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Africa's "Iron Lady" -- Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -- electrified a sold-out crowd Friday at the University of Minnesota, capping weeks of excitement among local Liberians.
Sirleaf, the first woman elected to lead an African nation, is on a national tour to promote her memoir. She used her historic stop in Minnesota, the state with the largest Liberian population in the country, to build support for her vision of a prosperous Liberia.
During her talk at the U's Northrop Auditorium, Sirleaf expressed support for permanent residency and possible dual citizenship for the thousands of Liberians living in the U.S. who were granted special immigration status during the country's long civil war.
She told the crowd that as much as she wants Liberians to return and help rebuild the country, Liberia is not ready to absorb all of them at once.
"While we welcome them back, we know it takes time and they'll have to plan it," she said, acknowledging that many have been in the United States for so long that they have children who were born here. The crowd cheered in response.
A guest of the University's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Sirleaf joined an elite group of dignitaries that has included President Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama. She also received an honorary doctor of laws degree from university officials.
After her speech, she met privately with leaders of several Twin Cities companies and colleges to discuss possible partnerships. She wants to build a pipeline of support between Minnesota and Liberia, said Wynfred Russell, a leader in the local Liberian community and a member of the Minnesota group that planned Sirleaf's visit.
Her visit has a special significance in Minnesota, which has 20,000 to 30,000 Liberians, most of them living in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center.
It also came on the heels of a decision by President Obama to extend the deadline by a year for those Liberians living in the United States legally on a temporary immigration status and who faced deportation last month. Their supporters say they will now push for legislation that would make it possible for them to attain permanent residency.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the speech by the Iron Lady -- who joins other female world leaders to carry that nickname, including Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi -- came when Humphrey Institute Dean J. Brian Atwood asked her where she gets her courage.
"I don't know how to answer that," Sirleaf said, pausing.
A woman from the audience then bellowed: "Because she's a woman!"
Atwood and Sirleaf laughed, the audience cheered and Sirleaf, waiting for the applause to die down, finally said: "I think she said it all."
Catherine Vonleh, of Brooklyn Center, was among the roughly 5,000 who snagged a ticket to the event.
Her green, traditional African wrap and top had a populist touch to it with a photo of Sirleaf plastered on the front, surrounded by the words "First African Woman President. Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf."
"I'm wearing it with pride and dignity," said Vonleh, who is originally from Liberia and has been living in the United States since 1986.
A longtime fan of Sirleaf's, she said this was the first time she's ever seen her speak in person and the experience was overwhelming at times. "I cried in there today!" she said.
A group of students from St. Cloud State University were among those who traveled to listen to Sirleaf.
"I've never seen a lady that powerful," said Una Ankrah, 21, whose parents are from Liberia. "She's Liberian and she's a woman. It's touching for me to see that. It's very motivational."
Added her friend, Helmie Teketay, 23: "I'm Ethiopian. She's not just a role model for Liberians. She's a role model for the whole of Africa."
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488