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'We have to fit into this puzzle': Fargo's growing Liberian community seeks center of its own

FARGO - Liberia was still rebuilding after 14 years of civil war and upheaval when Ebola struck the West African nation in 2014 and 2015. The virus killed over 4,800 people - a nightmare for Liberians everywhere, including those in the U.S."We ha...

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Christian Harris, board chairman for the United Liberian Association of North Dakota, shown participating in Welcome Week in 2015 with, from left, Norah Ogunti and Korto Parker. Fargo's Liberian community will inaugurate its new leaders Saturday, April 22. Special to The Forum
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FARGO - Liberia was still rebuilding after 14 years of civil war and upheaval when Ebola struck the West African nation in 2014 and 2015. The virus killed over 4,800 people - a nightmare for Liberians everywhere, including those in the U.S.

"We had a long civil war that basically crippled us, and we're finally starting to walk again and Ebola took the crutches from us," said Albert Peters, a Minnesota State University Moorhead student whose family left Liberia when he was a boy.

In the shadow of these tragedies, Liberians in the Fargo-Moorhead area say they're trying to unify their community, which continues to grow as Liberians move here from western North Dakota now that the oil boom has cooled.

"We'll remain resilient, and we'll continue to do what is necessary to seek the interest and welfare of our fellow Liberians," said Christian Harris, board chairman for the United Liberian Association of North Dakota (ULAND), an organization founded in 2006.

On Saturday, April 22, ULAND will hold a ceremony to inaugurate its leaders elected by the community in December. The event is also a fundraiser to establish a Liberian community center, said JSaywala Kennedy, ULAND's new president.

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Here and elsewhere, it's common for immigrant groups to elect their own officials. It's a way for a group to organize and designate leaders who can help the community bridge cultural gaps, said Peters, ULAND's new secretary general.

"We have to fit into this puzzle that we call America," the 26-year-old said. "We don't want to be separated from the community of Fargo. We are part of this community."

ULAND officials, who meet monthly, say their top priority is raising money to create a community center with programs for kids, elders, mothers and job-seekers. "We need those things so that we can be able to help our people up," Kennedy said.

Kennedy, 41, said many Liberians have moved to Fargo to be closer to family and to find job security and educational opportunities. A recent count done by the community found that more than 4,700 Liberians live in the Fargo area, which has 16 Liberian-owned businesses, he said. According to a 2015 census estimate, over 77,000 Liberian-born people reside in the U.S.

Harris, who runs the nonprofit New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment, said many Liberians speak English but need training to fill certain jobs. Some don't know how to use computers and need help with applications, Kennedy said.

Another challenge is finding affordable child care. Harris said many Liberian parents can't cover the cost of child care, so children are left with baby sitters rather than day care centers that promote learning.

With elderly people, there's the challenge of keeping track of their health. Kennedy recalled the death of an older Liberian man here whose body was not discovered in his home until four days after he died.

"In Liberia, it's hard for that to happen because we see one another every day," he said.

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If you go

What: Inauguration ceremony for the new leaders of the United Liberian Association of North Dakota, as well as a fundraiser to create a Liberian community center

Where: F-M Curling Club, 4300 23rd Ave. S., Fargo

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, April 22

Related Topics: MOORHEAD
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