When Monrovia gets to be too much, I curl up in bed and relax with my Kindle and iPod. When that’s not enough, I remind myself that in a few weeks I’ll head home to Marion, where, until we start school again, the biggest challenge my friends and I will face is whether we should sunbathe on the dock or the boat.
There is something beyond minor inconveniences, though, that I can’t escape with my books or impending return to the US. In fact, those comforts just compound my anxiety. My main source of stress is the desperation I see, and the feeling that I can’t help in any meaningful, long term way as a student journalist here for only two months.
Catherine, the laundry woman at my guest house, is 35, but she looks twenty years older. She earns US $50 per month and lives in a leaky shack that floods when the rains come. Recently, she’s begun asking my friend to take her picture and show it to people in the US. She believes that an American man will see her photo, agree to marry her, and bring her to the US to start a new, prosperous life. Failing that, she hopes the poverty evident in the picture will prompt a kind soul to sponsor her and help her immigrate. “I’ll be in New York,” she repeats, “and it will all be thanks to my friend here.” She sees my friend, a fellow Yale student, as her bridge to America.
Marcus, 18, is one of the young men who lives in the guest house compound. Last week, he asked me to look at an unsolicited email he received. It was from a company that proofreads green card applications. They charge 170 Euros per application round. “My mom is doing it too,” he told me proudly. “We’re going to come to America.” He had diligently filled out the information form, but was stumped by the page that asked for a credit card payment. When I explained what the page wanted, and that the service did not guarantee a green card, there was no flicker of understanding in his eyes, and his mouth remained in a puzzled frown. “So then you can get the embassy to help me,” he resolved, reading back over all of the information he had entered. Marcus is a literate high school student, but it wasn’t enough to understand the subtleties of internet spam, or the even greater intricacies of the US immigration process.
It’s heartbreaking to realize that people want to escape their lives here and have pinned their hopes on me, or people like me, and that I can’t help them. To be sure, plenty of Liberians live comfortably and want to stay. Moreover, I have met a number of people who have earned college degrees in the US or Europe and returned to Liberia; oftentimes, these are the people who see the most potential in their country, and they work to promote economic growth, education, and democracy here. Nevertheless, just as many Liberians live in the hollow shells of buildings destroyed by the war, squeezing out livings selling peanuts on the side of the road. They see me, an American, and assume that I have the wealth and connections to secure them a comfortable life in the US.
How do I tell somebody that I don’t even have the ability to snag a spot in the seminar I want to take, let alone sweep him through the immigration process? Should I try to explain that while I am relatively wealthy by Liberian standards, I am merely an unemployed college student? And then there is the thought that is the most honest, but also the hardest to confront: that in the US, we are bombarded with appeals for help and images of poverty every day, and one particular Liberian photo or anecdote will probably elicit little more than a few sympathetic words.
White man’s guilt, First World problems – call it what you like. As I try to grapple with the various realities and potential explanations and philosophical thoughts that swirl through my mind, I feel guilty. And exhausted. I would curl up with my Kindle and iPod, but won’t that make me feel worse?