From Detroit to Liberia: Why I left America to find home
“I am moving back to Liberia.” The words shocked me to say out loud. But after 26 years in the United States, the timing seemed right.
I had just turned 30. My successful sports management public relations business was at a turning point, and I’d proved myself. But there arose a yearning I couldn’t suppress: a desire to return to Liberia, my homeland.
My mother and I fled Liberia in 1990 after a violent civil war erupted that engulfed the country for more than a decade and killed 600,000 people. Growing up as a first generation Americo-Liberian presented many challenges. My mother was on edge at every turn because she landed in a strange place, causing her at times to be extremely overprotective.
I remember in grade school wanting to assimilate so badly because I had a trace of a Liberian accent that I was desperately trying to get rid of. I was teased often, repeatedly being called an “African Booty Scratcher,” a crude epithet whose meaning I still haven’t figured out. Still, it left me feeling ashamed of being who I was, ashamed that my family was from this strange land, this “Dark Continent.”
Most of the teasing came from children who looked just like me. Those who didn’t tease me were no less fascinated, completely intrigued by this “alien” who spoke strangely. So I assimilated because I had to. I became fully American – whatever that means – and because of where I was raised, other African-Americans viewed me as a “black white suburban girl.”
It didn’t help that I came from a mixed background – my mother, although a Liberian, had roots in the Middle East: her father was a Lebanese businessman who settled in Buchanan, Liberia. The ongoing and bitter intraracial battle in black America between “team light skin” and “team dark skin” was not much different in Liberian culture, except they aren’t as politically correct as black Americans. I am still called “white woman” and “mulatto.” Simply put, I never felt as if I fit in anywhere, floating through life trying to figure out who I really was.
My first trip back to Liberia came in 2002 when the country became stable enough for my younger sister and I to visit. I remember being annoyed with the thought that I’d be deprived of my first world conveniences. But when I got there, I was overcome with a completely different emotion, a sense of belonging, a sense of, finally, being home.
Little did I know that this trip planted in me the bug that made me more open to where I had come from. I found myself saying, “I will move back here once I retire.” It wasn’t until 2013, when my father, who had never lived in America and served as Chief Justice Minister and Head Of The Human Rights Council – passed away.
With his death, there was a shift: I no longer sought to fit in, to be accepted in America. I was consumed with the urge to return to where I truly, genuinely, originally, belonged. After traveling to bury my father in a grand homegoing service in my family’s graveyard, everything started to come together.
So many people are using Ancestory.com to trace their roots, and here I was right in the middle of my heritage, living and breathing it. I didn’t have to consult the Internet; I embraced my inner network of kin and loved ones. My father was laid to rest next to his mother, who was buried next to his father.
I came to the sobering realization that we own the land and that generations of our family rest in peace together. In the same town of Careysburg (one of the original settlements established by the freed Americo-Liberian enslaved), I visited the house my father built, and that I grew up in, the church I was christened in, and even the house my father and his eleven siblings grew up in that was still standing. It made me proud in a way nothing in America could match.
These surging and powerful emotions, along with my need to be around family, prompted me to make a bold decision: I would pack up 26 years of my life, leave behind most of what I knew, and venture back – perhaps for the first real time – home.
It has been almost three months since I’ve moved. Although Liberia faces many challenges, I am determined to make it here! After growing up in Detroit, Michigan, a place that has been considered one of the worst cities in America, I was nevertheless able to flourish, create a successful business and contribute to the resurgence of what is an amazing place.
As the renaissance continues in Detroit, my peers who once left for greener pastures are returning to help revitalize the city. I can’t help but think of Liberia, which needs the same type of revolution. Many refugees from the war have now settled in the western world and acquired education and work experience that can change the state of our country. Liberia now ranks as the third poorest nation in the world.
Many people ask if the reason behind my move was a result of the recent election in the United States, and honestly, I can say ‘no.’ But the current state of the world still concerns me. Suddenly, a place that I sought refuge in almost three decades ago is sending a message to people that they are not welcome here.
Everything I grew up believing I have now started to question. Even some the friendships that I’ve cherished since childhood I sit and reevaluate: “How can this person be my friend when they agree with these ideals? The children of Syria could easily have been the children of Liberia.”
All of this has brought me to one conclusion: It’s time to invest in Africa (Liberia). Not only invest my presence but also whatever talents I can bring to my country/region.
I now understand “America” is no longer the land of opportunity that many Africans and foreigners aspire to get to — for many, it’s where their journey ends. But this is where my real story begins.
As I began my journey, I decided this story is too important not to document, so I began a vlog entitled Philimena.com that shows the good and bad, but above all, the real of my beloved, if beleaguered, country. The purpose of this blog is to erase stereotypes of Africa as a whole, and to highlight and showcase the Africa that doesn’t penetrate the mainstream media. I’m investing even more in my people’s history, my present, and hopefully, my future, inspiring others through my vlog to lay claim to their heritage with great pride and passion.
Follow Royda Urey on Instagram at @Philmena.