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Africa visit leaves ex-refugee grateful America was welcoming

Kindergarten students dance for their teacher at the Prempeh College Kindergarten in Kumasi, Ghana, an early childhood education program supported by Israel. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

It was my first trip back to Africa in too many years, I’m ashamed to say.

Having immigrated to the United States as a refugee of the Nigerian-Biafran War in 1969, I’d only gone back once, though my mother and siblings have visited many, many times.

In the last two years, as I completed my book, “Escape From Nigeria: A Memoir of Faith, Love and War,” I had relived the horrors of a war that had ended with my family’s miraculous escape from Biafra — while more than 2 million of my Igbo tribe died of starvation and massacre.

I hadn’t been back to Africa in more years than I care to admit, because I’d get teased about it.

When I was invited to join a foreign press delegation to Ghana — sponsored by the Israel Consulate in New York — to view how its international development agency MASHAV supports education and health programs in West Africa, I jumped at it.

I arrived in Ghana on Jan. 22, and days later we heard the news of President Donald Trump’s imminent executive order banning immigration from Muslim-majority nations Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya for at least 90 days — Syria indefinitely.

Trump’s order came down on Jan. 27, the day we returned to the U.S., disembarking at JFK Airport to find foreigners and fearful immigrants glued to TVs streaming the news. We barely escaped the next day’s chaos at airports nationwide.

It was on this trip, and in the weekend following, that I would relive gratitude for the words carved on the Statue of Liberty, which had welcomed my rag-tag family of seven Biafran refugees 48 years ago.

I understand why the U.S. beckons, for the disadvantaged and conflict-displaced the world over.

And I understand the fear of many immigrants in Chicago: What’s next?

Over four days in Ghana, we stayed in the capital city of Accra, metropolitan as any U.S.city, but just outside the central city is a whole different story.

A woman sells suya, spicy grilled shish kebab, at the side of the road in Kumasi, Ghana, where roadside vending of everything from food to clothes is the only way many survive. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times
A woman sells suya, spicy grilled shish kebab, at the side of the road in Kumasi, Ghana, where roadside vending of everything from food to clothes is the only way many survive. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

It was a two-hour drive the first day from Accra to Cape Coast, home of one of Ghana’s “slave castles” used by European traders in the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade. That was followed by a visit to the Project 10 program in Winneba, where young Israeli adults run a Boys and Girls Club for local children.

The children flock there to learn and play, some with no shoes and no shirts; others, disabled.

To drive through Ghana’s countryside is to witness devastating poverty — as with any developing country. So much of its 27 million population is stuck in a third-world struggle for survival: shanty towns of improvised housing of plywood, corrugated metal, plastic and cardboard; outdoor toilets, lack of sanitation; fleeting electricity; lack of running water.

Flying to Kumasi on the second day to visit the Prempeh College Kindergarten, where Israel has helped implement an early childhood education system, the beautiful faces of the children — Ghana’s future — stayed with me. But so did the hordes of poor plagued by illness, awaiting care and filling seemingly every corner of Suntreso Hospital, where we went to see an innovative birthing unit supported by Israel.

There was the visit to the new $275 million, 650-bed University of Ghana Medical Centre in Accra, which will open in April. Funded by Israel, it’s the first world-class hospital, not only in Ghana but in that entire West African region.

And in Chorkor, an overpopulated fishing village, I choked up watching the street children served by BASICS International. The school was founded by Patricia Wilkins, a black woman from Brooklyn with grant funding from Israel, to tackle illiteracy and poverty among the extreme poor who live off less than $1.25 a day.

Departing for the airport on the fourth day, I could see the five-star European hotel only as symbol of a standard of living the poor passing outside its gates could never hope to attain. How could they?

In third-world and second-world countries, where government corruption reigns, vast national resources are squandered and pocketed by officials and the elite. The rich in the central city lounge in restaurants seemingly plucked from Chicago, while the poor scrape to feed families in shantytowns. There’s no such thing as the American Dream.

Despite the magnificent, lush oceanside landscape, I was ready to come home to America, built on the hope of immigrants, where the dream exists that with hard work, anybody can climb the economic ladder; where there is electricity, solid housing, running water, sewers.

And as I watched with other African immigrants this past weekend the chaos created by the president’s order at airports worldwide, I felt their fear when even green card holders were held.

Because what’s next? Revocation of green cards? Revocation of citizenship for those of us from another place now immensely blessed to call America our home? Sound far-fetched? Maybe. But things previously believed so have come to pass.