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Liberian refugee finds a home in Cloquet, thanks to FDLTCC

Graduate Reginnah Weah gets a congratulatory handshake from Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College President Larry Anderson during Thursday's graduation ceremony, when the Liberian refugee received her degree as a registered nurse. Tom Urbanski/For the Pine Journal1 / 4
Reginnah Weah (center) takes a moment with her friends Mary Soyring and Sampson Dolo just a few minutes before Weah's graduation party was set to start at Soyring's home on Friday. Weah said it was the first time anyone had ever given her a party. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com2 / 4
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Life hasn't been easy for Reginnah Weah.

Born in the West African country of Liberia in 1985, Weah was there in April 1996 when rebels shot and killed her father, Johnson Weah, during the first Liberian Civil War (1989 to 1996).

Less than a year later, after moving Reginnah and her younger brother to the Toulepleu refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, their stepmother, Joyce, would also be dead. She died, Weah said, as much from a lack of money to pay for proper care as from her illness.

So when Weah walked across the stage at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College last Thursday to get her degree as a registered nurse, it was the culmination of a journey that started 5,515 miles away and 15 years ago.

Despite the distance, the weather and the cultural differences, Weah said Cloquet - particularly the college - feels like home.

"I couldn't have done this without help from my classmates and the staff," she told a group gathered for her nursing presentation earlier this month, flashing a dazzling smile at her supporters. "I don't have a home. My home is where I found peace and happiness, where I feel safe. A place where I found friends, classmates, mothers - like the staff here. Cloquet is my home. I feel grateful and I know I couldn't have done it without you."

While the folks at FDLTCC helped Weah reach her goal, it was the attitude of the medical community in Liberia and the Ivory Coast that sparked her dream of becoming a nurse.

"When I lived in the camps, I watched mothers die, leaving kids behind," Weah said. "I watched people die because they don't have cash."

It seemed like money was more important than healing people, she said.

She wanted to do better.

Getting here

Weah's journey from Liberia to Cloquet, Minn., was long, difficult and unpredictable. It's a story Weah shared publicly for the first time on May 10, when she and her classmates each had to do a nursing presentation. While others talked of nursing techniques and disease treatment, Weah shared the story of her educational career and why she chose to be a nurse.

A few days before her stepmother died, Joyce called Reginnah and her brother, Ericson, to her bedside, and told them they should look for their birth mother.

"I never knew she was my stepmother," Weah said. "I knew her as my mother."

Initially they didn't believe her, thinking she was talking nonsense because of her illness. However, Weah said, the look on her stepmother's face as she was talking finally convinced them she was telling the truth. Their birth mother, she told them, was named Mamie Weah. She had disappeared in 1990, at the beginning of the civil war in Liberia.

Joyce would live only a few more days.

"We both felt lost," Weah said. "We were living in a refugee camp. We had no one to look after us. No uncles, aunties, no other brothers or sisters."

At age 11, nearly 12, Reginnah was suddenly mother, father and big sister to Ericson. He was 9.

"I don't know how to describe it, but the feeling never went away," she said, talking about the time that followed her stepmother's death. "But I realized after a while that I gotta do what I gotta do. I had to stand up with my feet. If I don't, we won't live."

She started asking around for people to help them, and ultimately found an Ivorian family near the camp who offered to take them in - even send her brother to school - provided Reginnah would mind their provisions store, working there from morning until 9 or 10 o'clock at night, every day.

They lived with that family for five years. When she could, Weah would ask other refugees if they'd ever heard of her mother, or knew anything about her family. The answer was always "no."

She made a friend, a boy her own age named Abraham, whom she calls Abi. Like her, he had a little brother to take care of and he was searching for his own parents, who had also disappeared during the war.

She remembers making a pact that when one of them found his or her parents, they would all go and live together until everyone was reunited. They were both so happy about that promise, she said. They talked often, and supported each other emotionally.

Then war broke out in the Ivory Coast.

"My brother and I went to another camp," she said, explaining that the camp in Abidjan was run by the United Nations. "But Abi's brother was missing when we moved, so he stayed behind to find him."

