For the Liberian government, one step toward rebuilding a war-torn nation is a stop in Brooklyn Park.
During Vice President Joseph Boakai's whirlwind state visit to the north-metro suburb this week, each meeting with expatriates, politicians and public officials had a similar goal: drafting U.S. expertise and workers to help rebuild infrastructure, institutions and peace in the west African nation.
The visit is Boakai's first since Brooklyn Park created a sister city relationship last month with Kakata, a Liberian industrial center. Neighboring Brooklyn Center is considering a similar relationship with another Liberian city.
Minnesota has the largest Liberian population in the nation, estimated at 25,000. As many as 7,000 live in Brooklyn Park.
"We know that a large number of the Liberian community is here," Boakai said. "They've been looked after very well. A lot are here getting an education, a lot are here working, so they have fostered this relationship between these two cities and our country."
During his three-day visit, Boakai met with m ore than 500 Liberian expatriates during a town hall meeting. He also appealed for help from leaders of north-metro community and technical colleges in resurrecting the Booker T. Washington Institute, a Kakata-based technical institution that was largely destroyed in the 14 years of civil war.
Boakai also met with Brooklyn Park Police Chief Michael Davis and Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels, president of the Minnesota Police Chiefs Association, and with Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman, who has worked with the nonprofit Fire Rescue Alliance to provide training and equipment to the Liberian National Fire Service.
Quest for knowledge
But hopes for the partnership goes beyond the tangible.
"The thing they most wanted was not money or boxes, but knowledge," Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde said of the Liberian delegation.
"They want us to help them set up. How does one govern? Good governance codes, planning, all those things we take for granted have taken years to build up."
Boakai is in his second term, serving with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Both were first elected in 2005 at the conclusion of the war.
Liberians fleeing the fighting have had protective status in the United States since 1991. The latest extension gives them residency through early 2013.
Boakai and others have advocated for a path to dual citizenship.
"We would like to see those that are here, who want to be here and can demonstrate good behavior be given an opportunity," he said. "They are now feeling comfortable, their kids are in school, and they know [Minnesota] more than they know Liberia. So we believe if you give them an opportunity to a status that would be more than just temporary, then we will be working toward dual citizenship where they can always have a choice between these two places."
The economy in Liberia -- schools, medical facilities, infrastructure -- is too weak right now for a mass return of expatriates, he said, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for them there, especially with dual citizenship.
"They have a choice to go back and assist, but it will be at their own volition," he said.
A new generation
Lunde said it doesn't take much imagination for native-born Americans to put themselves in Liberians' shoes.
"When my Norwegian relatives came over, they were most concerned with the family back in Norway," he said. "This is a new generation of new immigrants that are here. They're committed to the United States, but they love their country, and the connection between our country and theirs goes back hundreds of years."
For the Rev. Alexander Collins, a Brooklyn Park resident and chairman of the committee that planned Boakai's visit, "every single moment was an 'aha moment.'
"The U.S. has always been helpful to Liberia as a country, but going on a smaller scale, having city to city makes the impact visible, it makes it to be felt by the everyday folks who live outside of Monrovia," said Collins, who will be eligible for U.S. citizenship next year.
"What Brooklyn Park is doing is saying we believe in you, we believe in the country you come from. It means a lot to everyone that is involved to substantiate the saying that we have a relationship. It makes it visible. It makes it believable. It creates a sense of belonging."
Maria Elena Baca 612-673-4409