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Waiting for the smoke to clear: Liberians in Minnesota
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University of Minnesota engineering student Allen Gbatu tries to build an AM radio receiver. Gbatu is one of many college-aged Liberians who have plans to help rebuild their country. (MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)
As peacekeeping troops wait to enter Liberia, there's another, less visible, group waiting in the wings in Minnesota. More than 20,000 Liberians live in exile in the Twin Cities. Many of these are young Liberians who are in school receiving training and developing skills to rebuild their homeland.

Minneapolis, Minn. — In a University of Minnesota lab, engineering student Allen Gbatu fiddles with the controls of a monitor measuring radio waves. He says his latest assignment, constructing an AM radio receiver, will require a lot of work.

But for Gbatu, a Liberian, radio-building is simple compared to what he has in mind for his war-torn homeland.

Much of Liberia's electricity comes from a single dam in its capitol, Monrovia. After Gbatu graduates, he plans to return home to help design dams for each of Liberia's five major rivers so that the country can sell electricity to other African nations.

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Image Liberia's next generation

Liberia's current turmoil makes this dream seem distant, but Gbatu's confident that once the fighting stops, his homeland will be well-positioned to receive foreign investment for such a project.

"A good location in West Africa, we speak English, we have the same attitiude we have in America here. As a matter of fact, in most West African countries, they call Liberia 'the United States of Africa.' The only thing is: political stability," says Gbatu.

Gbatu and fellow Liberian student Andrew Tehmeh grab some relaxation time in a student lounge. Between schoolwork and trying to get a hold of their families in Monrovia, downtime is hard to come by. Neither of them have heard from their families in over a week. Like most Liberians affected by the war, they're not taking sides. Gbatu says both sides are playing a dangerous and corrupt game.

"We have to get rid of the ballplayers we have now. That's old team. In America, we call them 'old school.' We got to look at the new school generation. That's us," says Gbatu.

Tehmeh nods his head in agreement. He plans to return to Liberia after he graduates, too. His dream is to establish a service to provide legal advice to Liberians who can't afford it.

"There are a lot of people whose life I'm going to touch in Liberia as compared to here. And that's what kind of draws me back home," says Tehmeh.

When the two elephants fight, the grass suffers.
- Liberian proverb which describes the current conflict

Tehmeh says he and Gbatu's dedication to their homeland isn't unique. He estimates that 60 percent of Liberians his age want to head home once peace returns.

Wynfred Russell is a professor of African Studies at the University of Minnesota. Russell, who's also Liberian, says a surprising number of college-aged Liberians are using their time to develop skills that will be needed when the smoke clears.

"A lot of the Liberians that I come in touch with see this as their time, their generational time, to make a difference, and they don't want that opportunity to pass them by," says Russell.

Russell says close ties to the United States make many Liberians feel they can come back to the U.S. with relative ease. But for Liberian student Andrew Tehmeh, this sense of comfort doesn't matter. Even with the impact of decades of civil war, he prefers the quality of life in Liberia to his life here.

"In Liberia, it takes very little to survive and lead a very good life," he says. "And when I say good, I mean a life with dignity, a job with dignity. Here it's full of stress, regardless of your status. You can have a doctorate degree, you can have a GED, it doesn't matter. This place is stressful."

Tehmeh says the biggest obstacle to a return to Liberia is an older generation caught up in an endless conflict. Professor Wynfred Russell illustrates the conundrum by reciting an old Liberian proverb.

"'When the two elephants fight, the grass suffers.' These elephants that are fighting, they could care less about the people. The food supply has been cut, the water supply has been cut. Look at the pictures coming from the country, it's appalling," says Russell.

Russell says as long as Liberia's older generation holds onto power through its current means, students like Allen Gbatu and Andrew Tehmeh will continue to wait in the grass, hoping the elephants go away.

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