December 24, 2006
By ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer
There haven't been any Christmas presents to speak of in the Danso house for many years, although five children live under this roof. There is no tree, no tinsel, no lights. There is very little money.
But this year the Danso children feel wealthy beyond belief.
Their father, Foster Danso, had been lost for four years in the rippling ethnic conflict that forced his family to flee their home in Buchana, Liberia.
Although he led his wife and children safely out of war-torn Liberia - always traveling at night, never cooking during the day lest the rebels see the smoke from their fire - Danso disappeared from their new home in Ivory Coast on Oct. 16, 2002.
Refugees such as the Dansos had been told to stay inside. It was too dangerous to venture far from home as looting and violence spread in their area, but Foster Danso left to find work because the children were hungry.
He never returned.
A year and a half later, Danso's family was given permission to come to the United States as refugees; they left Africa and Danso - if he was even alive - behind and started a completely new life.
They cried as they left Africa, not because they didn't want to come to America, but because they didn't want to lose their only connection, however tenuous, with their father.
Three weeks ago, he walked off an airplane and into their arms.
Cars And Winter Air
It is a strange, new home, this third-floor apartment in a rundown house in Hartford's South End, where Foster Danso is elbow-deep in gray suds.
The family's wash, school uniforms for five children included, is floating in a rectangular plastic tub - what serves as the washing machine in the Danso house.
When Danso is done scrubbing he hauls the dripping clothes out to the back porch and hangs them, end to end, across two sagging lines.
Then he sits down and explains that he is happy to help out Alice, his wife.
"She's been doing everything," he says.
Danso, who at 40 is a lean, grave-looking man with a quick and deadly wit, is understandably a bit stunned to find himself transplanted onto American soil, surrounded by buildings and cars and winter air, however mild.
Life is starting over for Danso, and he knows it.
He has no money, no job, no familiarity, no authority here.
His family lives on the salary Alice earns teaching English as a Second Language to refugee children in the Hartford schools, but that's only part-time. It barely covers the $800 they owe every month for rent, so Alice braids hair on the side.
Their eligibility for state assistance - a backbone of the Danso family's budget for the past two years - ended recently. The food stamps will be next, Alice fears.
Members of the Danso family, like all other refugees, received in the form of services and some cash $425 per person through Catholic Charities, the local agency that administers the refugee resettlement program in this area for the U.S. State Department.
Foster Danso is receiving that money now, and will probably be eligible for $2,000 more in assistance from Catholic Charities over the next few months to help pay for housing and other necessary expenses.
That money will help, as will whatever Foster earns when he starts working, but the family lives precariously close to the edge now.
Foster and Alice Danso are certainly not complaining, however.
"We want to work and not be on welfare but to contribute, paying taxes," says Alice, 39. "I really want my kids to go to school. My husband and I want to advance our education a little bit."
Danso's hope is to get a job soon so he can help his wife support their children.
"I want to work, work, work to buy my own house so my children can live in peace," he says.
Alice walks to work from their home on Bushnell Street to her job at Dwight Elementary School on Wethersfield Avenue every morning, then walks to Fox Elementary School on Maple Avenue for her next shift, and then walks back down Franklin Avenue so she can be at the tutoring center for refugee children run by Catholic Charities every afternoon at 3 p.m.
Mardea, the oldest and only girl, is 18 now. When she left Africa she could barely read and write; now she's applying to colleges and, because of her powerful soprano and talent playing African drums, is one of a select group of gifted high school students who attends the Academy of the Arts at the Learning Corridor in Hartford.
The other children are doing equally well. Derick, 16, is a talented actor and artist and hopes to attend the academy next year. Julius and Samuel, 14 and 10, who were completely illiterate when they arrived, are honor roll students. And Junior, well, he's as irrepressible as a 6-year-old can be.
Foster Danso seems a bit awed by his children - the newness of them, their accomplishments, their vivid personalities.
"I am so proud," he says, putting his hand over his eyes. "Julius, for example, when we were in Ivory Coast he didn't know anything. He was the best student last month. I'm so proud."
In his old life - the one in Liberia - Foster Danso was a mechanical engineer on a ship, a young father, a husband. The family didn't have much, just a room with a charcoal pit outside the front door. They couldn't afford to send the children to school because in much of Africa, you must pay for even elementary education. But life was at least peaceful.
That changed when the warlord Charles Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997 and a brutal regime began. The Second Liberian Civil War officially started in 1999 and an ethnic war quickly followed, with more than 200,000 Liberians killed by rebel soldiers, many of whom were barely past childhood.
Alice's father was killed by rebels, she says, as was her aunt, who was eight months pregnant. Alice was told that when the rebels saw her aunt's stomach still moving, they shot the fetus as well.
Before the rebels could reach their village, Foster and Alice Danso packed up their five children and an assortment of other relatives and escaped. The fear and horror of their nighttime journey through the bush is still close to the surface when Danso and his wife talk.
"We ran from them before it was too late," Danso says, adding that many people who tried to escape with small children were discovered by rebels and brutally killed because they could not keep their children quiet.
"Everybody is afraid. Anything can happen to you, anything," Danso says, and his face is momentarily transformed with remembered fear. "Many people died."
