A story of deliverance from the war-torn country of Liberia
My name is Joanna Teage, I am the youngest of four children. I graduated from Liberty University three years ago with a degree in Biology Pre-Medicine. In order for you to understand my story, I must give you a brief history about my country, Liberia. Liberia, meaning “land of the free” was founded by freed African-American slaves in 1820. From 1989 to 1996 one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars ensued claiming the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians; displacing a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. My story about my experience in the Liberian Civil war begins in 1990, but there is not much I can say about that since I was only an infant. From what I have been told by my mom and my older siblings, it was one of the worst experiences of their lives.
Once the 1990 war had ceased we moved to Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, to join my father. Things with my mom and dad eventually did not work out, therefore my mother became a single mom of four children. My mom has always been a fighter and a powerful believer of Christ so although things were extremely challenging for her, she did the best she could to raise my siblings and I. I remember having a comfortable life in Monrovia. My mother had a great job with the United Nations as a post-war counselor. I was a happy child, I had an amazing family, lots of friends and toys, and a comfortable home to live in.
In 1994, my mother left Liberia for America and left my siblings and I in the care of her brother, our uncle Eddie, and his wife. Although I missed my mother dearly, I understood that she had to go and prepare the way for us to eventually join her. Our life continued as normal that was until April 6, 1996. On this date, the third civil war broke out in Liberia. I remember a lot of people with bags walking past our home. We learned that day that the rebels were moving closer to Monrovia. At the instruction of my uncle, we quickly packed up our things and began walking. I didn’t know where we were going, or really who we were running from. All I remember is walking for miles and miles and wishing we would reach our destination so I could finally rest. Along the way we had to give away our bags with our toys in them because they were too heavy to travel with. This made me sad but I knew giving our toys away was helpful since the distance we were traveling was far, and the journey was long and tiresome. We walked and walked until we arrived at Freeport. The Freeport of Monrovia is the main commercial port facility in Liberia. The best way to describe Freeport when we arrived on April 6th is chaos. There were people everywhere. Frightened people, just like us, who were looking for a way out of the country. The plan was for us to take a ship to a neighboring country until the fighting ceased.
When the time came for us to get on the ship to leave, we threw all of our bags with our clothes, pictures, and food onto the ship. Unfortunately, there was not enough space on the ship, so we were unable to get on. We were stranded at Freeport with no clothes, no food and no tangible memory of our life before. Our uncle decided that we would stay at the port since we had nowhere else to go. So, like many other families around us, we began living in one of those large import/export containers. Although our uncle was our legal guardian at the time, he had a wife and young son that received all of his attention, so my siblings and I had to fend for ourselves. Life at the port was the most miserable time of my life! There were constant shootings and fighting all around us. The sounds of AK47’s became a normal part of our lives.
Food was hard to come along so my sister Connie and I started picking up peanuts from the ground to eat. Up until this day I still hate peanuts and peanut butter with a passion. I quickly became very sick with cholera and dysentery. During my sickness I remember mostly lying down too weak to move or even talk. I constantly threw up worms and other parasites because of the unsanitary conditions we were living in. I lost about half of my body weight during this time. My sickness in and of itself was a horrible experience, but being surrounded by constant fighting was even harder for me to handle. Although I was very young, I understood that God was watching over my siblings and I, and I knew that somehow He was going to see us through this horrendous time.
The crazy thing about my illness was that it was easily curable, but we didn’t have access to healthcare during this time. I believe I was sick for about month or so, but I’m not quite sure. When I started to get strong enough to walk again, my sister and I would take daily walks along the port in search of food. One day when we were walking, a Nigerian peace keeping solider who was stationed at the port took one look at me and began to cry. He said I reminded him of a little girl he had seen on one of his peace keeping missions in another country. He saw how malnourished I was and, I suppose, seeing my emaciated body triggered that memory for him. His name was Ilyala and he quickly befriended my siblings and I.
He, literally, took all five of us (including my cousin) under his wings and cared for us; like a father cares for his children. Not only did he feed us and give us money to buy things, but he even used to take us on his ship and introduced us to the other soldiers. I am certain that God sent Ilyala to protect us. Whenever shooting would break out at the port or there would be a crossfire we would go onto his ship and would sail to the middle of the sea until the fighting cease. It wasn’t just my siblings and I who would get onto their ship when fighting would erupt, it was anyone and everyone who was close enough. After about three months of being at the port, the war was finally over and we could finally return to our home. It was bitter sweet saying goodbye to Iyalla, but we said our goodbyes and left Freeport.
