From the time the civil war began in Liberia and democracy fell to anarchy, it took nearly a decade for Wilmot Collins and his future wife, Maddie, to flee the ravaged streets of their native land.
Now, some 10 years later, as they wade through the tedious process of applying for their U.S. citizenship, Wilmot looks back, gives thanks to his family's fortune, and explains how they ended up half way across the world in Helena, Montana.
The year was 1990.
Civil war had erupted and rival factions had seized the Liberian capitol of Monrovia. Blockades made travel difficult. Food was scarce, crimes were rampant and people who pled the wrong allegiance were slain in the streets.
The entire situation was so despondent that many believed Liberia, once the most stable country in Africa, had lost sight of the democratic fundamentals upon which it was created.
As a consequence, according to the National Geographic Society, nearly half of Liberia's population would be forced from its home. The people fled, commencing a mass exodus out of Liberia into neighboring countries like Sierra Leone, Cote D'ivoire, Guinea and Ghana.
“ We fled our home because we were being harassed by the soldiers,” said Liberian native Wilmot Collins. “ They broke into homes, they took the food, they took the property, they took whatever they could get their hands on. Things were so unsafe, we decided we had to leave the country.”
As the civil strife grew in intensity and warring factions became more focused on eliminating the other, Collins said, the safest place for citizens was in the proximity of the American Embassy in Monrovia.
“ If you were not close to the embassy, you might not get there because of all the checkpoints set up across the city,” Collins said. “ Most people fled to that area, as it was very close to the port.”
Collins made it to the Free Port of Monrovia, along with his future wife, Maddie, a brother-in-law and a niece. He weighed only 90 pounds at the time, and still, he considered himself lucky — he was alive.
“ There was no food. We watched many people die of starvation. We watched people get murdered daily, shot by the military,” Collins said. “ I lost two brothers in the war. One was killed by the rebels and the other was killed by the soldiers.”
As Collins and his fragmented family boarded a cargo ship docked at the Free Port of Monrovia, his parents, Collins said, stayed behind.
His mother, a superintended of schools, would survive the conflict. His father, an engineer for the Firestone Rubber Plantation, would not.
“ He died in exile,” Collins said.
The cargo ship sailed from Monrovia as violence and conflict consumed the country. The ship passed through Free Town and Sierra Leone to the north, and Ghana to the southeast.
“ We chose to anchor in Ghana,” Collins said.
In 1984, after Samuel Doe successfully toppled Liberia's long-standing democracy, murdered the county's president William Tubman, and declared himself both general and president, Maddie, who is now Wilmot's wife, came to the United States as a teen in the Foreign Exchange Program.
Here, she attended Helena High School and was welcomed by her host family, Bruce and Joyce Nachtsheim of Helena.
Bruce Nachtsheim, Vice Principal at Capital High School, remembers 1984, when Maddie first came to the United States.
“ She was really a very shy girl, and she came into an environment that was really very foreign than what she had experienced in Africa,” Nachtsheim said. “ I remember she really loved her U.S. history class, and I remember her language was sort of a shorthanded version of English, but she could speak English well, and she spoke it very fast.”
Maddie graduated from Helena High School, unaware of the violent future that was in store for her native country. After she returned to Liberia and six years later, in 1990, she would be on her way back to the United States.
Nachtsheim remembers the events.
“ We had heard about the problems in Liberia. There wasn't great news coverage about that situation so we did not have many details. We had no idea of the magnitude of the situation in Liberia,” Nachtsheim said. “ We tried to contact her and there was nothing.”
There was nothing because Maddie and Wilmot had already fled Liberia for the safety of Ghana. There, Wilmot was able to secure temporary shelter, but they couldn't stay for long, so Maddie decided to make a transatlantic call to the Nachtsheims, hoping they could help. She had kept the only number they had given her six years prior.
“ But we had moved,” Nachtsheim remembers.
“ The phone company helped us by allowing us to keep our old number, knowing it was the only one Maddie had.”
When Maddie did make the phone call no one was home, so she chose her only option and left a message. When the Nachtsheims returned the call, the line they got lead them to a phone 26 miles away from a refugee camp where Maddie and Wilmot were staying in Ghana.
“ The only way we could get her into the U.S., was if she applied for a student visa,” Nachtsheim said. “ So we explained to Carrol College what the plight was, and the college said, `We will pay for it, don't you worry.' It helped us tremendously, and so Maddie came on a student visa.”
“ Maddie then told us about her boyfriend, Wilmot,” Nachtsheim continued. “ We told her she had to get married, and she did, but still, the U.S. would not give him a visa.”
Maddie was forced to leave Wilmot in Ghana, hoping there was some way the Nachtsheims could get him into the U.S. But that would take time, and when Maddie got off the airplane, Nachtsheim said, he was in for a big surprise.
“ She had lost about 25 pounds and she had a case of malaria, which she had contracted from the camp,” Nachtsheim said. “ And she was pregnant, too.”
“ But this is a wonderful community we live in, and the hospital said they had a bed they could give her, and they didn't charge her anything for having the baby,” Nachtsheim said. “ Everyone pitched in to help this African girl from a war-torn county whom they had no connection with. It was really very spectacular.”
Maddie gave birth to a daughter who would turn three before she would see her father for the first time. Wilmot was still in Ghana, and Nachtsheim was trying tirelessly to find a way to get him into the United States.
“ I talked to everyone who was anyone, to Max Baucus, to Pat Williams, it's Montana, you know, and you sort of know everyone like that personally,” Nachtsheim said. “ They gave us an honest effort to get Wilmot over here, but they couldn't.”
But luck would break a state away, when a church organization in Boise, Idaho, heard Nachtsheim's plea.
“ The strings they pulled were the ones that allowed Wilmot to get a visa into the U.S.,” Nachtsheim said. “ That day, Wilmot had gone to the capital of Ghana, and by the time he got back to the camp, he was told to report to the American Embassy.”
While rival factions are still fighting for power, and while Liberians are still in exile, Wilmot and his wife, Maddie, have built a new life half a world away from their native home.
Of Wilmot, Nachtsheim said, “ He is a well educated man, and very articulate, and already, he has had such a positive influence on the lives of many people here.”
Twenty years after the coup toppled the Liberian government, and 10 years after the beginning of the civil war, Wilmot now teaches troubled American teens for the Adventure Youth Alternatives in Boulder, Montana, and on occasion, performs at the Grand Street Theater in Helena. Also, Maddie has become a registered nurse.
Both of them are still trying to get their U.S. Citizenship, but their two children need not apply — they were born under the American flag and granted citizenship upon birth.
“ So many people reached out and said yes, I want to help. I can't say that enough,” Nachtsheim said.
“ I love it here,” Wilmot said. “ I wish I could set up an exchange program so the kids in Liberia could see how lucky everyone here is.”
Monday, February 28, 2000