Flobert Kadja and his wife, Louisa, both have different stories of how they arrived and made a home in Utica. They both came from two different countries and left due to two different conflicts, but like all great love stories, they overcame their struggles and found each other — and love — in the end.
Louisa is a former refugee from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, who spent most of her teenage years in refugee camps located in neighboring West African countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, fleeing from one to the next when the environment became too violent to stay. Flobert sought political asylum from his home country, Cameroon. Now, they live peaceful lives with their children.
Their pasts, though, lend insight into larger global struggles, but they know how fortunate they truly are in the Mohawk Valley — thousands of miles from where they were born.
Blood and Diamonds
The Liberian Civil War started Christmas Eve 1989 when Libyan-trained rebels led by Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast. Taylor started off as a powerful war lord and later progressed to president in 1997 with help from his National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
Taylor took advantage of Sierra Leone’s diamond trade by arming rebels in exchange for uncut diamonds, in what Louisa and many others call a “blood diamond” war. During the late 1990’s, four percent of the world’s diamonds were considered to be conflict diamonds.
“When the world realized the diamonds that were ending up on their fingers, ears and necks were driving conflicts that’s when they became known as blood diamonds,” said Johnny Dwyer, NYU journalism professor and author of “American Warlord.”
This conflict lasted until 1997, and would become one of Africa’s bloodiest wars, claiming the lives of more than 150,000 Liberians, displacing more than a million and creating 700,000 refugees who fled the country. The second civil war would start two years later and last until 2003, totaling 14 years of violence.
Life On The Run
Before the war began, Louisa described her life as “being good.”
She went to private school and her parents both worked, her father as a journalist. She described her life as normal, although admits because she was young, she did not pay attention to the politics around her at the time.
While home in the capital for a school break, her mother knew that war was approaching due to whispers and the fact that when the sun came up, bodies would be lying in the streets. This would later make her gather her family and drive until they reached Sierra Leone, about 395 miles away.
However, this was not what prompted her family to uproot their life and flee. While her family was sleeping one night, members of Taylor’s rebels broke into her house and murdered her aunt, leaving her in a pool of her own blood in the street like so many others, who come morning, would be lying in the sun, their bodies long cold.
Louisa, a teenager at the start of all this turmoil, witnessed things that no one — let alone a 15 year old girl — should have.
“I had friends, classmates, die,” Louisa said. “We were all supposed to be together, and they were killed in the war.”
Louisa and her family stayed in Sierra Leone for about two years until, while sleeping on a “bright and early morning” she heard a bomb that would not only uproot her life again, but separate her from her family.
“I have nightmares most of the time about this part of the war,” Louisa said. “I heard guns, I heard bombs. I had to jump out of my room and I was separated from my family for about a month until I found them again. I was devastated I didn’t know where they were, but I had hope I would see them because people would tell me that they saw them.”
Louisa went from stability to a life on the run as a refugee that would span nearly 15 years — the same amount of time she lived in Liberia — until her life changed forever.
Life in the Refugee Camps
Louisa walked about 175 miles from Sierra Leone to Guinea and then from Guinea to the Ivory Coast, which was a three-to-four month walk and about 529 miles, leaving painful bruises and blisters covering her feet.
“You are not living in the place you were living in before,” Louisa said. “I witnessed part of the war, I wasn’t living in a house, I was in an open area. I was so scared.”
Growing up in the refugee camps, Louisa thought that she was not going to have a better future.
“All my dreams died,” Louisa said. “We never thought we were going to be here today. I remember thinking about what [food] we have for the day. It wasn’t easy, it was tough. It was tough in the refugee camp. The only thing they would give us was food, no money. Food cannot buy you clothes; it cannot take you to a doctor. It’s just food.”
Louisa and her family arrived directly in Utica on Dec. 2, 2005, after applying for and being granted resettlement.
“It changed my life,” Louisa said. “Honestly speaking, looking back, I am blessed.”
Flobert Kadja was born and raised in Cameroon, a country located in Western Africa, on the gulf of Guinea.
Like his wife, Flobert fled his country because it became unsafe to stay. However, when he came to the U.S, he did so as a political asylum seeker, not a refugee.
To be an asylum seeker, you must apply to do so. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), asylum seekers are different than refugees because they are seeking protection from a country they have already entered. Every year, there are one million requests for asylum.
Since 1982, Paul Biya has been in power. Under Biya’s rule, many human rights violations have occurred such as disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detainment, poor prison conditions and restrictions of freedom of expression including harassment and violence against journalists.
“It was very bad with the political situation, regime here,” Flobert said. “There are no human rights, torture. You don’t have any rights in your country, no freedom of expression, press all those things, only the government has the rights. In the U.S., it’s different. You have the right to say things, to give your opinion, over there it is not the same — you can’t say anything like you would here in the U.S.”
Despite there being many problems under his rule such as lack of jobs, healthcare, rampant corruption and a severe recession — Biya continued to be reelected in 1992, 1997 and 2004 — and all these elections raised questions of fraud.
“He puts everything together to win, he wants to die and be president,” Flobert said. “He is chief of everything in the country, chief of justice, commander and chief, everything. I was shocked, when my niece called me and said he wanted to run again, I couldn’t believe it.”
While still living in Cameroon, Kadja went to college and majored in accounting. During this time, he had seen some of his friends killed for protesting.
“When they try to raise [their] voice, they don’t let them do that, they send police military,” Flobert said. ”A lot of friends died during those [protests], a lot of my friends.”
In Cameroon, in order to get a job, you would need to know someone in the government. A majority of those who are college educated end up with no-end jobs.
The lack of jobs, human rights and freedom of expression are part of the reasons why Flobert left his home country to apply for asylum in the U.S. so that he could have a better life.
“When I try to look back what I left in my own country, it’s terrible compared to my life in the United States,” Flobert said. “It’s different in U.S, everyone has chance for work, you can have a normal day. I love being in the United States, I love being here.”
In 2008, Flobert arrived to Las Vegas and stayed there for two months before coming to Utica to to start the asylum process. They met the same year when Louisa’s sister introduced them to each other.
During this time, Louisa was attending Utica College to become a nurse.
Four years later, after Louisa finished school, they were married in Trinity Church, where he became the congregation president in 2014.
“I got to support her while she was going to school, be on her side, tell her that she can do it,” he said. “You always need someone in life to give you motivation, to push you forward and tell you that you can.”
Helping Louisa while she was finishing her degree is what Flobert considers to be one of his greatest accomplishments. The other is their four year old daughter, Florette, whom he described as being a “Utica baby” — born and raised in the same church in which they were married.
Focusing on the future of their children is one of their biggest priorities now that Louisa is finished with school.
“My biggest hope [was to] be able to take care of my family and kids,” Flobert said. “I have a great hope for them. I know they have a bright future, they have a chance to go to school, college, to be able to help society and the community. That is my great hope for them, a good education.”
The data visualization below shows the number of refugees arriving in the Mohawk Valley — and from their country of origin — from 1973 to today. Data Source: Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.
Maggie Reid is a junior at Utica College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.