Last September at Oakland International Airport, Robert Wilson, his wife, and two grandchildren debarked from their first airplane ride into a haze of culture shock. After more than a decade in Ivorian refugee camps they were, in the words of International Rescue Committee caseworkers, like “empty shells.” Donning layers of clothing and bath towels, they spent their first days in America huddled in a Fruitvale apartment, freezing in their new climate and wary of the intimidating world outside.
Their new home is a dark, boxy flat where toilet paper is rationed and family members, out of habit, still wash and bathe with buckets rather than use the shower, according to volunteers who work closely with the family. Outside is Fruitvale Avenue—a hub of Mexican-run lunch carts and colorful fruit stands alongside brick walls stained in Cambodian gang graffiti. But the Wilsons seldom stray far from the complex. Unaccustomed to city life, they still view with bewilderment such mundane tasks as buying things from a store, using appliances, and getting their kids to school. “It would be like dropping off a New Yorker in the middle of a forest in Africa and asking him to find his way around,” notes Les Casher, a Berkeley writer who spent seven years in the Peace Corps in Liberia.
The family is part of a loose community of one hundred Liberians the IRC recently resettled in East Oakland—roughly sixteen of them in the Fruitvale complex. They come mainly from rural, agricultural backgrounds, with little exposure to urban settings due to their country’s fourteen-year civil war, which has displaced some 840,000 Liberians, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. San Francisco IRC Director Don Climent expects that hundreds more of these displaced families will arrive in Oakland in the upcoming years.
Oakland’s latest residents are, at least, preceded by a Bay Area Liberian community of about three thousand who immigrated prior to the war and have previously worked or attended school in the capital, Monrovia. The refugees also have the advantage of speaking English, albeit in one of several dialects. Most Liberians also speak one or more indigenous languages, plus French or Creole.
Rufus Berry, president of the Liberia Community Association of Northern California, who holds Oakland workshops for refugees on the dos and don’ts of US culture, says he gets calls ranging from the bizarre—such as whether a brick of cheese can be used for cleaning, or apple juice to oil a pan—to the serious, such as where to go if your child has a 105-degree fever. Although IRC caseworkers are working to ensure refugees know where the nearest health facilities are, and will accompany them to medical appointments to help out, Berry says some new arrivals need more than the IRC can provide. He is especially concerned about the refugees understanding the concept of a nine-to-five job, and their ability to pay back their plane fares to the IRC, a precondition for them to come here under refugee status.
“A lot of them are getting in debt and they don’t understand that,” Bronson says, noting that some families are already thousands of dollars behind on medical expenses. “I go through their mail, and it’s like urgent notice after urgent notice.”