Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College (FDLTCC) graduate Reginnah Weah had a lot to celebrate last week. Reginnah achieved her childhood dream by graduating with a degree in nursing. And Reginnah, a refugee from Liberia, a West African nation that went through a devastating civil war, may have also been celebrating the fact that she will sleep better knowing that her country’s former president, Charles Taylor, was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, for crimes against humanity.
Liberia was founded in 1822 as a result of the efforts of the American Colonization Society to settle freed American slaves in West Africa. Tribal colleges have been a place where all people, not just American Indians, have found a welcoming place to receive an education, so it’s no surprise that Reginnah, who was forced from her country that was once founded as a refuge, found a safe refuge at FDLTCC on an Indian reservation. After all, it is the Native belief that “we are all related.”
Reginnah came to America by way of a refugee camp in the neighboring nation of Ivory Coast. Her family was forced to flee Liberia when she was very young due to the civil war and atrocities committed there, including the conscription of child soldiers. According to an article in the Pine Journal, Reginnah saw scores of people dying of health problems because they lacked money to treat them. She decided then that when she grew up she was going to become a nurse.
After Reginnah’s stepmother died while she was in the camp at age 11, she became responsible for her younger brother, and shortly thereafter civil war broke out in Ivory Coast, forcing Reginnah and her younger brother to relocate to another refugee camp. There her luck changed. Reginnah met a caseworker that told her he could help them move to America.
The man was true to his word, and in 2003 Reginnah and her brother arrived in New York. They were both illiterate, spoke only French, and were carrying all of their worldly possessions in a bag: a change of clothes and their legal documents.
After settling temporarily in Rochester, New York, Reginnah went to school for the first time in her life at age 18 while she also worked to support the small family. Eventually, she and her brother decided to move to Minnesota to join a friend they had met in the camp to share expenses and continue their education.
In Minnesota Reginnah graduated from high school at age 21 and next pursued a certified nursing certificate. A friend encouraged her to go to the next level and enroll in college at FDLTCC.
Reginnah had experienced difficulties with racial tension and communicating in her adopted home at Thief River Falls, so she decided to follow up with some calls and interviews to FDLTCC to see if it was the place for her. She said she knew right away that she had found a home from the welcoming, encouraging reception she received. The tribal college staff and reservation community members even worked to help find and furnish an apartment for Reginnah. And one staff member, the executive assistant to the president, befriended Reginnah and kept a bedroom set aside for her when she had a hard time sleeping due to post-traumatic stress from her experiences in Africa.
The love and support Reginnah received from the tribal college and community made all the difference in her life. Today, with a degree in nursing, she is armed with the education and confidence to make her childhood dream a reality. And even though Reginnah is far from her birthplace, wherever she goes, she is secure in the knowledge that she will always have a home at FDLTCC.
Recommended reading: For an understanding of Liberia’s civil war and another refugee’s experience, check out Helene Cooper’s masterful memoir, The House at Sugar Beach.