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Nov 10, 2015 | Carol E. Barnwell

We Were like Sheep without a Shepherd

Gladys Owade, 56, grew up privileged in Liberia, a West African country founded by freed slaves in 1847, but she has lived, and survived, a life of profound loss, terror and flight. All of the challenges she experienced as a refugee she has overcome, as she gained an unwavering faith in God.


One of 12 siblings, Owade’s father taught nursing and served in Liberia’s Health Ministry. Her mother was an medical technician and the family lived comfortably in the countryside, with a cook and chauffer at their disposal.


During the week Owade and several of her siblings lived with her grandmother in the center of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, because it was closer to school. “I looked forward to the weekends at my parents because my grandmother made us work! By the age of 12, I was cooking the family meal,” she said. Owade credits this practical and sometimes stern upbringing to her later survival.


Massive Corruption and Years of Civil War

The government of Samuel Doe, who took office following a military coup in 1980, was characterized by massive corruption and brutality. A rebellion, led by a former Doe aide, Charles Taylor, and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, brought about Doe’s assassination and continued fighting.


“Everyone wanted rid of Doe,” Owade said, remembering the many demonstrations. “We were looking for a liberator and Charles Taylor presented himself. But change comes with a cost and we were not looking far enough ahead.”


Owade said Taylor began his rebellion on Christmas Eve, 1989, on the border of the Ivory Coast and as he overran each village and town, “young girls were raped, boys were forced to join the rebels and people were indiscriminately executed.”


“We were told to stock up on food and wait while the war was fought outside our homes,” she said. “We still did not understand. We still wanted Charles Taylor to come and save us! How crazy is that?”


When Taylor’s forces neared the capital of Monrovia, where Owade was now working as a nurse, the town lost power. Just seven months after the civil war began, on July 6, 1990, Owade woke up to nearby gunfire. Still not understanding the chaos to come, she left her home for water and was nearly hit by an artillery shell “as big as my arm.” Owade ran home to her young son Moses and hid, terrified, in the bathroom. “All hell had broken out,” she said, describing a macabre scene of rebels outside her home dressed in wigs, brandishing a human skull on a pole. The rebels soon forced her and her young son from their home with nothing.


“We didn’t know where we were going and the rebels had begun writing their names on the doors of our homes,” Owade said. She joined a surreal exodus in the alley with neighbors, stepping over bodies of people who just happened to be in the way when Taylor’s rebels arrived.


“I saw the body of the furniture store owner, just staring into the air, in front of me. I stepped over him and kept running. There were thousands of people in the streets. We were like sheep without a shepherd, we just kept moving,” she said.


Owade and her son spent three days in a navigation station before being forced to move again, resting finally with thousands of others on a local university campus, sleeping first under a staircase in the rain, then on the floor of the chemistry building.


“We scrambled to look for food, and when we found something, we ate with our hands, we had nothing,” she said, “No privacy. There were times when we were so tired we couldn’t even eat. Our self esteem was completely gone.”


In the night, she spoke of soldiers who moved among the sleeping refugees, tapping someone here or there, ordering them to follow. People were too afraid to refuse, and the ones who were taken away never returned. “We were just powerless,” Owade said.


After months of bare existence, she was able to return home when West African forces subdued the rebels, but by 1996 warlords again intensified their fighting and Owade had had enough.


“We left for the Ivory Coast during a cease-fire to try to put our lives back together,” she said. She hid what cash she had in her nephew’s diaper and began an eight-hour drive to the border. “Once again, I didn’t know where I was going,” she said.


Officially a Refugee

After reaching Ivory Coast, she stood in line all day for rations and finally signed up with the United Nations as a refugee.


“That was the worst day of my life,” Owade said. “I came from a well-to-do family, I’m a registered nurse. I had to stand in that line and be given a number! I said, ‘God, this is it, now it is me and you.’ I was in pieces,” she remembered.


She found lodging with her sister-in-law and 13 others in a small house, but didn’t know what was next, grateful for electricity and a nearby well. While in Ivory Coast, Owade began attending an Episcopal church that had been established for refugees. She found work as a counselor at a vocational school opened by the UN for refugees and was finally able to join her sister, a doctor at the UT Medical Branch in Galveston, several years later, after she had been granted political asylum.


Owade attended Trinity Church in Galveston, worked as a nanny, cleaned houses and fried chicken at KFC while she studied for her board exams. “It was a cultural shock,” she admitted. “In Liberia, we lived as a community: my problem is your problem; if you see my child doing something wrong, you correct him just as I would. I had a lot to adjust to.”


“In America,” she said, “you can count on the ATM machine working. In Liberia, we had to trust God for everything.” Through the challenges she faced during the civil wars, her flight and starting over, she said, “I gained a personal relationship with God. He alone helped me. I feel like a child of God. I have dignity and self esteem and the opportunity to do anything.”


Owade became a citizen in 2011, and today lives in Huntsville where she works as a charge nurse for inpatient rehabilitation, caring for patients with hip and knee replacements.


Her advice for welcoming other refugees? “Don’t underestimate them, they seek only safety for their children and a better life. As Christians, it’s our duty to protect refugees and we must strive to help them preserve the unity of their families,” she said, adding that the trauma refugees face creates the additional need for psychological care. “In the process of helping them, we must create a pattern of healing.”


Owade is an active member of Daughters of the King and St. Stephen’s, Huntsville.