Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Free from Liberia's Chaos First Coast Resident Dennis Kotee Represents the Growing Number of Refugees Fleeing Africa's Civil Wars for a New Life in America

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Free from Liberia's Chaos First Coast Resident Dennis Kotee Represents the Growing Number of Refugees Fleeing Africa's Civil Wars for a New Life in America

Article excerpt

Dennis Kotee sat in his Jacksonville living room with the shades closed to the morning sun and recalled how they would tie him up before the torture began.

He was an elementary school teacher in Liberia. Twice he was captured and tortured by rebels during the West African nation's civil war.

The country was in chaos. "At the time, if you did not have a gun, you could not get food to eat," Kotee said.

Throwing his elbows behind his back and putting his hands on either side of his head, Kotee demonstrated how he was bound during an interrogation in the basement of a house. Friends found him there and helped him escape.

Kotee walked about 60 miles to freedom in Sierra Leone and later flew to Senegal, which became his home for five years.

Arriving in Jacksonville in 1997, Kotee represents the rising number of refugees from Africa being allowed into the United States.

Human rights activists and some politicians say previous limits placed on African refugee resettlement were unjust. The United States needs to accommodate more refugees from violence-torn areas like Liberia, where a civil war broke out in 1989.

"I had to start everything all over," said Kotee, who works full time at Bank of America, studies computer engineering at Florida Community College at Jacksonville and owns a home in Arlington.

The federally set ceiling for African refugees remained at 7,000 from 1996 to 1998. For fiscal year 2001, it is proposed to nearly triple to 20,000.

Each year the number of refugees admitted for permanent U.S. resettlement is recommended by the State Department to the president and approved by Congress. The president has two chances to amend the proposal.

Less than 1 percent of all refugees resettle in the United States, said Russell Bloom, program director for refugee and immigrant services for Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida.

But even in that narrow window, U.S. favoritism has been shown to European refugees -- by the tens of thousands.

Factors for determining how many refugees the United States will allow from a country or continent include the security and conditions of neighboring countries and the likelihood of the conflict dissipating, according to the State Department.

Numbers were lower for Africa because refugees could stay in neighboring countries. But refugee protection on the continent has eroded, department officials said.

POLICIES CALLED UNFAIR

Panos Moumtzis, spokesman for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said his organization advocates for refugees around the world, making sure they are not persecuted or returned to dangerous surroundings.

Resettlement is the last solution pursued, Moumtzis said. "The dream for all refugees is to be able to go back to their own country."

The preferred solution is to send them home when the conflict ends, while the secondary solution is to integrate them into the country where they fled -- such as Senegal for Kotee.

The third approach is resettlement.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., said U.S. policies have been unfair to dark-skinned refugees.

"It seems as if we have two policies, one for people from Africa and Haiti and one for everybody else," she said. "We need to revamp our policy. Criteria should be fair, and color should not be a consideration. Our policy pertaining to immigration is very racist in nature."

Torli Krua, director of the non-profit Universal Human Rights International, pointed to the genocide in the Central African nation of Rwanda in 1994, when the Hutu majority butchered, mutilated and raped members of the Tutsi minority.

The United States accepted 88 Rwandans in 1994 and 457 others in the years since -- compared with the 14,000 Kosovars the United States took in within a few months two years ago. …

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