- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) - Through a civil war and several setbacks, Dr. Emmanuel Bessay never gave up his dream of practicing medicine.

He is a native of Liberia, a country first formed as a colony for free-born American blacks. In 1847, it was the first African country to declare independence. Those immigrating to the land borrowed heavily from American culture and political foundations to forge a new government.

“Since they were Christians, they considered the indigenous Africans heathens,” Bessay said. “They transported the treatment they received in America and took it there. It’s almost like they enslaved the indigenous people.”

Bessay’s family is indigenous. His father was a diesel mechanic and brought in a steady income for the family.

“When I started going to school, I would take my Tom and Jerry lunchbox,” he said. “The teachers were all Americo-Liberians. They would take my lunchbox and give it to the settler children who would play with it. They ran the country, and that’s just what they did.”

On April 12, 1980, the military staged a coup and killed President William R. Tolbert Jr.

“Things were OK for a while,” he said, “but then the economy started to get worse.”

“Spring of 1981, I lost my little brother to measles,” he said. “He was maybe one or less. I was 10. That was the first time I decided I wanted to become a doctor. None of my family members were doctors. I was just thinking doctors could have helped save his life.”

He finished high school in December 1989. Two weeks later on Christmas Eve, the First Liberian Civil War broke out.

“It’s just one bad dream that you never wake up from,” he said. “I was on the coast (in Buchanan), and the rebels were still up north. Nobody took it seriously initially. In March, I started college, and I decided I’m going to go to medical school (at the University of Liberia in Monrovia).

“By mid-term, the rebels were on the outskirts of the city, so I didn’t get any college credit. The city was pretty much choked off. My parents were in the second city that had fallen to the rebels, so I had no contact with them. It was getting dangerous to stay there. Every morning you would find headless bodies. The death squad was going around the city.”?

Running out of food and isolated from his loved ones, he returned to Buchanan when the university closed at the mid-term.

“When I got to Buchanan, there was a lot of sadness,” he said. “My grandmother was dead. My grandfather was dead. My mom had been shot in the leg. There was just the smell of death. It was depressing.”

For one month, he refused to leave his home. He watched many of his friends join the resistance. When they urged him to join, he refused.

“I have friends from Sri Lanka I went to school with. Their dad is a general surgeon,” he said. “When they left Monrovia and went back to Buchanan, he opened his own private clinic. At the time, he was one of the only doctors in the city.

“I went in there to volunteer. I would translate the medicines and dosages into the local language for folks. He knew I wanted to do medicine. I would watch him do surgery.”

By March 1993, the relative calm in Buchanan faded, and the fighting returned. The rebels were now facing a peace-keeping force of allied West African nations.

“We left, but didn’t go far — 15 or 20 miles outside the city,” he said. “My parents and I got separated again on that retreat from Buchanan. My maternal aunt lived out in the country, and there was quite a large group of people there, extended family and friends. We stayed there for about nine months, and while we were there, Buchanan was captured.

“On November 29, I was taken by the rebels while we were on the farm. They were just going from village to village and looting. I was taken to a rebel camp and stayed there for about 10 days before I was able to convince them I needed to seek medical attention.”

On Dec. 9, 1993, he returned to Buchanan alone. By that point, the peace keepers were in control, and while the fighting had subsided, freedoms were still limited.

“You can move around somewhat, but they still have check points and there’s a curfew,” he said. “A month later, I went back to Monrovia, and I was broke.”

The same doctor he had volunteered with before was now working with Catholic Relief Services, a humanitarian aid organization. The doctor got Bessay a job to help him save money and return to school.

“By the middle of 1995, the fighting really intensified in another part of the country,” he said. “We were kind of monitoring what was going on. He told me I needed to try and get out. The university, the only institute of higher learning at the time, was in shambles. That following week, I went to the U.S. embassy.

