By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

There were people from literally dozens of nationalities filling the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on April 10 as Cardinal Justin Rigali celebrated the annual Mass for National Migration Week.

Most had come to America presumably to seek a better life.

This certainly includes Juwlie Karluah and her husband, Arthur; their children, Patricia, Andy, Elizabeth Irenious, Lawrence, Arthur, Tarlor, Regina, James and Caroline (the latter born in the U.S.A.)

As a matter of fact, Juwlie estimates her extended family here in America, including her father, brothers and sisters and their children and grandchildren, adds up to about 60 people.

You might say it was the second time around for the family, because some of their forebears came under horrible circumstances. They first came from Africa in chains to toil as slaves, and their descendents, after obtaining freedom, were resettled in Liberia. {{more}}

Beginning in the early 1990s Liberia was wracked by a murderous and extended civil war, with large segments of the population becoming refugees.

With their home destroyed, Arthur and Juwlie fled to the woods carrying the youngest of their brood.

For about three months they suffered almost unimaginable hardships, eating rotten fruit or whatever else they could find, wading streams and ponds, drinking polluted water – sometimes from rivers with human bodies floating in them.

Yes it was terrible, “but the best part, we didn’t lose any of our kids,” Juwlie said. “Most families had kids who were dying, or were raped and some were abandoned.”

Eventually they found refuge in neighboring Ivory Coast – now itself in turmoil.

“I was a born and baptized Catholic and we were married in Church. In the refugee camp I was the director of the choir, this helped get me through,” she said.

Juwlie already had a sister and her father living in the Philadelphia area, and because of this, she and her husband obtained visas to come to the U.S., temporarily leaving the children behind.

They had a little two-bedroom apartment, and that became a problem once the children began arriving from Africa. One day the fire alarm went off and they all piled out to the street, which was the first time the managers knew for certain how many people were living in the apartment. They were promptly evicted for violating occupancy regulations.

“We went to a homeless shelter. I didn’t even know what a homeless shelter was,” Juwlie said. “I was pregnant with Caroline.”

She missed going to church, but without a car there was no way to do so. Customs are different in Liberia than America, particularly with regard to food. Other residents of the shelter didn’t like what the Kurluahs ate, so they found themselves dining in the shelter bathroom in order to have some privacy and enjoy the meal together.

After two years they finally got a four-bedroom home of their own in Bristol Borough, since converted to five, and as the older children moved out it was sufficient for their needs.

Juwlie and Arthur asked around, looking for a parish where transportation to church could be found. Although they did not live within its boundaries, St. Frances Cabrini in Fairless Hills welcomed them. Answering to appeals by Msgr. John Miller, volunteers were found to take them to church; others helped in various ways and several of the children attended the parish school and were altar servers.

Everything was fine until about four months ago when a house fire caused their temporary relocation once more.

But St. Frances parishioners once again showered them with kindnesses, and now they are back in their own refurbished home.

Juwlie works as a certified nursing assistant; Arthur works in a bakery. They haven’t forgotten where they came from, and out of their modest means they send money, foodstuffs, second-hand clothing and school supplies back to relatives in Liberia.

They have made a new life in America and are content. Yes, they’ve had their trials, but as Juwlie says, “prayer to God got us through.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.