Anthony Neufville has not seen his grandmother since he was two-years-old. Now 19, he always believed his grandmother, Sarah, was dead—a victim of the civil war in Liberia. "She left our home in 1990 to search for my aunt and uncle," he explains. She never returned. "Our grandfather had died and we never got any information about our grandmother. We tried to find her, but after so many years we lost hope she might be alive."
He'd seen so much death, destruction and despair during the 1989 and 1999 civil wars that ravaged the region. All told, more than 200,000 people were reportedly killed in the conflicts.
Anthony and his immediate family's trauma began one morning at 4:00AM, when soldiers kicked down the front door and killed his father in cold blood – accusing him of being a collaborator. It was August 2002. The soldiers made the family move to the back of the house. Anthony explained, "We heard the sound of gunfire, and my step mom ran to see what happened. She came running to us crying and telling us our father was killed."
But chaos from the effects of civil war reigned not only within their own home but their entire village in lower Lofa, Liberia. That's when Anthony's stepmother announced they'd all flee only with what they could carry. First, they hid in the bush, and then they followed other evacuees to a camp for displaced persons in Monrovia. But the fighting intensified and spread to that region, too. "We heard the camp was not going to be safe for long either, so we fled again." Anthony says it was the kindness of a businesswoman who helped them flee to Nigeria. "They saw that we were dying slowly, and so they helped us."
In 2005, Anthony and his family received news from U.S. immigration officials that they had visas to the United States.. "We had no idea where we were going," he says. "We landed in Newark, New Jersey, and stayed one night before being told we were going to Sioux Falls. We didn't have any idea what Sioux Falls was."
Immediately, life was better. "It is a very different place," Anthony says. "In Liberia, we were so stressed. We couldn't sleep, we often did not have any food, and we were not safe," Anthony recounts. "Here, we sleep well. I have a job, and when I come home from work nobody bothers me," he says. Anthony also is completing his GED, or high school graduation equivalency exam. "In Africa, we could not afford to go to school," he says. "Sioux Falls is one of the most peaceful places in America," Anthony says with a slight laugh. "And sometimes, somebody will even hug me."
Anthony and his family's lives took yet another unexpected and dramatic shift in September 2006. Anthony was talking with a Liberian friend living in Philadelphia. He told Anthony that a mutual friend of theirs had seen his grandmother in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she supposedly fled from Monrovia after civil war tensions had increased there. And, the mutual friend reported that Anthony's grandmother desperately needed money to feed the grandchildren whom she was caring for. "I didn't believe it," Anthony says. "I even thought it was a scam."
Anthony called the American Red Cross Chapter in Sioux Falls and asked for assistance in tracing his grandmother. Anthony remembered learning of the service while living in the Monrovian displaced persons camp. "I told the Red Cross that I don't believe that she is alive," he says. Eventually the call from the Red Cross came. "They told me they had located my grandmother, and she was alive." She even sent a letter from Sierra Leone via the ICRC that read in part,
"I was over joy when I heard about you through the Red Cross. It was like a dream. I have seven grandchildren with me here. That is children of Eric and Cecelia who died during the war. I want you to assist me so that I can come with them. I am suffering a lot. I am living in a village far away from Bo Town…Please do not forget about us. I do not know anyone in this country who is my relative. Help me. I am still alive."
Letter in hand, Anthony remained skeptical. That is, until a Red Cross worker managed to take a photograph of Anthony's grandmother and seven other grandchildren and sent it to Sioux Falls.
When Anthony, his stepmother and siblings saw the photo, it was overwhelming. "My step mom cried and cried and ran outside, and screamed and cried, and came back in the house and cried all day," he says. They learned that their aunt and uncle had been killed by the rebels, leaving behind seven children whom their grandmother found and was caring for. "She still must keep a low profile," Anthony says. "She can do a little gardening for money but mostly they don't have enough money to buy enough food," he says. Today, he and his family are working to find a local link to send money through to his grandmother, and they eventually want to bring her and the children to Sioux Falls.
Anthony says he can't thank the American Red Cross enough. "Oh my god, it (the tracing program) really works," he says. "The guy had to go to my grandmother's home in very difficult and deteriorating conditions. They really tried and took the time to find her for us. It really proved to me there are people with humanity," Anthony says.
Samantha Hill, the Emergency Services Director for the Sioux Empire Red Cross in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, says the entire experience has been heartwarming for her and her colleagues, too. "This was such a great experience for me, personally, and for our chapter. Getting to know Anthony over the months has been wonderful. He's the kind of guy who smiles with his whole face, and it's extremely contagious. His outlook on life, his appreciation for the American Red Cross, and his love for his freedom is both inspiring and humbling."
For more information about tracing services provided by the American Red Cross visit, http://www.redcross.org/services/intl/0,1082,0_447_,00.html
As part of the world's largest humanitarian network, the American Red Cross alleviates the suffering of victims of war, disaster and other international crises, and works with other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to improve chronic, life-threatening conditions in developing nations. We reconnect families separated by emergencies and educate the American public about international humanitarian law. This assistance is made possible through the generosity of the American public.