Refugees Finding Success, Thanks To Determination And A Bit Of Kindness
By ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer
December 23, 2007
The blessings just keep coming.
They started last December, when Foster Danso returned from the dead, figuratively speaking anyway — a refugee from war-torn Liberia who arrived on U.S. soil from Ghana after a three-year absence from his wife and five young children.
The family, living in a rundown Hartford apartment with hardly any heat and no money for a Christmas tree or presents, rejoiced.
Who could need more than this gift? they asked.
And then, the good Samaritans started to appear.
The man who donated a washer and dryer. Not a used one, but brand-new, right off the truck. The people who showed up with toys for the kids last Christmas Eve, or bags of groceries. The job offer for Foster.
Some of these were the result of a story that ran in The Courant last Christmas Eve — people who were touched by the plight of the family and wanted to help.
But the rest of the Dansos' blessings are harder to trace, the result of their own hard work, determination and, perhaps most important, joy.
"We are so happy," says Alice Danso, and she spreads her bare arms wide to encompass the word.
They have good reason to be.
It's a raw, windy day, and Alice is wearing a pair of sweat pants and a T-shirt as she folds laundry in the living room of her family's new home, a bright, four-bedroom duplex in Welles Village, an affordable housing complex in Glastonbury.
It's not that warm in the house, but Alice is reveling in the fact that there's heat at all. The old apartment in the South End of Hartford had one electric heater in the living room for the whole house.
All seven Dansos and a Liberian boy Alice took in this year had been sleeping in that small living roombut couldn't keep warm.
More important than the heat, however, is the relief Alice feels about leaving a neighborhood where the downstairs neighbors got busted for dealing drugs in the house, and where she didn't feel safe letting her kids play outside.
She also understands just how remarkable it is that her children, who were illiterate when they came to the United States nearly four years ago, will be attending one of the best school systems in the region, if not the state.
"I am so very, very grateful to get out of Hartford with these kids," Alice says. "I know in myself that this is the best place for us."The Danso family started life in a Liberian village, too poor to send their children to school but surviving peacefully. That changed when the warlord Charles Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997 and his brutal regime began. The Second Liberian Civil War officially began in 1999, and an ethnic war quickly followed, with more than 200,000 Liberians killed by rebel soldiers.
Foster and Alice Danso escaped, taking their five children on a long, perilous nighttime journey through the bush, and finally landed in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. Foster disappeared one day after leaving the camp to load trucks at a factory that shipped food to Ghana, determined to earn money for his family even though it was unsafe for refugees to leave the camp.
When Foster couldn't get back because of violence, he boarded a truck to Ghana. Unable to contact his family or return to Ivory Coast, Foster stayed in Ghana for three years. Meanwhile, Alice had to make a decision to leave her husband behind when she was offered asylum in the United States.
She came here alone with her five children — Mardea, Derick, Julius, Samuel and Junior — and despite the obstacles and poverty, she held the family together. Then, remarkably, Foster was found and sponsored by his wife so he could join his family.
Since that time, the family has thrived.
Alice and her oldest child, 19-year-old Mardea, both attend Capital Community College in Hartford. Mardea hopes to transfer soon to a bigger, better school, while Alice has set a long-term goal of becoming a nurse.
"I'm taking the first steps right now," Alice said.
Both Alice and Foster have steady jobs now. Foster is filling vending machines and helping in the kitchen at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center; Alice works 30 hours a week in housekeeping at Hartford Hospital, fitting in school around the edges of her life.
Together they earn $40,000 a year, which isn't much when you're supporting six kids in Connecticut, but they still managed to scrape together enough money to buy a used Dodge van, paying $1,500 in cash so they wouldn't have any debt.
"They're so motivated," says Glastonbury resident Betty Czaplicki, who has been helping the Dansos for about a year now. "They never ask for anything. They never will ask."
That hasn't stopped Czaplicki and friend Bonnie Mountz, however. The two women have taken the Dansos under a protective wing that appears to extend over all eight family members, including the newest family member, 14-year-old Prince.
The two women turn up with groceries, hire the boys to help with projects around the house, find people to donate clothes when someone needs a winter coat or a pair of shoes and take the children out for dinner on their birthdays.
It was Czaplicki who thought to have them apply for a place at Welles Village, and who is working now to get Alice's mother, who lives in Hartford, into a nearby unit. Meanwhile, Mountz is helping Alice get the children enrolled in the Glastonbury school system.
When she brought Alice to the Welles Village place for the first time, Czaplicki says, Alice walked from radiator to radiator, holding her hands over them and saying softly, "Heat. Heat."
The house is small, but clean and pretty — shiny wood floors in almost every room, new kitchen appliances, walls painted a creamy white and a window overlooking a small yard that backs directly into a town park.
Alice is "thrilled" with the park, the stove, the donated dining room table that will seat the whole family, the heat pouring out of the radiators, the chance her kids will have to better themselves and with life in general.
And this Christmas, for the first time ever, the Dansos have a tree and — thanks to the generosity of many friends and good Samaritans — a wealth of presents underneath.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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