“All I had was an almanac. In it were all the U.S. colleges and universities. I went through the list and randomly selected schools. That initial list was like 20 schools, but I added more. The whole process took two years, and by the end, I’d applied to 32 schools.”

Liberia’s postal service was essentially nonexistent when he was applying. Getting mail out was relatively easy, but receiving mail was almost impossible.

Catholic Relief Services got their mail by courier services. That was the address I used,” he said. “But there was no way I could pay for U.S. education. I was applying for scholarships and schools at the same time.

“The University of the South in Tennessee gives three international scholarships every year. They wrote me back and said I was an alternate winner. I was the next guy in line, number four. It was becoming a routine. Get admitted and offered admission, but there just wasn’t the money.”

His admission was still active at the University of Liberia, which had been reopened, so he returned to his studies.

“An American lady who had lived in Liberia since the ‘60s, Dr. Carter, was friends with Elwood Dunn, a Liberian who was a professor of political science at the University of the South,” he said. “Somebody in the admissions office told him about me. He noticed I was using the Catholic Relief Services address. Dr. Carter used to work for the Catholic Relief Services. She called him, and he asked about me. That was my first break.”

He wrote a childhood friend, Horatio Williams, who was living in Michigan at the time to inform him of his progress.

“He came (to the U.S.) with his family as a refugee,” Bessay said. “I told him about Elwood Dunn. My second fortune: Professor Elwood Dunn and Horatio Williams are cousins. Horatio called him and really made a good case for me.”

On April 6, 1996, while Bessay was awaiting an answer from the University of the South, a major firefight broke out in Monrovia.

“There was a total breakdown of law and order, and we were trapped,” he said, “My house at the time was about 200 yards from the U.S. embassy. I would just watch people leave, but there was nothing I could do.

“I was in the heart of the city by myself. I needed to make the decision whether to leave Monrovia or stay. I had a phone card with a minute and a half, and that was it. I called the professor, and he told me I got the scholarship. The question then was how do I get my documents? Every time there was fighting, we lost everything. I was just waiting and praying.”

He waited for a lull in the fighting, and in August 1996, he caught a flight out on the first airline to resume business. Bessay double-majored in chemistry and biology at the University of the South. He received a doctorate degree in molecular physiology and biophysics from Vanderbilt University. He hoped to attend medical school, but money was still an issue.

“I was studying chemistry and biology. I went to Vanderbilt for my Ph.D., but I didn’t have enough money to go to medical school.

“One of my friends asked if I was still thinking about going to medical school. She told me just to apply, and her dad would co-sign for my loan. That was another big break.”

He was admitted into Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and finished his education there with hopes of becoming a general surgeon. He completed his residency at Texas A&M; University Health Sciences.

In 2007, he returned to Liberia for the first time. On that trip, he reconnected with a childhood friend, Kaibeh, and in 2010, after his second trip back to Liberia, the two were wed.

“We were neighbors. We grew up together,” he said. “She was one of the few friends who was at the airport when I left Liberia. Whenever I go back to Liberia, it’s with mixed feelings. It’s happy, to see family and friends, but it’s also sad. I’ve seen the whole country go backward instead of forward. There was electricity and running water when I was growing up, but not a lot of places in Liberia have those now.

“When you have war, everything gets destroyed. My mom got sick in 2012 and went to the hospital. She was admitted, but there was no treatment. The doctor admitted her and went home. She got septic and died. I knew what to do, but I couldn’t help my own mom.”

Bessay was hired by Blessing Health Systems in March 2016. He has been in Quincy since August with Kaibeh and their two children, Rachel, 6, and Robin, 4.

“That chaos has gotten me to appreciate what I have,” he said. “The simple things we take for granted here — food, shelter — people in other places don’t have it. If I could change anything, I probably wouldn’t live through war. As much as it strengthened me, I don’t think it’s an experience humans need to go through.”

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Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://bit.ly/2pcNNge

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Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://www.whig.com

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