person for the crossing, an astronomical sum for someone who earns around a dollar a day.

But Christoph Paye is a lucky man. He and his family ended up in the Liberian village of Gleelay in Nimba county, where village leader Dickson Congor welcomed his family, along with hundreds of others, and invited them to settle in the community. Liberian families have shown exceptional patience and warm hearts to refugees throughout the crisis triggered by political events in Ivory Coast in November.  Some Liberians are hosting between 25 and 45 people in their homes.

And then Christoph Paye got work. Not as a tailor or cocoa farmer, but as a road construction worker, on a vital project designed to improve access to a village that is hard to reach by vehicle.  As the size of Gleelay’s population increases, so does the need for substantial supplies of food, medicines and other essential items.  The new road will help ensure that people do not starve and die because their basic needs cannot be met because it is too difficult to reach them.

The road-building scheme, supported by ACT Alliance through its Finnish member Finn Church Aid, is one of a number of essential construction projects designed to address the needs of communities that have mushroomed in size over the past couple of months because of the influx of refugees. They aim to make modest but meaningful practical improvements to the lives of Liberians as well as the newcomers from Ivory Coast.  Among these, ACT is contributing to four health clinics, repairing wells and hand pumps, giving protection to vulnerable people and constructing bridges.  The projects are being run on ACT’s behalf by an established Liberian organisation called EQUIP, which has administered many similar projects in the past.

Christoph’s new job is part of a ‘cash for work’ scheme in which he and many others receive five dollars and a meal every day. One of the new bridges that his team of construction-workers have built leads to the village of Duoplay.  Now the local community and the 2000 refugees can, for the first time, have access by vehicle.

When I walked to the Duoplay village with two road engineers employed under the ACT initiative, Joseph Kilikpo and Jerry Tomboe, the villagers and refugees were holding a gathering under a tree. Gabriel Gban Podorkor, an elderly man who arrived three months ago and has become a kind of chairman for the refugees, joined a village elder in showing great thankfulness for the new bridges. But they said that they still need two hand-operated water pumps repaired - the only ones that exist in a community that is now bursting at the seams.

The engineers promised to do just that. Next week neither the villagers nor the refugees will need to fetch water from the brown river any more.

Anja Paajanen of Finn Church Aid is ACT’s Emergency Field Coordinator for Nimba County.