Wiefueh Sayeh leans in from the back seat of the car: "You're familiar with the phrase den of lions? D-E-N of L-I-O-N-S?" He spells out the words, partly because his thick accent and rapid-fire delivery often border on the incomprehensible, and partly because he likes to give his comments a certain dramatic flair. He shouts out the punch line over the UB40 beat from the tinny car-stereo speakers: "We, my friend, are headed to the den of Liberians." His companion--we'll call him Marvin--laughs heartily and turns up the volume as the tape reaches a favorite cut. Reggae can never be too loud, he says.
Sayeh is the cutup, Marvin the straight man. They're both exiles from Liberia, living together in a house in north Minneapolis; Marvin requested that his real name be withheld, for fear that becoming a public figure in the U.S. would provoke repercussions for his family back home.
The car pulls up in front of the aforementioned den. It's Pepperoni's, an unassuming corner bar at 36th and Penn Avenue North owned by Taweh Anderson, like Marvin and Sayeh an exile from the West African republic of Liberia. On this Friday night at 9:45, the joint sports the look of your basic neighborhood bar--women with fading perms and old duffers in baseball caps clustered along a gorgeous old horseshoe-shaped bar.
But soon after the clock ticks past ten, the mix changes. Young men and women wander in wearing hip eyeglasses, baggy jeans, suede jackets. Bob Marley blares from the jukebox; friends greet each other with what they call the Liberian handshake, an easy clasp that ends with a quick finger snap. A few people head to the back room and return with paper plates of Liberian barbecue.
As Sayeh and Marvin trek back for the food, the faces of some of the younger men light up. They recognize Marvin. He was a musician, radio host, and full-blown celebrity in Liberia. Which means that he's a celebrity in the Twin Cities. The Brooklyn Park-based Liberian Business and Trade Organization, which promotes investment in and trade with the old country, estimates that between 15,000 and 18,000 Liberians have settled in Minnesota since the start of an on-again-off-again civil war that has ravaged their home country since 1989. Most live in north Minneapolis and the neighboring suburbs, such as Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. George Smart, one of the principals in the organization, says that people often seem shocked by those numbers: "Our community is almost as big as the Somalis'," he notes. "But maybe we blend in more because we speak English as a native language."
"In terms of active communities, I think you have Rhode Island, Atlanta, and Minneapolis," confirms Gabriel Fernandez, Liberia's deputy ambassador to the United States. "Their talents keep the issues of Liberia alive."
At Pepperoni's, Marvin's talents are legend. He played music in Liberia for nearly two decades, starting at the age of 13, when he won a school talent contest by singing a Jimmy Cliff song. His band, the Music Messiahs, is often called "the number one Afro-rock band of Liberia." On tour the group shared the stage with big names such as the Eurythmics.
In 1991 Marvin's fame grew as he started work at Radio Monrovia, the oldest private radio station in Liberia's capital city. He served as a soccer commentator, producer, and host of several prominent shows, including Society and You, Issues in the Press, and the Pidgin Language Program. That last one, Marvin's brainchild, had the largest listening audience in Liberian radio. "Pidgin--colloquial English where we cut words short--gets across to a broader section of society [than] formal English," he explains. "When I spoke Pidgin, I spoke directly to the people. We took up the program as a responsibility to the people, to reinterpret what was going on in our country."
In a city at war, his independent voice became well-known, says Joyce Weah, a 25-year-old Pepperoni's patron. "You have to know [Marvin] if you live in Monrovia."
Marvin says he was lured to Minnesota by a friend who spoke highly of the place. He arrived in February, and by July he was serving as emcee at the Liberian Independence Day celebration held at Hamline University (and featuring a Miss Liberia contest). At functions and in private, he makes a point of reminding fellow Liberians of home: He can rattle off the latest headlines and soccer scores from Monrovia at the drop of a hat, and even his key ring sports a mini Liberian flag.
The flag looks remarkably close to the one waving outside the White House: red and white stripes, a big white star on a blue field in the upper left-hand corner. It was deliberately styled after Old Glory back in 1847, when Liberia was founded by freed slaves who had emigrated to Africa. The settlers named their republic's capital for U.S. President James Monroe and adopted near-carbon copies of the U.S. Constitution and Pledge of Allegiance. But they nixed the voice-straining "Star-Spangled Banner" in favor of what musician Marvin calls "the world's most beautiful anthem," "All Hail, Liberia, Hail." And they adjusted the holidays: "Our Thanksgiving is the second Thursday in November," Sayeh explains. "Our Flag Day is August 24, and our Independence Day is July 26. We moved them a bit to separate them from the memory of slavery."
To this day, U.S. culture is a powerful presence for Liberians. In school, recalls Sayeh, "we were taught about Christopher Columbus, Indians and the Wild West, the Midwest, Pacific Coast, East Coast, told the story of Helen Keller." Sayeh, an attorney who served as secretary general for the Liberian Bar Association, knows the U.S. Constitution backward and forward--though, he notes smugly, "the Bill of Rights is part of our actual Constitution, not an amendment."
