Faith and the pilgrimage to the land of milk and honey

Updated: Aug 22, 2018

"My America is like a white, Christian, handsome, middle-aged man, who is standing in front of the mirror naked, admiring himself."

Warning: This Post Contains Language That May Offend.

“I say, it’s a boy,” one of the rebels told his friend looking at a pregnant woman held in front of them.

It was at the checkpoint in Ivory Coast in 2002. Five-year-old Faith-Joy Kpoto, her family, and friends were waiting to pass the rebels checkpoint to flee Ivory Coast and the war that had just broken out there. Faith-Joy didn’t know the pleading pregnant woman the rebels were discussing. She recalls her very big belly and a traditional colorful scarf tied as a dress.

“Let’s cut her open and see,” said the rebel. “If it’s a boy, I get the money.”

The sweep of a machete, a lot of blood.

Everything happened so fast that Faith-Joy’s mother was late covering her daughter’s eyes, as she would do quickly for the next two days when they walked past dead bodies on the way to Liberia. Even though Faith-Joy didn’t see them, she could smell them. It’s a miracle they got there alive and unharmed, said Faith-Joy.

Faith-Joy Kpoto is now 21 and works for an IT department at a Philadelphia company. She is Liberian by birth, her mother’s third child. Before she was born, her mother, Elizabeth, dropped out of college to concentrate on her family and help Faith-Joy’s father graduate and get a good start in his career as an electric engineer. It worked out so well for him that he set off to live with his mistress, leaving his family behind in an unfinished house they had started building together without any support.

Faith-Joy was a very sick child, and there were many issues coming from “her being alive.” Her medical bills consumed a big part of the family’s budget. Elizabeth, a college drop-out, took on the responsibility of providing for Faith-Joy and her two older children.

One day, a doctor told Elizabeth that if Faith-Joy didn’t grow with an access to an advanced health system that wasn’t available to them in Liberia, she wouldn’t make it past the age of 16. With that, the family packed their bags and set off for Ivory Coast.

At the time, rumor had it, it was easier to get American visas from Ivory Coast. As many Liberians did, Faith-Joy’s family hoped to get a shot for a better life either in Ivory Coast itself or by getting to “the country of milk and honey,” as people called the United States.

The family hitchhiked most of the way to Ivory Coast. On the way there, they met and joined a big family they knew from Liberia. Once they reached the town of Danane, Faith-Joy’s family settled with this family in their compounds for the next two years.

The group became one big family for Faith-Joy. She started calling other kids at the compound her cousins, and adults became her aunties and uncles. Elizabeth got a job at a church, where Faith-Joy and other kids were taking classes for the first half a year before they picked up enough French (the state language in Ivory Coast) to go to a regular school.

There were normal childhood years, said Faith-Joy. She spent most of her days at school, studying with her cousins or watching TV at home. She even participated in a beauty pageant.

If things were heating up leading to the start of the civil war in Sept. 2002, little Faith-Joy didn’t notice. Danane was a small town on the border with Liberia, more than a six-hour drive away from Yamoussoukro, the capital of Ivory Coast.

That’s why on Nov. 19, 2002, when the rebels launched attacks in many cities around the country, including Danane, it started as just another regular Thursday for Faith-Joy. In the morning, she and her cousins got their backpacks and went to school, where they stayed until her uncle ran to pick them all up, right from the middle of the class.

“I was so happy. I was like, ‘YES! Thank you, Jesus! I am gonna go home, I am gonna eat and watch TV,’” Faith-Joy said.

But once she got out of the school building, she started realizing that something wasn’t right. She saw people running with their belongings, parents coming to get their kids from school. She heard screams, shouts, and gunshots. It made her feel uneasy.

Back at the compound, Faith-Joy and her family packed in a hurry. Elizabeth packed their paperwork, food, and every bit of cash she could find. Faith-Joy put just a change of clothes into her small backpack. They left most of their belongings behind and never looked back.

Fleeing the revolution, they ran for their lives. One of the older women traveling with them couldn’t walk, so other compound dwellers had to take turns to carry her.

On the way out of the city, their group was stopped at the checkpoint controlled by the rebels. They stood aside and waited for their turn to pass through when the argument about the pregnant woman happened.

“It all happened very fast. Argue, argue, argue. Beg, beg, beg. Bam!” said Faith-Joy. Little Faith-Joy saw a swing of the machete and a lot of blood before her mother grabbed her and they ran.

The journey from Danane to Monrovia, Faith-Joy’s hometown in Liberia, took the group two days. They walked all the way there on foot in what Faith-Joy called a typical landscape – wide, red dusty road surrounded by high grass and low bushes. They kept to the side of the road, and every time they heard rebels shouting, drumming on the sides of their vehicles, and beeping, they ran for cover behind the bushes.

