By Phil McLachlan
Edith Jacklyn Thomson escaped with eight of her children from the clutches of civil war, and found refuge in Fernie in May of last year.
Through the support of Fernie Friends of Refugees as well as the Archdiocese of Toronto ORAT division, the family found their new home in the mountains.
Civil war unleashed itself upon Liberia in 1989. For 14 years, several wars raged until the final ceasefire in 2003. Many Liberian people like the Thomson’s fled to refugee camps in Ghana during this time, and some camps held up to 40,000 people at a time. Over 600,000 Liberians died in the first civil war alone, between 1989 and 1997.
Thomson spent the past 13 years of her life inside of a Ghanese Refugee camp with her nine children after fleeing the conflict in Liberia. Edith’s late husband, Jackson Payne, was killed in the Liberian war.
Inside of Ghana there were many camps, but the Krisan refugee camp where Edith stayed was the smallest of all. Despite its size, it housed thousands of people comprised of 12 different nationalities. The majority of these were Sudanese from Sudan, Temme and Mende people from Sierra Leonne, Liberians from Liberia and Togolese from Togo.
The temporary housing situation that was established in Ghana for people from surrounding countries, changed into something different over time. Originally, people were only meant to stay for two to three months, until it was safe to return home. As this did happen in the beginning, it became harder for people to leave as time progressed into the early 2000’s. Edith believes this was due to the amount of money that the Ghanese government was receiving from overseas support.
“Basically, they had a camp for people to be there and then be resettled. But, not to our surprise, it turned into a different thing,” said Edith. “(It was like) they were doing business. Because, the more refugee camps, the more Ghanese were making money. So, (they kept) the refugees in the camps.”
“In our refugee camp.. People went for interview(s), they pay medical, they finish with quarantine, and some people are still in the camp for four or five years,” said Edith. “It’s very bad. Life in the refugee camp, it was very bad.”
Throughout the 13 years, Edith and her family saw much hardship; life was not easy. Edith recalled many instances of parents going missing, with fear of rape and murder. Snakes were a common problem, and often found their way into houses, and beds.
Since the ceasefire in 2003, help from surrounding countries started to die off, yet refugees were still left without a home or the means to leave. In many cases, they were not allowed to leave at all.
“There is no food for refugees in Ghana… In my camp I came from, there is no food supply going there anymore,” said Edith.
The food supplied to the refugees consisted of rice, beans, oil, chaco as well as tuna in a cup which had often expired. Each person was given about 1500 grams of rice and four cups of beans, per month. Any other food such as tuna was uncommon and in small portions.
”The rice had a lot of big big rocks in it; you have to pick the rocks and the bugs from the rice,” said Edith.
Early in 2005, the refugees in Krisan became fed up due to the lack of proper support from the government, and they all gathered together at a nearby border crossing. Edith became wary, as she was there with her children and felt vulnerable. Seeing a growing number of police, Edith turned back out of fear, returning to the refugee camp.
“I saw the police and they were walking in the street with a baton in their hands, and I said to my friend, ‘they are going to ask us to return to the refugee camp, and if we don’t go, they’re going to beat us’.”
Many present did not share this view, as they believed the police were there to help them. Fearing for her life, Edith made the journey back to the refugee camp and as soon as she arrived, her phone started to ring. A friend called and told her, ‘they are beating the refugees’.
“The police beat the refugees, unmercifully,” said Edith, with fire in her eyes. “Because they didn’t want to go back to the refugee camp.”
The police chased the refugees back to the camp, and started to destroy peoples tv’s, sleeping quarters, and food supply.
A woman by the name of Rose was seen as a very strong individual in the refugee camp. After these beatings, she led a group of refugees to a nearby police warehouse and set it on fire. The police immediately sent reinforcements and started to surround the area.
“When I saw the warehouse on fire, I was so afraid I jumped in the bush with all my kids, and I walked to the next town,” said Edith.
Seeking refuge with a friend that used to give them food, they were forced to leave again because any Ghanian who was caught hosting a refugee would be killed. Edith and her family regretfully returned to the camp, where life had become considerably more difficult. Beatings from the police were more common now.
Director of ORAT Dr. Martin Mike, met Edith and her family in the refugee camp on a visit from Toronto. Seeing her living conditions, he asked her to write her story which he believed would help bring attention from a sponsor. 12 hours later, he returned to the camp and met her, saying that he had started a sponsorship for her. These sponsorships can take a day, or sometimes up to six months to process. The sponsorship for Edith and her family took three years to complete, due to a conflict between the previously sponsored family which temporarily cut the ties between this Catholic Church in Toronto, and the refugees in Ghana.
Fearing for her life and the safety of her family, Edith does not see herself ever returning to Liberia.
Before coming to Canada, Edith had an idea of what this place would be, but upon arriving, she found that her assumptions were incorrect. Canada brought her and her family more peace than she could have ever hoped for.
“Life in the refugee camp was very hard for us, (it was) a struggle,” said Edith. “I went through a lot of both physical and emotional trauma. Being here, I found so much peace, joy and happiness.”
Before the Liberian war, Edith owned a successful restaurant in Liberia and cooked for many people. Coming to Canada, Edith found a job as a sushi chef at the Fernie Save-on-Foods, through the help of a friend, as well as assistant manager, Lori Dvorak.
Outside of work, Dvorak has helped her family by purchasing clothes and other materials for her children. Currently, Edith’s two oldest children as well as her younger boy, have found jobs in Fernie. Her children are becoming immersed in local programs, as well as the local high school soccer program.
Fernie Friends of Refugees sponsored Edith and her family to come to Canada. They currently pay their rent and support them with funding for food and clothing. Edith and her two oldest children are upgrading their education at the College of the Rockies. Edith has chosen to pursue nursing.
“First of all, I would like to extend my thanks and appreciation to the almighty God, who has made me and my family, my lovely kids, to reach this far,” said Edith. “My thanks goes to Mrs. Ramona, she worked hard to get a house for us. I would also like to thank Miggy, Kimberly, and Brengly; she did a lot for us too. I would like to thank all of the Fernie Friends of Refugees, and I want to extend my thanks most of all to the community of Fernie. They have done well for us.
“And I want to say thanks to Lori at my working place, Mike my Manager, and all the friends at Save-on-Foods; they are lovely people, they are so friendly… God Bless them,” she added.
Edith’s oldest son, Darlonton Thomson escaped from the largest refugee camp in Ghana known as Buduburam, after he was nearly beaten to death by a group of local men for his possessions. Edith did not hear from him for over six months, and had no idea where he was. Now, back in Ghana, 27-year-old Thompson is still in need of a sponsorship to join his family in Canada.