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Raising a Family on the Phone

By Robert V. Sesay(April 27th 2005)

"...Most immigrant parents are also eager to do for their impoverished family, especially children left back home. It is that urge that mustered them to take on two or three jobs so that family/children left behind would have a better life denied them either by economic or political reasons...."

It is 3:00a.m. Eastern Time on a Monday morning, Thomas Karma is awake by a buzzing phone. He tries to ignore it, but the gadget keeps buzzing much to his annoyance. He literarily crawled for the phone on a night stand.

 “Hello…” he greeted brusquely into the phone.  It is an oversea call from his ten- year old son in Liberia, he called Jr.“Why you are not in school, Jr.?” it was his first parental instinctive question in a tone still plagued by lassitude.

“Today is holiday papa…” The kid said and went on, “and mom wouldn’t let me have my bike, plus I need money for…”

“Okay, okay, stop it there pal, I told you to use the phone only for an emergency.” He interrupted abruptly and questioned, “why is it you are calling me at this time…?”

“This is important to me papa; remember we made a deal, that if I pass all my tests you will…” the kids argued on.

“Listen to me Jr., you are right we made a deal, but there are also other things I need to do for the family.” Thomas weighed in. By now he has regained sobriety. Though he dislikes his sleep interruption, yet there is a part of him that relished the idea. It is that parental nostalgia that enhanced the fatherly attributes he longed for with his kids. Two days ago it was a fight with his teen age daughter’s clothing choice for their school dance. A week earlier, he and his estranged wife have had an hour long phone fight for what she considered as his obsessive support for his children infinite craving.

“Papa, a promise is a promise.” Jr. pressed on.

“Okay. Okay, maybe you’re right, Jr. How much are we talking about?” Thomas budged to his son, as he hissed his teeth and palmed his head in ambivalence of whether he is walking the drill of all parents or not.

Thomas Karma case is a unique epiphany of what lots of newly Liberian immigrants in this country are going through - raising a family on the phone. More than three quarters of all new immigrants from Liberia arrived here single or as single parent thus reinforcing the nostalgic life new immigrant faced in America. They are happy to be here, like all new immigrants, but yet large part of their soul remained in their country of nativity.

Most immigrant parents are also eager to do for their impoverished family, especially children left back home. It is that urge that mustered them to take on two or three jobs so that family/children left behind would have a better life denied them either by economic or political reasons. Their parental influence is further induced not only by the emptiness and poverty that plagued their lives, but also by western parental trajectory acquired in this adopted country. The result, it is most often than not the blended values of the best of both cultures for their offspring which is marshaled and marketed by a long distance telephone.

However, raising a family on the phone can be quite difficult if not impossible. Such is the case with Sue and Dave Martins. Their twelve years old son, Rich’s mastery of manipulation has faltered their good intentions into an uphill battle.

Three years ago, Rich parents fell on hard time and for some reason, they opted to send Rich to Monrovia to his aunt for a year or two. He enrolled at the B.W. Harris Episcopal School in Monrovia where he immediately established scholastic profile among his then fellow seven graders. His parents were quit enthusiastic about his new role. They saturated him with unsolicited gifts.

But kids being what they are, especially, when not adequately supervised, Rich quickly squandered the good will; first by dropping from his parent most treasured image of him- his honor roll role. Dave, his dad reacted shrilly with a purchase of a cell phone for him and initiated a daily phone tutoring. Despite Dave’s unfathomable effort, Rich was facing demotion threat the following semester. Frustrated, his parent bundled him on the next flight to the U.S.

“Don’t you ever try to raise a family on the phone, Bob,” Dave told me recently in a goaded tone, in Trenton, New Jersey where we have gone for a social function.

 “Why do you say that? It’s working for others.” I said which initiated an argument that gave birth to this article.

“Because it’s sucks, Bob, I’m a living witness.” Dave, gesticulating with his index finger said passionately. I waved to Thomas, standing by to join us. Thomas is a closed friend of both Dave and I. And like me he also has two kids in Liberia that are doing well in school.

In Dave’s own words, I enlisted Tom to gang up on him when I relayed his claim to Tom. Tom reactions twirled the argument and brought the function to a still. “Dave, why is it you always harbor the idea that the entire world revolves around you? “ Tom questioned and added “just because you failed in your little adventure it does not means the rest of the universe does. My kids are doing pretty fine and so are…”

Dave was enraged. “You know something, Tom I have long sensed your insinuation of jealousy toward my achievements, but tonight it’s just plain stupidity.”

Tom reaction was nothing neither of us was prepared for. He struck his fists for Dave, which landed in my chest when I wedged myself between them. The entire place was in chaos. It was during that melee that I learned of a more profound story in support of Dave’s assertion from a sexagenarian grand father.

Omar Taye arrived here during the height of the Liberian civil war as guest of the American Red Cross. Despite his deteriorating health, Oman later sought asylum when his two children and four of his nine grand kids were added to the never ending list of victims in the civil imbroglio.

His rendition was not only in line with Dave’s, but it customized what I have always fears about my own kids. Omar has taken the future of his five surviving grand children as his remaining life mission. Every penny he has earned over the last six years has been diverted to his grand children. He told me. Of the five grand children, only two are still in school. The two girls are both having their second kids, while the older of the two brothers is currently incarcerated for distributing marijuana on his campus.

Afraid of what might come I decided to nurse the question. “So how does this fit into what we are discussing here?” I asked Omar. He stared at me uneasily with his hawkish eyes hidden in thick layers of lids and answered: “I called a family meeting twice a week on the phone. I did not only stop there, but I also established ties with at least one teacher for each of them, employed a home teacher, gave them weekly allowance. But guess what?” he asked me in a voice fragile by deceit and betrayal, “The teachers all connived with them to fax me a doctored grades every period.”

“Wow!” I exclaimed.

“You bet that’s what they did to me son.” Omar said in a tone in need of sympathy. But if I was having any sympathy for him, it did not surge up in my conversation.

“Was there any adult supervision? I mean like a senior relative, you know kids... they need to be supervised even the brightest ones.”

“Their grand mother, my wife, she became their first victim. The oldest one physically intimidated her on many occasions, thereby turning her into their maid.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Taye.”

Omar gave me his smoggiest picture and replied: “Hey, it’s their loss. I have a year more to qualify for Social Security. Once I have my first check, I will run back home to take care of my princess, Jatu. After almost forty years, of marriage, she’s still my baby.” 

As Omar walked past me, his words kept nagging my brain. “Doctored grades? Doctored grades? Lord, please don’t do this to me.”  I soliloquized, palmed my chin and stared into the cold winter night.


About the Author:

Robert V. Sesay is a former Liberian journalist and writer. He now lives in Levittown, Pennsylvania. He will make his fictional debut this fall with a contemporary novel called STOLEN JUSTICE.  His email address is:


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