Every so often, a truck with over a dozen rebels drove by, and Faith-Joy caught a glimpse of people with guns. Sometimes, she saw kids not much older than her with guns and grenades, and she feared them.

“If you have a gun and if you are making this drumming noise on the car, you are dangerous to me. That’s it, that was my mindset. Danger, danger, danger,” said Faith-Joy.

Sometimes, from the cover, Faith-Joy heard rebels shooting people. Once the rebels were gone, Faith-Joy’s group walked past piles of dead bodies and pools of blood. Every time it happened, either Elizabeth or Faith-Joy’s elder siblings would close her eyes. Still, Faith-Joy could smell the blood or decomposing dead bodies.

During their journey, Faith-Joy and others ate just enough to survive. Older people got bigger portions than children because they could carry them if needed.

“It’s a miracle we didn’t get sick because we drank some awful things, and we ate some awful things,” said Faith-Joy. “I am not sure how we left that place in one piece. I am not sure how we didn’t get killed, how I didn’t get raped, how my sister or my mother didn’t get raped.”

Two-days’ journey seemed like two-weeks to little Faith-Joy. Once they reached their family home in Liberia, they ate and took showers.

“I remember exactly what we got to eat when we got there. It was palava sauce. It is slippery, and it is made of meat with a lot of spices. We had it with fufu.”

Elizabeth and Faith-Joy’s older sister cried, but she didn’t. She was aware that she and her family were alive, and that was enough.

Fleeing the war in Ivory Coast wasn’t the end of Faith-Joy’s family hardship. They were poor and struggled to survive, Faith-Joy said. To make the ends meet, they started a business of baking and selling cookies. Cookies became an integral part of Faith-Joy’s daily routine. After finishing her homework, she stayed up until midnight with her mother baking and then woke up the next morning at 6 a.m. to go to school, where she sold her half of the cookies to schoolmates.

“When we first started the cookies, I was embarrassed, because I was going to a very good school; the kids at school…most of their parents came to pick them up in cars. And they would wear these nice shoes,” said Faith-Joy.

Faith-Joy told her mother she felt too uncomfortable being ‘the person’ selling the cookies. Elizabeth listened, understood, but said they had no other choice.

“At first, I didn’t like it. I was upset about it. But then I understood she was doing it for me, for us to stay alive. All of the money was going to either my medical bills or for food.”

Faith-Joy was still a very sick child who had all kinds of health problems – she suffered from ulcers, several severe infections, respiration issues, an eating disorder, and recurring malaria that caused hallucinations. She hallucinated rebels running after her with machetes or rice being poured over her until she couldn’t breathe. She was such a frequent visitor at the hospital that every staff member knew her and her family by names, and when her birthday was because she celebrated it there several times over the years.

Around the time the cookie business began to grow, Faith-Joy started struggling with depression.

“In Africa, people don’t believe in depression,” said Faith-Joy. People in Liberia called it “white people’s sickness,” and said, expounding on the idea, “You guys are not like that. You are strong. You can’t be depressed – you are alive.”

Faith-Joy tried to keep it to herself. She didn’t want to add anything to the pile of difficulties Elizabeth was fighting with every day to make sure there was food on the table. By then, Faith-Joy already understood she didn’t get to have a typical childhood.

She learned that when her cousin, “Satan’s son,” as Faith-Joy called him, stole all the cookies and sold them to buy bubble gum he gave out to girls to make them like him. It was then that Faith-Joy saw Elizabeth to lose her patience and get angry for the first time.

“The moment I saw my mom break down, I told myself ‘You do not have a chance to be a child anymore. She is not going to ask you to be strong or brave, but you have to be this person. You have to be her husband, her daughter, her friend, her everything.’”

Faith-Joy was only 11 years old then.

“It was a lot to juggle. And I didn’t want to make it harder for my mom or be ungrateful. I don’t get to complain because I feel overwhelmed. That was my mindset.”

The cookie business turned into a tiny restaurant that Elizabeth ran until she got an internship at a local non-profit organization. She worked hard, and her colleagues there helped her to get through proper certification that allowed her to stay with them as a full-time social worker.

Even before Faith-Joy and her mother resorted to cookie business, Faith-Joy’s father got a job for the United Nations and moved with his new family to Australia. He didn’t pay elements on Faith-Joy or care to make sure she was alive when Elizabeth was fighting to afford food. Still, Faith-Joy wrote emails to her father asking him to know her and be in her life, but she rarely got response.

“In December, he would call and say, ‘Sorry I missed your birthday,’ which was in October. ‘I tried calling, but the line was busy,’” said Faith-Joy.

Years later, Faith-Joy’s father came to see her once when he was visiting Liberia for business. “It was like talking to a stranger.”

