Liberian immigrant, about to graduate from Cheyney, wants to go back

Frank Mulbah with his mother, Sarah Samuka. Mulbah, a refugee from Liberia, will graduate from Cheyney University with a degree in political science. He has plans to go to law school.
Frank Mulbah with his mother, Sarah Samuka. Mulbah, a refugee from Liberia, will graduate from Cheyney University with a degree in political science. He has plans to go to law school. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 10, 2014

Even after spending most of his life in a refugee camp, Frank Mulbah says he wants to go home.

Not to the Liberia he fled as a child. But the one he sees in his imagination.

Mulbah's vision is of a flourishing West African nation transformed from its civil-war past.

Now a U.S. citizen, Mulbah, 28, will graduate from Cheyney University on Saturday. The political science major - who didn't set foot inside a school until he was 15 - will walk down the aisle to receive his bachelor's degree and toward an eventual future in Africa.

When he travels there, it will be for the first time since his mother grabbed him by the hand as they fled rebels in the then-war-torn country and began their lives as refugees.

Mulbah was 5, but, he said, he remembers.

"You remember when you are running over dead bodies," Mulbah said, sitting at the dining room table of his modest Upper Darby home. "You remember when you drink water from a creek and then you walk up the hill and see a body floating in the water."

The war has ended, and the country has elected Africa's first woman president. But Liberia still is plagued with corruption and human-rights abuses, according to the Department of State's 2012 human rights report.

That's why Mulbah wants to go back, and that's why his mother doesn't want him to.

"Sometimes the ones who want to bring change that benefits the people, overnight, people come for them. They disappear," said Sarah Samuka, 53. "I'm scared for him."

Mulbah, who plans to attend an area law school eventually, said he is not afraid. He wants to be an activist, teacher, and political leader. He believes it is his calling.

"The people in power are not willing to invest in education or create jobs," Mulbah said. "They want to make sure their friends and relatives have jobs, and keep the people ignorant so they won't question what they are doing."

Mulbah and his mother discuss his plans daily. They agree to disagree.

In 1990, mother and son walked about 105 miles when rebels struck their town in Bong County.

They walked and ran from village to village, often within earshot of rebel gunshots. They crawled in the dirt to hide under brush, walked, and then hid again until they reached a refugee camp in Guinea. They later traveled by bus to another camp in Ghana.

There, Mulbah and Samuka built a hut of branches, mud, and plastic, where they lived together until 2003, when an application for Samuka to immigrate to the United States was approved. Her stepdaughter, who was living in Philadelphia, had made the request.

"When I went for the interview, they told me [Frank's] name was not on the paper," Samuka said. Her son had been left off the application. He couldn't go.

He was 17.

"I felt bad," Samuka said. "But I had hope that I could file a request for him to come. I promised him."

She asked a family friend to watch out for her son.

"It was a difficult moment for me. My mother was leaving me," Mulbah said. "But that meant I had someone overseas who could bring me to [the United States]. That was a reason to rejoice."

Mulbah focused on his studies. He had worked hard to go to school.

Mulbah and his mother had been unable to afford the $50 tuition for the refugee-camp school.

So Mulbah secured a large patch in the refugee camp's garden and began growing greens and cabbage.

"I would harvest on Friday and sell at the market on Saturday morning. Then harvest Saturday night and sell on Sunday and Monday," Mulbah said.

When he had saved $50, he paid the tuition. His first day of class at the refugee camp was the first time he had attended a school.

He remained there until his mother found work as a certified nursing assistant in the United States and was able to send enough money for tuition so that Mulbah could attend a nearby boarding school. There, he earned his high school diploma.

Then one day, Mulbah was called for an interview on his application to immigrate. After four years, it was his turn.

On Nov. 13, 2007, Mulbah's mother met him at Philadelphia International Airport.

"I was so happy," Samuka said. "He didn't look too healthy to me, but I thanked God he was here."

Mulbah soon enrolled in English classes at Delaware County Community College, but he wanted to study for a bachelor's degree. Friends from his church, students at Cheyney, encouraged him to apply to the school.

They brought Mulbah on campus to meet professors and students. He enrolled and earned a place in Cheyney's Keystone Honors Academy scholarship program. He said his experience at Cheyney has been invaluable.

In the classroom, Mulbah has shared his insights about life in Africa, said Clyde Ledbetter, who teaches African politics, but sometimes holds back on the details of his personal story.

"When I reflect, it puts me in a mood of seriousness," Mulbah said. "It's about going back and trying to get people out of the situation I went through - out of what they are going through now."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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