Local Liberians had a weight lifted Friday when President Obama extended the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status for eligible Liberians living legally in the United States, providing them an extra 18 months of refuge from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
The deadline for those Liberian immigrants allowed to stay under temporary protected status was set to expire Tuesday. In an official statement Friday, Obama said it is “in the foreign policy interest” of the nation to again extend DED and allow Liberians to continue to live and work here.
More than 30,000 people of Liberian descent live in Minnesota, primarily in the northwestern suburbs including Brooklyn Park, which is home to one of the largest Liberian populations outside Africa. Of those, there are approximately 1,000 Liberians currently living under DED status as refugees from the bloody civil war in Liberia.
Wynfred Russell, executive director of African Career, Education and Resource Inc., a Brooklyn Park nonprofit, praised Obama for his action because once families are taken into consideration, far more than 1,000 local Liberians are affected by their temporary status, he said.
“This was a public health decision and a humanitarian decision. You don’t want to exacerbate the crisis by sending thousands of people back into a danger zone,” Russell said. “These people have built homes here and are contributing members of society.”
Ebola is a virus that typically begins with flu-like symptoms. Nearly 3,000 people have succumbed to the disease across West Africa.
Anxiety in local communities grew when Patrick Sawyer, who worked for the Liberian government and whose wife and three daughters live in Coon Rapids, died in Nigeria on July 25 — the first American to die from Ebola. Sawyer last visited Minnesota about a year ago and planned to return in August.
Hundreds packed two community meetings last month in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center to discuss the epidemic. Several churches also began relief efforts for family and friends living in the outbreak zones of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.
“There is not a Liberian who has not been affected by the Ebola situation,” Russell said.
The presidential order applies to thousands of Liberians who fled to America in 1989 after a bloody civil war broke out in their homeland and have since been granted regular extensions because of the ongoing conflict.
Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar urged Obama in July to consider a longer extension.
“[Liberians] have become a vital part of our state, and they should not be forced to return to a country that is still struggling to contain the deadly spread of Ebola,” Klobuchar said.
Russell, meanwhile, said he hopes leaders will eventually grant displaced Liberians permanent status so they don’t have to continually hold their breath about being sent back.
“I don’t think we need to put people through that every year,” he said.