The best moment of the meeting for Faith-Joy was seeing a surprised look on her father’s face when Elizabeth, in a beautiful new suit, stopped by the house to pick up work folders.

“Your mother is looking good,” said Faith-Joy’s father staring at Elizabeth leaving.

“Oh yeah, she is. She is,” said Faith-Joy, proudly.

They were finally living a good life. Elizabeth pulled through working in another city and being away from her children five days a week and opened her own non-profit organization empowering women and minorities.

Faith-Joy outgrew her health problems after finishing high school. She loved studying and had good grades. Her elder sister, who had moved to the U.S. by then, persuaded Elizabeth to send Faith-Joy to study to America. All the paperwork for Concord University, a small state school in West Virginia, was handled for Faith-Joy, leaving her only decision whether she wanted to go.

More than a decade after her family moved to Ivory Coast seeking an opportunity to move her to the U.S., Faith-Joy didn’t see America as ‘the country of milk and honey,’ but as a land that was too far from Elizabeth.

Faith-Joy decided to give the U.S. a try. After many nights spent crying and being homesick, Faith-Joy adjusted to American life and got a degree in Computer Information Systems, kicking the pressure of the stereotype that a girl couldn’t possibly have anything meaningful to contribute to male-dominated class conversations.

America is a country of many issues, Faith-Joy believes. There are racism, sexism, and general hate she experienced on her own skin. Yet, she thinks that the main American problem is the entitlement that allows systematic oppression of minorities.

“Let’s forget me coming here as an immigrant,” says Faith-Joy. “Talk about a black man that was born here, a Muslim gay, a black woman from a ghetto. They are born here, they have papers, but they are still getting shot, raped, discriminated. Is it too much to ask to treat them as people, with compassion and respect? Helping others is a Christian, human thing to do.”

When Faith-Joy was growing up poor in Liberia, Elizabeth took in several homeless children and raised them as her own, teaching Faith-Joy the importance of sharing.

“My mom didn’t have much, but she was privileged at that point. So, she shared.”

It upsets Faith-Joy to watch the American immigration crisis and hate toward people entering illegally seeking asylum.

“Sometimes the opportunity to come here legally is absent, but every parent wants what is the best for their child. People wouldn’t leave home if they weren’t leaving it for something better. Americans say to them ‘go back to your country.’ If that was the choice, they would have done that. But their homes are not safe – spiritually, physically, emotionally, financially,” said Faith-Joy. “In my mind, there is no reason why people can hate other people for wanting their lives to be better.”

In Liberia and many African countries, Faith-Joy says, people want to show foreigners around and share with them the best the culture has to offer. They share their food and proudly show the best sights. Americans accept the hospitality, take pictures of wild animals and starving kids, post them online saying ‘Hey, I traveled the world,” and go back to the U.S., where they hate the same Africans daring to come to America.

“It’s hypocrisy, entitlement, ignorance.” Faith-Joy refuses to believe that the place of birth gives anybody a right to mistreat others, and she doesn’t get when Americans pour hateful stereotypes over Mexicans, Muslims, Africans and other minorities. She watches the news about children being separated from parents at the border and sighs in desperation. She lived through some horrible things, she said, but she wasn’t separated from her family or criminalized.

“Every time I start to think or feel like I understand, I remind myself that I really don’t,” said Faith-Joy. “Yes. I would have died [if separated from mother as a child], and I’m not even exaggerating! I would have died - spiritually first, then mentally, and then physically.”

“Do you know what people sacrifice to come here? They sell everything to buy a ticket here,” said Faith-Joy being emotional about immigrants coming to the U.S. illegally. “I get it that you [America] can’t save everybody. Save those who come to you for help. How are you, America, so big and proud, handsome middle-aged white man with a small dick - because this is how I see America - 'Mr. Big Dick.' He persuaded himself he has a big dick because he is not a minority. He is looking at himself in the mirror and saying, ‘You are awesome, you are so strong. You are not going to help these people who came asking for help.’”

She wants to help, to do something, but she is overwhelmed with fear. She has an American degree, good job, proper visa, but she is still afraid people would come and tell her, “There is something wrong with your papers. You have to go home.”

America needs immigrants, Faith-Joy believes. There are jobs like picking corn or cleaning toilets that need to be done, but most of Americans wouldn’t want. There is a high demand for highly-skilled labor in corporate America that is not met by Americans. It’s pride and arrogance that keeps America from accepting that it needs help from others.

“America needs to accept help and give help.”

“I don’t hate America,” said Faith-Joy. “This is the place that made it easier for me to accept and love things about myself and others. This country and the incredible people I have met here have helped me become the woman I am today. Everything I say is not because of hate, it’s because I know what this country is capable of doing IF the people with power and a voice can use their privileges to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.”