My experience at Freeport taught me so many life lessons that I carry with me up until this day. The most important thing I learned was that through all the trials and tribulations, God is a faithful God. His word says that He will never leave us or forsake us: this became real to me at Freeport. I know that it is only by the grace of God, that my siblings and I were protected when we were constantly surrounded by death. It is also only by the grace of God that we are all here together in the United Stated of America with our mother. When I look back on all that I have been through, I am motivated not to give up when I am faced with challenges, because I know that God will not give me more than I can bear. I also know that with Him I can overcome any challenge I encounter. I thank God for my wonderful, supportive siblings, and my amazing mother who showed me through her example what it means to be a woman after God’s heart, and I thank God for the stranger who became our dearest friend that was sent to protect us at Freeport.
So, here is where my story gets really cool. When we left Freeport, Ilyala gave my oldest brother his information. My brother being a carefree 14 year old misplaced his contact information. The last time we heard from Ilyala was the day we left the port. We came to America on February 23, 1997. Once settled in the U.S., we tried several different ways to get in touch with him, but all of those brought no results. My sister even wrote Oprah telling her our story and asking if she could help us find Ilyala, and guess what? We never heard from Oprah; shocker, huh?
Let’s fast forward to the summer of 2012. I had just graduated from Liberty University and I was working as a Camp Nurse Black Rock Summer Camp. At camp we don’t carry our cellphones around with us or get on the internet very often, but one day while taking a quick break I decided to check my phone and I saw several missed calls from my oldest brother and a text that went something like this; “Guys, you won’t believe this. I think I found Ilyala.” I don’t remember what else the text said but I remember tears of joy and relief coming to my eyes as soon as I read my brother’s text. I immediately called my brother to speak with him. Ilyala was actually the one who found my brother on Facebook and sent him a message asking him if he had ever lived on Freeport in Liberia and if he had siblings. One thing led to another and we all became friends with Ilyala via Facebook. A few days after I became friends with him, I sent him this message:
I’m sorry it took me so long to write you, I have been at Camp and things get pretty busy here. I was speechless when Henry told me that you found him. After all these years of searching for you, our prayers have been answered. I just want to personally thank you so much for all that you done for my siblings and I at Free Port. Although I was very young when it all happened, I still remember most of it and I definitely remember you and the love and kindness that you showed us. If it was not for you I don’t even know where my siblings and I would be right now. Thank you for taking us under your wings and providing for us and protecting us. To you, it probably was nothing much, but what you did meant the world to us and because of you we are all still alive today. I’m so thankful for you and your family, these words I’m typing are not enough to express my appreciation. I pray that God will bless you until your cup overflows. May the Lord richly bless you and your family and may everything you put your hands on prosper. I want to know how you are doing and how your family are doing so please write back. Hope you have a wonderful blessed day.
Love, Joanna Teage/ Dea”
After sending this message, we communicated back a forth through Facebook. I found out that He was still serving in the Nigerian Navy and he had done a lot of traveling to different countries after leaving Liberia. No matter where he went he couldn’t get us out of his mind. Since he hadn’t heard from us, he didn’t know how we were doing, whether or not we made it out of Liberia, or if we were even still alive.
Let’s fast forward the story to the fall of 2014. Up until this point, our only contact with Ilyala, was via Facebook, since we lived in different countries. We received a message from Ilyala saying that He was coming to America for only about two weeks for work and he would be in New York City then on his way to Washington D.C. It was the week before Thanksgiving and I just so happened to be sent to New York City for a business trip. Ilyala and I had exchanged phone numbers and on my second night in New York Ilyala and I met after not seeing each other for 18 years. When we finally met up we hugged like long lost friends, like a father who was so pleased and relieved to see his daughter, like a little girl who did not want to let go of her hero. I had tears of joy running down my cheeks.
We went to dinner and had the greatest of times catching up and reminiscing. As I was sitting across from the man that saved my life, I couldn’t help but smile thinking of how God orchestrates everything in our lives. We talked about everything under the sun and I found out that Ilyala was happily married with kids of his own. I finally had the opportunity to thank him face to face. When the night came to an end I didn’t want it to be over. We said our goodbyes and parted ways. A few days later, Ilyala was in Washington D.C. and had the opportunity to meet the rest of my family. My mother had a chance to finally meet the solider that her kids had told her so much about and had a chance to thank him in person. My brothers and their wives and my sister all felt a sense of relief and gratitude after meeting Iyala again 18 years later.
When I was asked to share a story about myself, I felt a sense of obligation to share this story. God has been so faithful to me although I am so undeserving of his faithfulness. With all that could have happened to me, God has preserved me for his will and for his purpose and for that I truly grateful. So I’m going to end with the verse that my mother told me got her through the first civil war and has gotten her through difficult times is her life.
Blessed is the man[a]
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law[b] of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.