Leaving war behind, Liberian family finds peace in Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 5, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
The Thompson family of Salisbury is enjoying a life of peace in their new house on North Shaver Street in East Spencer. They attend Milford Hills Baptist Church, and daughters Blessing and Blessed are getting ready to go into third grade at Hanford-Dole Elementary.
It’s a far cry from the days when they found themselves fleeing from the violence of two civil wars in west Africa.
Natives of Liberia, the family came to the United States as refugees through a resettlement program following a 14-year civil war in Liberia that tore the country apart.
That war certainly took a toll on the Thompson family, keeping them apart from one another for a time.
“The war divided us,” says Rufus Thompson.
Because of the war in Liberia, Rufus fled to neighboring Ivory Coast. One good thing that happened there was that Rufus met Oretha, the woman who would become his wife.
Then, the unthinkable happened again: civil war came to Ivory Coast.
It was a confusing, chaotic time, with violence in the streets.
“There were bodies all over,” says Ruth Thompson, Rufus’ mother, who was also in Ivory Coast. Family members searched frantically for one another as everyone prepared to leave.
“Everybody was running,” said Rufus, who was missing when the rest of his family had their names taken by a group helping to get people out of the country.
Rufus wound up in a refugee camp in Guinea; his wife Oretha and their three-month-old twin girls, Blessing and Blessed, ultimately found refuge in Australia.
Rufus would be separated from his family for three years.
“Basically, we ran from war two times,” Rufus says.
Ruth managed to get to the United States in 2003 and then filed for the rest of her family to come through a Lutheran social program. Rufus came in 2007 and then sent for his wife and daughters in Australia. They joined him in Salisbury in November of 2008.
They were helped through that process locally by Lutheran Family Services, one of hundreds of Lutheran social ministries around the country.
“One of the programs that Lutheran Family Services has been known for most in North Carolina is their refugee resettlement services,” says Ted Goins, president of Lutheran Services for the Aging and Lutheran Family Services, separate entities that recently became affiliated with one another.
In July, Ruth, Rufus, Oretha, Blessing, Blessed and 14-month Abigail — born in this country — moved into their brand new Habitat home, something that 10 years ago would have seemed an impossibility.
The home was dedicated July 2.
“It’s God’s will that we are here,” Ruth says. “To own this house….is a dream.”
“We love it,” Rufus says.
“I can’t even explain. It’s a dream come true.”
Ruth became aware of Habitat for Humanity when she went to the Habitat Re-Store to shop. There, she met store employees Regina Stancel and Elizabeth Brady, who told Ruth about the Habitat program.
Rufus, who has been working at Lowe’s Home Improvement in Salisbury since March of 2009, began to volunteer with Habitat before the family applied for a house.
While meeting with representatives from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which funds Habitat homes through the Thrivent Builds program, Habitat director Coleman Emerson realized that the Thompson family already had a Lutheran connection through Lutheran Family Services.
“Coleman put the pieces together,” Goins says.
Thrivent jumped at the chance to fund a home for the Thompsons, and Lutheran volunteers were among those who helped build the house.
Habitat for Humanity has had a fruitful partnership with Thrivent since 1991. From 2005-2010, almost 2,400 homes were built through the Thrivent Builds/Habitat partnership.
The 2011 commitment to fund an additional 164 homes will bring Thrivent Financial’s six-year funding commitment to Habitat for Humanity to close to $150 million.
“We have been blessed because of our good Lutherans and an active Thrivent organization,” Emerson says. “This is the sixth construction (locally) they have sponsored.”
For their part, the Thompsons have put in more than the 400 hours of sweat equity required.
Even now, Rufus is paying it forward, spending his own time to work on two other Habitat houses in his neighborhood.
David Rowh, construction supervisor for Habitat, says that he and many Habitat volunteers have been energized by the attitude of the Thompson family.
“They’re a good bunch,” he says.
Rufus, he says, was “great to work with, a really hard worker, really enthusiastic.”
All of the Habitat families are appreciative, he says, but the Thompsons, he notes, have been especially vocal about their gratitude.
That, he says, made everybody working on the project “really happy and excited” to be a part of it.
“Rufus was constantly thanking people,” Rowh says. “He’s still thanking people.”
Since the Thompsons have moved in, work has continued on a Habitat house next door. Rowh says that Oretha sometimes comes over during the week to bring the crew cold drinks and food — including dishes from her native Liberia.
The Thompsons are a family, Emerson says, “that anybody would be pleased and proud to say of, ‘This is my neighbor.’”
Those who work with Rufus at Lowe’s Home Improvement are also proud to call Rufus a member of their team.
Matt Snead, one of Rufus’ supervisors, says Rufus started working there part-time and soon earned a full-time job as a commercial sales loader.
“He always works hard,” Snead said. “The customers love him because he always goes the extra mile for them.
“He always strives to get better, not because he wants accolades for it but just because he wants to improve.
“We’re definitely a better store for him (being here).”
The residents of the Trinity Oaks, the Lutheran Home, participants in Abundant Living Day Services and Lutheran Services of America corporate employees are collecting food and household items for the Thompsons in an old-fashioned “pounding.”
The Thompsons are thankful not only to Habitat and the Lutherans for their support but they also feel an immense gratitude for the opportunities they’ve found in this country.
In fact, Emerson has some words of advice for those who may find themselves in the company of the Thompsons.
“You can’t say anything bad about the United States around Rufus,” Emerson says.
With two brutal civil wars and upheaval in his past that most Americans can’t conceive of, Rufus, one senses, understands the American dream in a way most Americans don’t.
“We were suffering,” he says. “America came to our rescue. What can we say? That is a great help.”
“We pray for America,” Ruth says. “We love America.”
As he worked on his family’s house one day, Rufus was overheard saying, as if still convincing himself of the reality of his new life: “I am going to own a home of my own in the great United States.”