The day Danso disappeared from their new home in Ivory Coast he went to load trucks at a factory that shipped food to Ghana, but couldn't get back to the side of the city where his family was living. It was too dangerous to stay where he was, so he got on one of the trucks and headed to Ghana.
Mardea, the oldest, still remembers what was happening then.
"There was a warning that everybody should stay indoors," she says. "For us, we didn't have no more food in the house, no more water. My father said, `I can't look at my family starving like this.' He tried to be brave and he didn't come back."
Communication between refugees in Ghana and Ivory Coast was next to impossible, Danso says. No one had a cellphone or knew the correct addresses, if there was even a way of getting mail through.
"My mom asked everywhere," says Mardea. "There was no sign of him coming home, week after week, month after month. Nothing."
When they were granted asylum in the United States, Alice reluctantly left, knowing that she might be walking away from the one chance she had of reuniting with her husband.
But one day, about a year after Alice and her kids had come to the United States and almost three years after Danso disappeared, they received a phone call from an acquaintance who was visiting Ghana and spotted Danso on the street.
Alice gave the friend her Hartford phone number and one day, not long after, Danso called.
"When I came home from school one day my mom said `Guess what? You're dad's alive,'" Mardea says. "I was like, `Please woman, give it a break. That ain't true.' But her whole intent changed." She passes her hand in front of her face to signify her mother's expression.
"Then I believed her."
Alice Danso immediately began the process of filing for her husband to come to the United States - an arduous, drawn-out procedure that left them despairing on more than one occasion - and the family waited.
In the meantime, Danso knew he had to make up for lost time with his children. He sent them his picture, so his youngest children - especially Junior - would be able to recognize him if they were ever reunited. He called them whenever he could, especially when he knew they had a big test, or a performance (all but the youngest play African drums) or did especially well in school.
"I asked Junior if he knew me and he says, `No, Daddy. I know your picture,'" Danso says. "He was only 2 when I left."
Mardea plants her work boots firmly on the gray carpet at the "Democrat," as the Liberian refugees call it, and begins a steady, quickening beat with her drumsticks. She is playing three large African drums, made of wood and cow skin, and before long her brothers and other Liberian kids have joined the drum circle, each on a different instrument.
The Democrat, as they call it, is the tutoring center on Farmington Avenue their lives center on. The sign on the outside of the building says it's Democratic Headquarters, but inside there is something far more ambitious than politics going on.
Russian and Liberian children come here every weekday from 3 to 5 p.m. to be tutored. The Russian kids, if they are new arrivals, don't speak any English, so they are taught by a Russian-speaking tutor. The Liberians speak some English - it is Liberia's national language but the refugees speak a dialect Americans can't understand - so they pick the language up more quickly.
Today is the Christmas party and the children, who range in age from about 5 to 18, are excited because they will be getting gifts and because there are big platters of turkey and rice, which they will later shovel into their mouths.
But first the Danso children drum until the sound seems to vibrate up through the soles of your shoes into your bloodstream.
The drums, just 11 days earlier, had arrived as a gift for them from Africa. Brought by their father.
They didn't even know he was coming.
Donia Lechanu, who runs the tutoring center and whom the Danso children call "Aunt Donia," conspired with Alice to surprise the children. They cooked up a story about how Oprah Winfrey, whose DNA tests have traced her ancestry to Liberia, was flying into Bradley International Airport on Dec. 5.
The Danso kids love Oprah Winfrey, which Alice and Lechanu well knew. They agreed to go to the airport to greet her when she landed.
So there they were, all five kids standing around outside the gate holding "We love you Oprah!" signs, when they spot an African man coming toward them, lugging these huge drums.
Mardea turns to Derick and says, "Look at that guy. Maybe he's with Oprah."
Derick looks. Looks again. Suddenly they both see him for who he really is. They drop their signs.
"They just ran at me," Danso says. "They nearly knocked me over."
Derick, a freshman in high school, is like any teenage boy in that he doesn't enjoy discussing his feelings about things, but on this point he is expansive.
"I just feel like I got someone I can look up to, someone I can talk to," Derick says. "I think he understands me better."
When asked what he wants for Christmas, Derick shrugs and shakes his head. Nothing?
"I have it in my head," he says. "But I would never ask for anything from my parents. My dad, he just got here, he is not working. My mother has no money for presents."
Mardea says the same thing when she is asked the question the next evening, sitting on the couch in her family's tiny but immaculate living room.
She looks over at her father, who is sitting on another couch next to Junior, helping him with his math.
"I have my Christmas gift over there behind you," she says quietly. "I am just so happy he is here."
Foster and Alice are trying to scrape together some money to buy their children presents this year, but there isn't much to work with. Their celebration will be full nonetheless, they say.
First they will go to church and "thank God for all our blessings." Then they will come home to a family dinner.
It is at this Christmas dinner that Foster will give his wife and children the only gift he can afford.
"That's when I'm going to express my gratitude to them and thank them for all their prayers for me," he says. "Last year I called them from Ghana and they said, `Daddy, can you tell me story? Daddy, I wish you were here.' But God's grace, this Christmas I am."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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