Survivors sing to help others escape

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Oretha's face is a map of human cruelty and kindness.

The Liberian refugee lost her sight while being tortured; rebels at war with the Liberian government threw gunpowder and other chemicals in her eyes. Her teeth were broken after coming to the U.S. and becoming trapped in an exploitive situation without access to medical care.

Now, Oretha lives with her husband, Emmanuel Roberts, in an apartment on Brandt Road in Vancouver — and even though both of them are blind, they envision a reunited family and happier times. Oretha's bright, hopeful, uncertain smile beams out from a bridge she just had installed a few weeks ago, with help from the Washington State Office of Services for the Blind.

On Sunday, Emmanuel's singing group, African Gospel Acappella, will perform a donations-only concert to raise the $5,500 it will take to get Oretha's daughter and granddaughter off the streets and out of Liberia.

"She has a market stall, selling small little things," said Oretha. "She's not really doing anything."

Emmanuel added that work is so scarce and conditions so tough in Liberia, "Everybody works but you only survive by the grace of God."

Emmanuel grew up in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia. When still a toddler, he lost his sight to measles and the "country medicines" used to treat it, he said. When he was a teenager, though, he attended a missionary-run school for the blind in Monrovia — and that's where he met other blind young men and began a singing ministry with them. They traveled throughout Liberia, singing and preaching, until civil war broke our in 1989. The group scattered. Emmanuel and his family were forced to flee Monrovia for a smaller city near the coast. He eventually returned alone, on foot, and restarted the singing ministry even as war ravaged the nation.

In 1996 the conflict between proliferating rebel groups intensified, and Emmanuel and his singing partners all fled. They made it to the U.S. in 1998 and immediately got involved again in singing and ministering. Their group was called the Liberian Acapella Choir, and Emmanuel said it toured 46 states and was very popular.

In 2002 Emmanuel and the group settled down in Vancouver, encouraged by local friends. Meanwhile Oretha -- an acquaintance of Emmanuel's from the early 1990s -- had also escaped the country and went to live with a sister in Rhode Island. It was a horrific, abusive situation; Oretha broke her teeth and eventually fled yet again. She and Emmanuel reconnected, and they were married in 2010.

What Oretha left behind, though, was heartbreaking: her daughters, Judy and Princess, never made it out of Liberia. Oretha chose to flee and left her daughters with friends, but the girls wound up on the street in circumstances that can only be called desperate.

"It was too hard for me and for them," said Oretha — who got help with her halting English for this story from family friend Penny Hood, a connection that was made through a charity where Oretha volunteered for a while. Oretha said she tries to speak with her daughters by phone on a regular basis, but the cost is prohibitive — it can be $20 for a few minutes — and so is the coordination. "Sometimes we get through and talk and sometimes we don't," Oretha said in a mournful whisper.

Hood said she is constantly inspired by the Oretha and Emmanuel, what they've endured and how they carry on. Judy and Favor are now 29 and 4 years old, respectively; it's been 13 years since Oretha saw her daughter. Hood said there is apparently a lot more to Oretha's tragic story — including the whereabouts of Princess, the second daughter — but between barriers of trauma and language, it's hard to pull it all together. She's hoping the arrival of Judy will result in better translation and even, perhaps, a book that explores all the details.

"I want a book about their lives … but it is all too painful for her to speak with me about," Hood said.

Meanwhile, the concert to raise money for Judy and Favor's airplane tickets is set for 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 21, at Living Word Church, 5621 N.E. 78th St. The concert is free but donations and CD sales will all go to Judy and Favor's airplane fare. African Gospel Acappella will wear colorful indigenous costumes and harmonize on African folk music.

The group used to be busy enough to afford its own van, Emmanuel said, but the recession took the wind out of its sails. Now it's looking for paying gigs as well as management help. The van is parked near the Roberts' apartment on Brandt Road (and requires a sighted driver to get to gigs, of course). The group has ambitions to raise thousands for a resource center in Liberia — but that kind of money seems a long way off right now.

"America is a good place, a wonderful country," said Emmanuel, who took the test and the oath and became an American citizen last year. What he likes best about it, he said, are the programs and services for disabled and blind people like himself. It's a humane government that provides such opportunities — as well as food for the poor, he added. Emmanuel is hoping to become a radio broadcaster, he said, so he can continue sending the gospel of hope out to listeners who don't need sight to get the picture.

Learn more about African Gospel Acappella.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;scott.hewitt@columbian.com.