After fleeing conflict in Liberia as a child, Lourena Gboeah describes how she now draws on her own experiences in her career as a leading refugee advocate.
Every night before bed, Lourena Gboeah and her four-year-old daughter, Moriah, read stories together. During the Black History Month in February, they have focused on books by African American authors.
Moriah’s favourite is Max and the Tag-Along Moon about a boy and his grandfather, by author and illustrator Floyd Cooper, “We read books based on self-love, so that as she grows, not only does the reading enhance her vocabulary, but it also helps her to just appreciate and love herself even more,” Lourena said.
February in the United States is Black History Month, which honours the contributions and sacrifices of Black Americans, and their role in shaping the country.
For many refugees of African descent in the US, Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect on the journey that forced them to flee their homelands, and on their lives in the US.
"When we talk about being a Black woman here in America, especially for me, being a former refugee, I always think about how hard I had to fight to get to where I am today,” said Lourena, a social worker and chairperson of the board of the US-based advocacy group, Refugee Congress.
As a young girl in Buchanan, Liberia, Lourena enjoyed trips to the park on Sundays to watch soccer games and performances of traditional dance. But after the First Liberian Civil War broke out in 1989, her life quickly changed.
The joyful shouts at pick-up soccer games were replaced by gunshots during massacres carried out by the warring sides. Those who dared to continue dancing were seen by rebels as being “happy” for opposition forces, and so they, too, lost their lives.
“We were getting really terrified,” said Lourena’s mother Martha Gboeah, who escaped with her eight children after rebel groups threatened the family.
Lourena and her mother and siblings were among 750,000 people who fled their homes during the war, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands more.
The family fled to Côte d’Ivoire, where they lived for two years before being resettled to Staten Island, New York, in 1992, to reunite with Lourena’s father. As a four-year-old, Lourena was excited at the idea of sandwiches and ice cream. Her mother found joy in working and taking care of her family.
“The first thing that was really amazing was to have work,” Martha said. “In Liberia, women [couldn’t] just get a job. Here, I was able to work and move around freely.”
But soon Lourena’s family also learned the reality of being Black in America.
“We went through being called names. We would get teased that we lived in huts, and it was just really like a lack of cultural awareness at that time,” Lourena said. “I still remember that to this day. We all went through that bullying.”
Years later, while working for the resettlement agency Jewish Family Services of Delaware, Lourena visited schools in Delaware to teach young children about refugees. She says a growing emphasis on cultural awareness education has contributed to a change in how refugees and others from marginalized groups are perceived, but there is still a lot to be done.
As a Black woman, Lourena said, navigating the workforce in the United States proved difficult. Despite having qualifications and experience, she has had to fight for career opportunities and a fair salary.
“Some of my counterparts would sometimes be tapped on the shoulder for positions. That hasn’t happened to me before,” Lourena said.
The situation in the US job market for Black women continues to be difficult, according to a 2021 analysis by the US-based research group, the Brookings Institution.
For example, the unemployment rate for Black women increased from 4.9 per cent to 6.2 per cent in November, while it decreased from 3.7 per cent to 3.1 per cent for white women.
A study by Leanin.org and McKinsey & Co. found that women of color in the US workplace face a wider range of microaggressions and must put in more hours to prove their value.
Lourena now helps people to overcome these obstacles. In addition to her job as a social worker, she serves as the Board chair for Refugee Congress and as a Board member for Refugee Council USA, another US-based advocacy organization that helps people forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution.
Lourena and her counterparts speak at public events, conduct community training and advocate with local and state governments, encouraging policies and practices welcoming to refugees.
“I like to pride myself in being a connector of people, places, and things,” she said. “It really excites me when I’m able to help someone find a solution to whatever challenges that they’re going through.”
“If you need a voice or hand, Lourena willingly and strongly lends hers”
As a senior community engagement manager at Unite Us, a network that coordinates community-based organizations, she helps to ensure health and social care services reach those in need.
“One thing I will remember Lourena for is her conscientious fight to advocate for those who lack awareness and resources,” said Alyssa Bradley, a former colleague. “If you need a voice or hand, Lourena willingly and strongly lends hers.”
Lourena draws on her family’s experience as refugees in her work.
“We’re hardworking people,” Lourena said. “But of course, coming into a totally new land, any type of extra support would have been helpful.”
She feels a particular obligation toward Black women, and hopes she can make the future bright for her daughter, who wants to be an astronaut.
Lourena has taken Moriah with her to Refugee Congress meetings and to a Black Lives Matter demonstration. She hopes participating in these types of events will teach Moriah to understand her worth and power.
“I don’t want her to think any less of herself because of her skin color,” Lourena said. “And I want her to know that her mom was in this fight.”
Additional reporting by Andrea Mucino-Sanchez