When Weah told their story to a case worker at the new camp, he told them there was a chance he could help them move to the United States, which was offering asylum to Liberian refugees.

Life in America

Reginnah and Ericson arrived in the United States Dec. 11, 2003. She had almost no possessions: a traditional style dress a friend had made for her, a bag filled with documents, not much more.

For the first three months, the Catholic Church in Rochester, N.Y., provided them with shelter and food. They both went to school, Reginnah for the first time.

She was 18 years old.

"I spoke only French," she said, explaining that she could understand a few words of English after being around refugees who spoke some English. "But I couldn't read or write, even in French."

After three months, the pair were supposed to start providing for themselves. Weah left the school to earn money, but it was a struggle.

"My friend, Joyce, she called me and told me we should come to Minnesota and live with her, share expenses," Weah said, explaining that the two had met in a refugee camp but Joyce had come to the U.S. before her. "She knew my story, knew I wanted to go to school. She encouraged me to come."

So, eight months after their arrival, they moved to Brooklyn Center, Minn., to live with Joyce.

Weah started school again, and ultimately got her high school diploma when she was 21. At the same time, she was going to Job Corps and studying to get her Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certificate.

It wasn't enough.

From there, Reginnah moved to Thief River Falls to pursue her Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) degree with Sampson Dolo, who was also from Liberia. They had met at JobCorps. All Sampson will say during the interview is that his story, of growing up in Liberia and the Ivory Coast, is similar to Weah's.

"But this is not about me," he says with a quiet smile, a half an hour before Reginnah's graduation party was set to start last Friday. "And it would take a lot more time."

Despite having Sampson there with her and one other close friend, Weah said she struggled at the college in Thief River Falls. She didn't feel welcome there, and said staff didn't communicate well with the students. She also felt racial tension.

That's when she and Sampson first discovered Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Coming home

From the first phone call, Weah said she knew it would be different at FDLTCC.

"After talking to [Nursing Director] Mary Monson, comparing the way she spoke to us, we wanted to transfer immediately," Weah said.

However, they ended up waiting to come to Cloquet until they had both finished their LPN certification in Thief River Falls, otherwise they would have had to repeat the classes they'd already taken. Then there were more delays because she couldn't find accommodations in Cloquet.

Finally, after two failed attempts to find a place to live in Cloquet, Weah started classes at FDLTCC in January 2011, after a group of FDLTCC staff and community members worked together to find and furnish and apartment for Weah.

"Fond du Lac is wonderful, the people are great," Weah said. "It feels like home, like I said. I love it here a lot. Even if I do move away, I'm always going to consider Fond du Lac and Cloquet as my home."

Weah's circle of friends is proof of the difference. She has lots of them, from fellow students, to fellow Africans, to numerous college staff members who have taken her under their wings.

Mary Soyring is one of those. They met in the hallway, Soyring said.

"I was just walking down the hallway and she looked upset, so I asked her if I could help," Soyring said. "It grew from there."

Executive assistant to the college president, Soyring has opened her heart and her home to the Liberian native, and even has a bedroom set aside for her to escape to when Weah can't sleep at night because of post traumatic stress syndrome symptoms resulting from her traumatic childhood.

"She'll call and tell me, 'Mary, I can't sleep,' and I'll just tell her to come on over," said Soyring, "She keeps a toothbrush, slippers and pajamas at our home, so she can just come here and be in her own room with her lamp and her Bible."

Before the graduation party at Soyring's house last Friday, FDLTCC Vice President Anna Fellegy popped in on her way out of town bearing a traditional Native American gift from her and FDLTCC President Larry Anderson, filled with maple syrup and jam and a handmade basket. Anderson had also attended Weah's nursing presentation, as did Soyring and a number of other staff members from the college.

Guests at the party last week included several staff and faculty from FDLTCC.

"People stayed and talked for a long time," Soyring said. "She had an abundance of love and support."

"It takes a village," Soyring added, with a smile.

Then she went to greet more guests, as they arrived to congratulate Weah on completing the most recent leg of her lifelong journey.