WINSTON-SALEM (AP) Justin Miayen Woazeah Jr. was 5 years old when he left Liberia as a child of war.
He remembers people killing each other in the street and hiding for days in the woods in the pouring rain with his family to escape the slaughter, he said.
And now — almost 30 years later — the U.S. government is telling him he has one year to pack up and go back to the previously war-torn country that frequents his nightmares.
“I’m not a criminal, I pay taxes, I haven’t done anything wrong, but now they want me to leave?” said Woazeah, 33, whose family came to North Carolina in 1990. “In a year, I could be deported, I would be illegal. My biggest fear is being separated from my wife because I’m not going to let her move with me to the poorest country in the world.”
President Donald Trump has announced a termination of deportation protection for Liberians living in the U.S. — a policy that has been in place since the 1980s when civil war broke out in the west Africa country.
A 12-month “wind-down” period gives affected Liberians living in the U.S. time to make arrangements and allow the Liberian government to prepare to reintegrate returning citizens, according to a memorandum, which was addressed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The protections, which Trump had until March 30 to renew, will now expire March 31, 2019.
“Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance,” said a memorandum signed by Trump.
An estimated 4,200 Liberians are protected by the Deferred Enforced Departure program.
Woazeah, a Reynolds High School graduate and a former Appalachian State football player, said Trump’s decision makes him uneasy.
“The American culture would change drastically if they deported all the immigrants,” said Woazeah. “I’m very much nervous. I’m not exactly sure why he wants to kick us out, so it’s definite heartbreak.”
While the U.S. and Liberia flags bear a close resemblance — both with red and white stripes and white star(s) on a square of blue — the countries’ conditions are less than comparable.
Liberia, in western Africa, has historically been a poverty-stricken third-world country, plagued by a civil war in the late-20th century and an Ebola outbreak more recently.
Both events led the U.S. to extend a helping hand.
“I don’t see the rationale behind this. It’s unfortunate we have these sporadic foreign policies,” said Bishop Seth Lartey, who came to the U.S. from Liberia in 1983. “I hope that the president will realize we are not doing anything wrong and that common civility will win at the end of the day.”
Lartey said it was disheartening to see Trump end special legal status for Liberian immigrants, especially considering the longstanding relationship and history between Liberia and the U.S.
Liberia was founded as a colony in 1822 by freed slaves from the U.S. It became a republic in 1847, and the country’s capital and Lartey’s birthplace is Monrovia, named after American President James Monroe.
“You don’t see us wreaking havoc, shooting people at Las Vegas concerts or at schoolhouses. We’re working hard to better this country and our own lives,” said Lartey, a former pastor at Goler Memorial AME Zion Church and now a bishop for the AME Zion Church. “We have been model Christians, model civilians.”
While Trump cited stability in Liberia as the reason for ending the protection program, Winston-Salem resident James Hunder said that times are still uncertain in his home country of 4.6 million people.
“Economically, the country is not ready to welcome the massive amount of people from here that may be deported if Congress does not do anything,” said Hunder, founder of the Liberian Organization of the Piedmont. “It would add to the problems and instability over there and undo all the work that has been put in to bring Liberia to where it is.”
One silver lining was that Trump did not simply allow the program to run out, instead granting them the year grace period, he said.
Hunder hopes Congress will step in during the next year to reverse the mandate.
“These people have been here 20 to 30 years and deserve that permanent status,” Hunder said. “I’m thankful (Trump) gave us a year, but I’m hoping and praying Congress can see reason and finally grant our people to be permanent residents.”
Olu Browne, the current president of the Liberian Organization of the Piedmont, said he hopes the next year will bring a change of heart in revoking the DED protection for Liberians.
While it doesn’t affect him specifically, it could affect many of the 400-plus Liberians who live in the Winston-Salem area.
“Some people came here, had children, worked to make a living and now they’d have to detach from all of those and leave the ones they love behind,” Browne said. “To have to leave and start life all over again, it’s heartbreaking.”