Local Liberian man looks homeward


To the people who know him on Columbus Avenue where he lives, he’s T.J. To those who know him best, he represents the best of what any culture would call a “brother.”

Tillman Jamal Dunbar is a native of the West African nation of Liberia. He is a naturalized American citizen, an honorably discharged member of the U.S. Armed Forces who served during the first Gulf War, and has been a Minnesotan for 18 years, ten of those living in the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood, where he met the American family that gave him a home.

Between his work as a LAN analyst at University Fairview Hospitals—using the technical schooling he got here in Minneapolis—and his life with his adopted family, Dunbar dreams and develops plans for a return to Africa. He wants to return to the overgrown coastal land that his father’s father—the son of American slaves, planned for his family’s legacy.

According to sources in Liberia, 150,000 people were killed there since 1989 and over one half of the population was displaced or fled the country. As early as 1991, the U.S. Attorney General’s office estimated that 14,000 Liberians had arrived in the United States who were then granted the opportunity to register for Temporary Protective Status (TPS).

“I got out when it started to get bad,” Dunbar said, recalling how at 19, he set his sights on the U.S.A. “I wanted to come to the land of the free,” he said.

But he learned quickly that an existence in America would require struggle. His maternal grandfather, who took him in when he first came to the Midwest was living on savings that would have meant a comfortable retirement in Liberia, but translated into restrictive means in Michigan. Dunbar joined the army to get away. After returning to the States, he started out in Minneapolis hustling tips as a limousine driver. It took him a while to realize he needed to go back to school.

Life in Liberia for him had been a privileged one. His father was a merchant and businessman, his grandfather had founded Dunbar Farm—a rubber plantation—and was a district court judge. Dunbar’s lineage is the lineage of those freed American slaves who had been returned to Africa in 1822 because whites under the banner of the American Colonization Society were fearful of a slave revolt led by emancipated blacks.

His primary and secondary education had come from the prestigious Firestone School, subsidized by the Firestone Natural Rubber Co., latex supplier to the American subsidiary of what is now the Bridgestone Corp., the world’s largest tire and rubber company. Firestone still operates 23 schools in Liberia, including a high school, and claims some 15,000 students, some of whom in Dunbar’s day were the sons and daughters of American and European Firestone employees.

Dunbar’s roots are the roots, according to some historians, of the civil wars that have torn his country apart—the struggle between those who named their new capital, Monrovia, after U.S. President James Monroe, who took their their language, religion and customs from the pre-Civil War American South, and the indigenous tribes who often resented the well-connected settlers and who chose to retain their traditional religion and language. The same Firestone Co. that made the Dunbar rubber plantation rich and that taught the Dunbar children to read and write was, to a number of the natives, an exploiter who controlled close to two and half million acres of their land.

“Liberians today are united,” said Oblayon Nyemah, campaign manager for the incoming president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM), Kerper Dwanyen. “We need to look past our former divisions,” Nyemah said at Dwanyen’ s inaugural ball on March 8, in spite of the fact that the campaign for the new leader of Liberians in Minnesota was dogged by accusations that Dwanyen was a warlord for indicted Liberian war criminal Charles Taylor.

Yet, for many Liberians in Minnesota, their most pressing struggle is not a consequence of war, but the product of peace. Since the armed conflict in Liberia officially ended in 2003, those living here on TPS have been doing so under the specter of deportation. Minnesota is now home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the country. According to a report done six months ago by Minnesota Public Radio, as many as 25,000 Liberians are in the state and as many as half that number, according the OLM, are here on temporary status.

“Liberians are educated professionals, and hard working,” said OLM official, Washington Yonly. “They own businesses ranging from general merchandising to the health service delivery sector. At least half are home owners, paying mortgages and property taxes,” Yonly said from his home in Brooklyn Center, where some 65 percent of his fellow Liberians in Minnesota live and work. Yonly is one who could face deportation after living and working here for ten years.

“We’ve had a long and very good relationship with the Liberian community living here and we support their struggle for resident status,” said former Brooklyn Center mayor, Myrna Kragness, who had made a point to make an appearance at the OLM’s recent inaugural ball. “Liberians hold many health care jobs in Brooklyn Center and we certainly don’ t want to think of the consequences of more abandoned homes in our city,” Kragness said.

A study to be released later this month by Dr. Bruce Corrie, professor of economics and director of the Strategic Business Design Institute at Concordia University, says Minnesota is among the top ten states in the nation for the number of African immigrants. “They are among the highest [numbers of] immigrants that contribute … their services in the health and social service sector of the state of Minnesota,” according to the report.

“To Liberians, the health care profession—taking care of others—is an honor,” said Nyemah.

According to Corrie’s study, Liberians “are in the prime tax base and workforce in Minnesota. Liberians in the state control $142 million worth of buying power,” say current statistics.

Last September, President Bush ordered an 18-month stay of deportation for approximately 3,500 Liberians with TPS. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) along with Reps. Jim Ramstad (R-MN) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) pushed for the extension.

“It [TPS] will allow us to avoid what surely would have been a crisis for our community,” said Ellison at the time. According to Ellison’s office, Minnesota’s entire congressional delegation supported the Liberians’ bid to stay. Ellison and Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman are co-sponsors of concurrent House and Senate bills that would change Liberian TPS to permanent residency. Both bills are now in committee.

In January, Liberians in Minnesota who are seeking permanent residence status received the official support of local community groups, Minneapolis Urban League (MUL) and Jewish Community Action (JCA), with the announcement of a statewide project in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s humanitarian efforts. “An Immigrant Freedom Seder: How American Policies Make People Illegal,” was sponsored by JCA on March 31 at Temple Israel in South Minneapolis.

“I think we in the Jewish community have always felt a bond with the Liberians and their struggle for freedom,” said JCA Executive Director Vic Rosenthal.

A staged reading of playwright Kia Corthron’s “Tap the Leopard” at the MUL headquarters in North Minneapolis on Jan. 27 served as a prologue to panel discussions and meetings to organize the campaign to champion permanent legal status for Liberians and other African immigrants in the U.S.

“Tap the Leopard” is based on the story of how the slaves returned to Liberia to build a new country and homeland. A 2006 United Nations report quoted by the Washington Post said that 85 percent of Liberians in Liberia are unemployed.

“I want to do something that will help rebuild my country,” said Dunbar. “It’s not about money, it’s about something I can contribute by helping to put people back to work. The discipline I learned in America has become a calling to help my people,” he said.