Barely an hour after arriving in Worcester, Massachusetts, on Saturday, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attended a Welcoming Program and Town Hall Meeting organized by the Federation of Liberian Community Associations of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (FOLICAM).
Several hundred enthusiastic Liberians, adorned in their finery, turned out at the University of Massachusetts Administrative Building to greet their President, who was accompanied by the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Dr. Michael F. Collins, and by the Mayor of the City of Worcester, Mr. Joseph M. Petty.
In wide-ranging remarks to the gathering, President Sirleaf spoke about the journey, begun six years ago, to try to get the Liberia functioning again, and formulating government's efforts around the four basic themes of the Poverty Reduction Strategy: maintaining peace and security; revitalizing the economy; promoting governance and the rule of law where corruption and dysfunctional institutions existed; and rebuilding infrastructure and restoring basic services to the Liberian people.
Now comes the hard part, the President said: "We say that the first six years were a period of stabilization. These six years are the period of transformation. Transformation means you have to not only work on the tangibles - doing more for the infrastructure, the institutions and all of that - but also the intangibles, of changing minds and attitudes, so that we can see that unity, reconciliation, love of country, work ethics, and all of the things that build a nation."
Patriotism will build a nation, the Liberian leader said, and that required the effort of all present. "Not just the government, but Liberian citizens everywhere - at home and abroad - have to make a contribution through the changing of minds, to be able to see your country as the unifying force, the one thing that binds us is that common citizenship. And unless we can protect, promote, and defend it, we will not achieve what we want."
Continued President Sirleaf: "And so my message to all of you is to join this, be a part of this effort. You may not be able to go home right away, but start planning. And if you can't do it right away, come for some time . I've seen some of you in this room that have come back and have brought some of your talents and your service to your people, and that's what motivates them over there. We encourage you to do more of that until you can make that final jump. Your country needs you."
President Sirleaf said, "We say to you, your country is there and your country wants to recognize all that you have done. Many of you in the Diaspora have been the sustenance of many of the people, at home, to whom you send remittances from time to time that enable them not only to survive but also to do more. We still have challenges in the country. I will not tell you that all is well. We have the challenges of youth unemployment - the thousands of young people who were bypassed by an education during the years of conflict. You are the lucky ones; they've never had the opportunity you've had. It's up to you and to me to give back to them, to train them, to prepare them for leadership and for professionalism in the country."
The President then spoke of continuing government's work against corruption, fixing the nation's infrastructure, addressing the problem of a culture of dependency and dishonesty, which is the result of years of deprivation. "We've got to fight that. It's part of what I mean when I talk about changing minds and changing attitudes." She went on to cite the problem in an education system whose quality was of concern "because of the many years when we lost the brains and the talents, like you sitting in this room. So we need for everybody to join in and see what they can do to meet these challenges," the Liberian leader urged.
The President concluded: "We live in a volatile sub-region. Liberia was the epicenter of a regional war, a war that crossed borders. Today, we do have democracy, and we have a good relationship with all of our neighbors. And so my message to you today is: Be proud to be a Liberian!"
During a question-and-answer period which followed, President Sirleaf fielded questions concerning why she withdrew the name of the Superintendent for Grand Gedeh County; her views on the withdrawal of a major political party from the 2011 election process; her position on dual citizenship; how to fix the confusion over land ownership; and about the repatriation of Liberians.
Ahead of the Town Hall Meeting, President Sirleaf met briefly with the leadership of the FOLICAM - its President, Mrs. Yvonne Hoggard-Kamara; and Mr. Joshua Bing, President of the Federation's Worcester Chapter - who requested the Liberian leader to address the issue of dual citizenship and for the government to provide support to U.S.-based Liberian organizations who want to help less fortunate people in Liberia.
Concerning dual citizenship, the President said that the Executive is in favor of it, but acknowledged that there is some resistance. She suggested that FOLICAM chapters write to, and lobby, their representatives in the National Legislature and urge them to pass the bill on dual citizenship. She promised to work on the issue, believing that it would solve government's problem of having to make annual requests to the U.S. Government to extend the temporary visas for Liberians, at a time when it was felt that the country was peaceful and that Liberians should return home.
On the question of GOL subsidies to organizations that want to offer help in Liberia, the President replied that the needs at home are so vast, the poverty rate so high that all the resources are needed there. To give support to groups in the U.S., on the premise that they would help in Liberia, the question would be asked that if they want to help, they should do so in Liberia. With proper planning and coordination with the concerned ministry or entity, the government could assist in terms of bringing in humanitarian shipments. The President said she would speak to Ambassador Jeremiah Sulunteh to coordinate such requests. She also suggested that perhaps a workshop could be held in the U.S., where officials of government from, say the Ministries of Finance and Commerce and Industry, could go over the rules with Liberians, to say what the requirements are, to ease the situation.
Asked what the Liberian community in Massachusetts could do for Liberia, the President replied, "I need for you to come home!"
As the Town Hall Meeting got under way, Chancellor Collins welcomed President Sirleaf and members of the local Liberian community to UMMS, and said it was an occasion for the Liberian community to "celebrate an extraordinary leader who has come so far." He noted UMMS's special connection with Liberia, in its work, with Liberians, to help rebuild the country's healthcare system.
Mayor Petty, in welcoming President Sirleaf, pointed out that Worcester is home to a large, vibrant Liberian immigrant population that has enriched the city's culture and diversity. Worcester was proud of its history of accepting immigrant groups, and he thanked FOLICAM for their efforts.
FOLICAM President, Mrs. Hoggard-Kamara, expressed joy at the presence of Liberia's hard-working, dynamic, and efficient President, whom she congratulated for her achievements and the development activities the government continues to prioritize in Liberia. "We are very, very proud of you, and we cherish the idea of a democratic and free society in which all Liberians can live together in harmony, with equal opportunities." She described the mission of her umbrella organization, both in Massachusetts and in Liberia. She told the President that Liberians faced two major challenges in the Diaspora, related to dual citizenship and immigration status, and that these issues required timely intervention.
President Sirleaf was then presented a Leadership Award, in recognition of her dynamic leadership and for the peace and stability which she continues to ensure in the country. Chancellor Collins was presented an Appreciation Award, and a collage, depicting the flags of the United States, Liberia and the image of President Sirleaf was presented to the UMass Medical School.