Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 26, 2000
Overwhelmed by joy
Refugees welcomed by parish after escaping war-ravaged Sierra Leone
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
Augustine Marah's Edmonton family suddenly grew from four to 20 on June 15.
"Sixteen lives are safe," he exclaimed. "I am overwhelmed by joy."
Marah's 16 relatives escaped from war-ravaged Sierra Leone, sleeping in the bush and living as refugees in neighbouring Guinea for a year before making their way to Canada, sponsored by Edmonton's Assumption Parish.
"I could have never done this on my own," Marah said. "I wouldn't have even been able to sponsor more than five by myself."
Marah, his wife and two children were joined by a dozen parishioners and news media when they welcomed 16 tired members of his family at the airport. Smiling shyly, they nodded and politely answered questions about their flight and thanked parishioners who welcomed them to their new home.
"I'm excited and happy to be here," said Daniel Kolloi Mara, Augustine Marah's brother. "We are safe here, we have nothing to worry about."
Accompanying Mara were his wife, eight children, three brothers and two nieces and a nephew.
Marah has been in Edmonton for almost 20 years, coming to the University of Alberta as a student. He is now owner and principal of a private school, AIC Alberta International College.
His last visit to Sierra Leone was 11 years ago, about the same time war broke out in the country. But it wasn't until last year when rebel armies brought bloodshed to Freetown, the nation's capital, that Marah's family was in danger.
Tension between the government and rebel army has been ongoing since 1991 when the military took over the country. Shortly after Sierra Leone held its first free election in 1996, the new president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, was ousted by renegade forces.
Kabbah regained power in March 1998, but the following January was attacked by the rebel army which took over half of Freetown and turned it into a battlefield. Although United Nations peacekeepers entered the country last fall, there is continued brutality and widespread banditry.
Mara's family escaped from their home at the height of the rebels' surprise attack. They travelled during the night along the coast. During the day, they hid in the bushes. It was difficult particularly since they had young children with them. Mara's youngest daughter, Kaiha, was only three weeks old when the family fled the country.
He remembers it being difficult to keep the young baby well fed and quiet while they were hiding.
"If they find you, they would kill you," he said. "You were always afraid for your life."
They arrived at the refugee camp in Guinea, but life there was not much better. They were harassed by the locals and camp security personnel.
The family lived in crowded unsanitary camps, which were so filthy, people were dying, said Marah, who was sending his family money so they could live outside the camp.
"We were praying everyday, every hour that (the sponsorship) would go through," Mara said.
In Edmonton Marah shared his worries with parishioners, one of whom asked if anything could be done for his family. After discussions with Father Archibald MacKenzie and the rest of the congregation, the parish decided to sponsor Marah's family.
"The biggest surprise was the willingness of the parish to sponsor 16 people. I have no words to describe what that means to me," Marah said.
Through the archdiocese's sponsorship program, the parish began the paperwork in March 1999. While the application went through the government approvals, Marah and the parish were busy getting everything else ready.
Clothing, bedding and general household items were donated and sorted. The parish raised $10,000 to help the family get started. A car was donated and a parishioner who had moved into a seniors' manor offered her four-bedroom duplex for rent. Another parishioner helped to find the adult family members, who all speak English, full-time jobs at local Wendy's restaurants.
"Everything just fell into place," said parishioner Gerry Parent.
Parent, who has been instrumental in fixing up the rental duplex and sorting out donations, sees the work as part of his faith and obligation as a Catholic.
"I feel better knowing that I can help someone," Parent said.
When Mara's family fled their hometown, they had no plans for the future.
"When you escape from a place like that, you don't think about what you will do," Marah said. "They were running for their lives, they were running from danger. Their plan was to stay alive."
Mara is relieved knowing he and his family are out of danger. "I am here now," he said looking out at the rainy city. "There is nothing to worry about."