Since coming to this country in August 1998, Sayeh has not been able to find work in the legal field. Instead he works six days a week in two jobs, at a temp agency and at a bank as a bill collector. The work pays well enough, he says, for him to save money toward bringing his wife and kids to the Twin Cities. But the premise of the job seems foreign to him: "In Liberia, we pay cash for everything. There's no such thing as a mortgage--you buy the land and build your own house." He points at a neon-orange sign on the Pepperoni's wall that reads "No tabs, no credit, no checks. Pay as you call." "Very American," he grins. "You would never even ask for credit in Liberia."
Sayeh left Monrovia because, he says, "I couldn't express my free mind there." His friend Marvin's predicament was similar: He got in trouble for pursuing his profession in a country where, he claims, "it's a crime to be a journalist."
Marvin knew that being a high-profile commentator made him unpopular with some forces in Liberia; but, he says, "I never felt threatened until the September 18, 1998 incident." On that day, the central area of Monrovia, where Marvin lived, was the site of what the wire service Africa News called "grisly killings and rapes, torture and vandalism." Marvin was not home, but armed men forced their way into his house. He says his niece was raped and his grandmother beaten; she died later in the hospital.
Marvin himself was incarcerated and beaten, he says, on more than one occasion. Neighbors told him "strange people" would skulk around his house when he was gone. Marvin's friend and co-worker Al-Jerome Chede (who now also lives in the Twin Cities) had fled in December 1997 after a narrow escape from kidnappers, and Marvin worried about a similar fate. He decided to get out, fast.
"I have friends within the justice and peace community," he says, "and they arranged everything for me. My things were smuggled out of Liberia before I left. There's a direct flight to the U.S. from Côte d'Ivoire, and I could travel there without a passport check. But since Côte d'Ivoire was a stronghold of [Liberian president Charles] Taylor, I couldn't afford to spend a night there. I had to arrive just as my flight was leaving to catch up with my bags."
Those bags held all the things Marvin figured he needed for a long stay abroad; they did not, however, contain any tapes or clippings, because, he explains, he was "too afraid for the person carrying [the luggage]." He didn't know then that he would need that kind of documentation to help make his case for political asylum in the U.S.
In order to gain asylum, explains Audrey Carr, a native Liberian and a staff attorney at Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, "you have to prove that the government--or a group the government is unwilling to control--is your persecutor. You need to be able to point to your persecutor." It's a tricky aspect of U.S. asylum law, notes Carr, because in war-torn countries it can be hard to determine who is in power. "If there's no clear government," she points out, "some [immigration] judges will say that there can be no persecution." Documenting his status as an opinion leader would have helped, Marvin adds, but in the U.S. his famous name meant nothing.
Still, he pulled together an asylum application--helped by pro bono attorney Julie Fishel from the local firm Winthrop & Weinstine--and settled in for a long wait. As a result of 1994 asylum-law changes, applicants cannot get a U.S. work permit until six months after their paperwork has been filed. Marvin has been keeping himself busy painting the walls in the house where he and Sayeh live; it's owned by another Liberian and furnished sparsely with a few chairs, some pillows, and a TV.
On a Sunday afternoon, the phone rings at the house. Sayeh needs a ride. Marvin drives his roommate's car to the temp agency; Sayeh hops in and barks an order in Pidgin. "He's playing the Powerball," Marvin explains as he drops Sayeh off in a liquor-store parking lot; soon his friend returns with a frown on his face. No Powerball tickets today. "This guy is Lottery Man," says Marvin, laughing. It turns out that Sayeh won his green card through the annual U.S. Diversity Visa Program, which randomly awards 55,000 green cards to natives of nearly 200 countries. "Everyone in my office in Monrovia--the secretary, the messenger, everyone--entered the lottery," Sayeh announces proudly. "But I was the only one who won." Ever since then he has played the Powerball regularly, with no luck so far.
In the long term, neither Sayeh nor Marvin has plans to stay in the U.S.: "We're here because we must be," says Marvin. "I still have great hope for Liberia. Others say, 'It's easy for you to say--you'll come back as the leaders.' But I tell them: 'You can get a U.S. green card. But what does being American mean to you? There are black people, born here, who call themselves African Americans. That speaks to people's need for identity, belonging. I'm Liberian, and at the end of the day, it's that sense of belonging that propels me."
But for tonight, Sayeh and Marvin and other prominent Liberians are here, in a neighborhood bar in north Minneapolis. And it's a good night to celebrate, Marvin remarks quietly: "I've just received notice from Immigration: They recommend that my asylum be approved." His lawyer was amazed at the speedy response, he says, raising his Coke in a toast.
Then he falls quiet. Sayeh butts in with characteristic aplomb: His friend's wife and extended family are still in Monrovia, he explains. "See these?" He pulls two well-worn phone cards from his wallet. "This one--used up; this one--almost gone. From calling my wife. Because, my friend, you cannot have success--S-U-C-C-E-S-S--until someone is there to share it with you."