Lourena Gboeah began by describing how she and her four-year-old daughter Moriah read stories together, especially stories that honor the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans and their role in shaping the country.
Recently they have focused on picture books by African American authors, such as Floyd Cooper who wrote and illustrated Moriah’s favorite, Max and the riveting moonabout a boy and his grandfather.
“We read books that are based on self-love so that as she gets older, reading not only improves her vocabulary, but also helps her appreciate and love herself even more,” Louena says.
Battle to reach
For many American refugees of African descent, Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on both the journey that forced them to flee their homeland and their new life in America.
And when the first African-American is appointed to the highest court in the country, it’s a shot in the arm with hopes for a prosperous future.
†Whenever we talk about being a black woman here in America, especially to me, a former refugee, I always think about how hard I had to fight to get to where I am todaysaid Lourena, social worker and president of the US-based advocacy group Refugee Congress.
On the run under threat
As a young girl in Buchanan, Liberia, the naturalized American loved to watch football games and traditional dance performances on Sundays in the park there.
But after the First Liberian Civil War broke out in 1989, her life changed quickly.
The merry screams at pick-up games were replaced by gunshots during massacres carried out by the warring factions. Those who dared to keep dancing were seen by rebels as supporters of opposition forces, and so they too were victims.
“We were really terrified,” said Martha Gboeah, the mother of Lourena, who escaped with her eight children after rebel groups threatened the family.
A dream come true
Lourena, her mother and siblings, were among 750,000 people who fled their homes during the war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
The family first crossed the border to the Ivory Coast, where they lived for two years, before resettling in 1992 to Staten Island, New York City, where they were reunited with the family patriarch.
When she was four years old, Louena marveled at the idea of sandwiches made from ice cream. And her mother liked to work and take care of her family.
“The first thing that was really great was having a job,” Martha said. “In Liberia, women [couldn’t] just looking for a job. Here I could work and move freely.”
Reality sets in
But soon the family also learned the reality of being black in America.
“We had to deal with insults. We were bullied for living in shacks, and it was just a lack of cultural awareness at the time,” Lourena said. “I still remember that to this day. We’ve all been through that bullying.”
Years later, while working for the Jewish Family Services of Delaware resettlement agency, she taught young children in Delaware schools about refugees.
Lourena writes that the increasing emphasis on cultural awareness education has helped change the perception of refugees and other marginalized groups, but argues that much remains to be done.
As a black woman, Lourena said it is difficult to navigate the American workforce.
Despite having the necessary qualifications and experience, she had to fight for career opportunities and a fair salary.
While Lourena, unlike some of her colleagues, has never been “tapped on the shoulder for positions,” she acknowledged that “it really turns me on when I can help someone.”
I am proud to be a connector of people, places and things – Lawyer for refugees
Contrary to expectations
According to a 2021 analysis by the Brookings Institution research group, the situation in the American labor market for black women remains difficult.
For example, the unemployment rate for black women rose from 4.9 percent to 6.2 percent in November, while the unemployment rate for their white counterparts fell from 3.7 percent to 3.1 percent.
A study by Leanin.org and McKinsey & Co. found that women of color in the American workplace face a wider range of micro-aggressions and must spend more hours proving their worth.
Chairman of the Board of Directors
Lourena helps people overcome these obstacles.
In addition to her job as a social worker, she is board chair of the Refugee Congress and a board member of Refugee Council USA – another US-based advocacy organization that helps people flee their homes because of war or persecution.
Lourena and her colleagues speak at public events, provide community training and advocate for local and state governments, and encourage policies and practices that welcome refugees.
“I’m proud to be a connector of people, places and things,” she said. “It really excites me when I can help someone find a solution to the challenges they are going through.”
A ‘conscientious’ fighter
As a senior community engagement manager at Unite Us, a network that coordinates community organizations, she helps ensure health and social care services reach those in need.
“One thing I will remember Lourena is her conscientious struggle to advocate for those who are unaware and lack the resources,” said Alyssa Bradley, a former colleague.
“If you need a voice or hand, Lourena lends hers willingly and forcefully”.
Lourena draws on her family’s experience as a refugee in her work.
“We’re hardworking people,” she said. “But if we’re getting into a totally new country, any kind of extra support would of course have been helpful.”
Building a better future
Lourena feels a special obligation to black women and hopes she can make the future bright for her daughter, who wants to be an astronaut.
She has taken Moriah to refugee convention meetings and a Black Lives Matter demonstration, hoping the experiences will teach her daughter to appreciate her worth and power.
“I don’t want her to think less of herself because of the color of her skin,” Lourena said. “And I want her to know that her mother was in this fight.”