July 6, 2003 - Denver Post: RPCV Nancy Vorkink seeks to sponsor Liberian Refugee

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RPCV Nancy Vorkink seeks to sponsor Liberian Refugee

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Loyal friend best hope for war refugees*

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Loyal friend best hope for war refugees
By Diane Carman, Denver Post Columnist

In situation rooms in presidential palaces around the world, decisions on international relations, peacekeeping and military troop deployments are made according to the numbers. Cost-benefit ratios are analyzed; risk factors measured; potential casualties are weighed.

Love doesn't enter into it.

But in a living room in Denver, that's all that matters.

Nancy Vorkink keeps pictures of the young man who's the closest thing to a son she's ever known. He's married now. He has a 3-year-old daughter. He's desperate.

And, like a mother, Vorkink worries about him night and day.

Vorkink was serving in the Peace Corps in Liberia in 1977 when she met Daniel Poawalio. He was in his teens, "very sweet, shy, hard-working and trustworthy."

He was one of six children from a family of subsistence farmers in the rainforest in the far north of Liberia. For him, attending school was a fabulous luxury. For him, getting to know Vorkink was like having a window to the world.

"He was my best student and my house assistant," Vorkink said. "He took care of me when I had malaria. He did cooking chores and cleaning in my mud-brick house. In exchange, he was able to eat a bowl of rice with a little extra meat every day."

In 1980, Vorkink moved to Denver. She taught English at the Community College of Denver, all the while worrying about Daniel.

A coup d'etat in 1980 thrust the Liberians into years of turmoil. She struggled to keep in touch with Daniel, sending him money to pay for his college education. Many of her other students had found their way out of Liberia. With education, she thought he might have the same opportunity.

In 1989, he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in economics.

But that same year, the country erupted in civil war, a conflict that would continue for eight years and claim more than 150,000 lives. Vorkink didn't hear from Daniel. She feared he was dead.

After the war, she tracked him down in Monrovia and they talked by phone, their first conversation in many years. He had found a government job that paid $25 a month. He was married and had a new baby.

But the ethnic conflicts continued. The country was unstable and unsafe.

Since he had met Vorkink, he'd been clinging to the dream of coming to the U.S. for graduate school. She had opened his eyes to his potential. Even after all these years, he hadn't abandoned hope, but mere survival was consuming all his available resources.

Vorkink monitored the political situation in Liberia and was very concerned. Last summer, she decided she had to do something to get the family out. "I contacted my friends and we started a group, The Friends of Daniel."

About a dozen in all, the Friends each contributed $25 a month to assist the family. The first $600 helped them flee Liberia. They escaped to the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, but it was hardly a happy situation.

They were in a compound with 40,000 other homeless Liberians. "Even for Daniel, who knows hunger and poverty," Vorkink said, the conditions were "shocking."

"It is unbelievable squalor."

Because they are refugees, Daniel and his wife, an accountant, are not allowed to work. The Friends continue wiring money to help pay for materials for a small mud-brick house, a water tank and food.

Daniel also is trying to establish a business venture. He buys hand-woven kente cloth from Ashanti weavers and sends it to Vorkink to sell in Denver.

Still, they're barely surviving.

Their daughter suffers from malaria and dysentery, and her parents fear for her future. Plus, Daniel is nearly 40, an old man by African standards.

So, Vorkink has decided it's time to bring the family here.

"No family anywhere should have to go without the basics for so long," she said.

She knows there are thousands more like Daniel, but the numbers don't make the plight of her dear friend any less compelling. "I never forgot his warmth toward me in a strange land, and I would welcome his sunny face again."

She is seeking a sponsor to bring him to the U.S. "I'm on a fixed income. I can't do it myself," she says.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service requires sponsors to present affidavits proving that they have sufficient means to support the family for at least one year.

"I just keep thinking there must be someone, some church or some organization that could help," she said.

She is sending e-mails, rallying her friends, trying anything. She's just a 62-year-old woman with a friend in harm's way.

As the chaos in Liberia grabs our attention and Americans contemplate the geopolitical, economic, foreign policy questions about what should be done and what it means, Vorkink offers no answers, no easy solutions.

Just a simple plea from one war-weary human being to another: to care.

Diane Carman's column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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