Liberian Ambassador Jeremiah Sulunteh spent four days in North Carolina beginning late last month, touring local facilities and meeting with state and local leaders to promote increased partnerships between his native country and the United States.
The Triad is home to a vibrant Liberian community. The Winston-Salem-based Liberian Organization of the Piedmont (LOP), which organized Ambassador Sulunteh’s visit, puts the local Liberian population in the thousands. Sulunteh touted the historical connections between his country and this one on Saturday, June 1 during a town hall meeting at Goler Memorial AME Zion Church.
“Liberia has a special relationship with the United States. We were formed by freed American slaves,” Sulunteh said of the West African nation, which is home to roughly 4 million citizens. “…We have a deep root, maybe that we have not realized. Some of us have not seen that connectivity.”
Sulunteh’s itinerary also included addressing the North Carolina House of Representatives on May 29 and meetings with representatives from Forsyth Technical Community College, Wake Forest University Medical Center and Winston-Salem State University on May 30 and May 31.
“It has been very hectic, but very rewarding,” said LOP Founder James Hunder, who facilitated the ambassador’s visit. “The reception has been great (as have) the kind of connections that we have been blessed to have established with other organizations. Everything for the four days has been wonderful.”
He rounded out his visit with the Goler event. During the more than two-hour long event, Sulunteh shared stories of progress and setbacks in his native land, and implored audience members, many of them Liberian nationals, to support the country’s efforts through partnerships and investments.
“Invest,” Sulunteh said. “We’re not asking for aid, we’re not asking for handouts. There is an environment where you can invest, so come and do that.”
Liberia is still recovering from the devastation created by two successive civil wars, the second of which ended in 2003, Sulunteh said. The country held democratic elections in 2005, selecting current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the first female president in Africa – for the post. Things have improved during Sirleaf’s tenure, but recovery takes time, Sulunteh said. He listed food and agriculture security, energy and infrastructure and education among the citizens’ most pressing needs.
“The civil war took the lives of 200,000 people and destroyed the fabric of the country,” he related. “…Fourteen years of war created the situation where most of these young people were bypassed by education. They didn’t go to school, they have no skills; consequently, they are unemployed.”
Sulunteh said the Liberian government is working to improve infrastructure by constructing roads and exploring ways of bringing electricity and running water to its villages. Education and vocational training remain critical needs, he added.
“That is the message that we bring, that Liberia is ready for investment, Liberia is ready to collaborate with (American) community colleges and universities to fill the gap of training,” Sulunteh said. “We need support. We need for some of our students to come here and learn, we need for some of our nurses to come here and learn… It’s that kind of association, that kind of relationship that we’re trying to cultivate here.”
The country already has educational partnerships with Forsyth Tech and “Sister City” unions with the City of Winston-Salem. Sulunteh’s wish is that even tighter bonds can be formed between the Triad and Liberia.
Attendees questioned Sulunteh on a variety of topics, from improving relationships between Liberians and African Americans, establishing clear pathways for donations to follow, and concerns related to traveling between the two countries. Sulunteh asked meeting attendees to leverage their personal and business relationships to help Liberia in any way they can.
“When I entered this hall, I did not only see Liberians, I saw friends of Liberians,” he said. “…All of you sitting here have become ambassadors as of today. I want to ask you to join me.”
Goler is home to an active Liberian community. Dr. Seth Lartey, the church’s former pastor, is a native of Monrovia, Liberia and currently serves as bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Western West Africa Episcopal District, which encompasses Liberia. Rev. George Banks, the church’s current pastor, accompanied Ambassador Sulunteh on several of his outings.
“Ambassador Sulunteh is an outstanding leader and just a good person, very down to earth, and has a great message that he’s been delivering across the state, a message of collaboration with Liberia and helping us to understand how we can be a partner as they continue to grow and move forward,” commented Banks, who took the helm at Goler in November. “…We have to make sure that we continue to support Liberia and continue to be a part of their recovery efforts after the civil war.”
Sulunteh made Banks an honorary Liberian during Saturday’s gathering, presenting the pastor with a ceremonial pin bearing the Liberian flag.
“I think his affiliation with our community is exciting, so we wanted to recognize him and honor him as an honorary citizen of Liberia,” Sulunteh said, affixing the pin to Banks’ lapel.
Banks, the self described “new Liberian on the block,” pledged his ongoing support of members of the local Liberian community and of the nation as a whole.
“I am honored,” he stated. “…Mr. Ambassador, we want you to know that when you go back to Washington, D.C., we’re going to continue to work here.”
Though there is much work to do, Sulunteh told the audience that Liberia is on the right track.
“The fact of the matter is that a lot of good things are happening in our country,” he declared. “…Liberia is back and we’re ready to take our rightful place in the community of nations.”
For more information about the Liberian Organization of the Piedmont, visit lopnc.org.