Long, tragic journey ends in chance to vote as U.S. citizen

By Hailey Konnath, Special to NewsNetNebraska

Eight years ago, 57-year-old Anna Furkay was sleeping on a street because she didn’t have a way to get home from her new job doing laundry at a Texas hospital. She was crying.  She was alone. She didn’t like it there.

It was hard, she’ll tell you today, to get used to the United States.

Today, after more moves and a lot of work, Furkay is 65 and living in a South Lincoln apartment with her daughter and grandson and taking the bus each day to work at Farmland Foods. She’s a U.S. citizen.

And she’s ready for the next step: Next month she’ll vote in her first U.S. election.

Not all refugees have voting on their minds, said Furkay, dressed in patterned traditional Liberian garb and sitting tall in an African Resource and Cultural Center office chair in mid-September. But it’s important to her.

“Whether I’ve got the strength to vote or not,” she said, “I’ll try to make it to the voting polls.”

Furkay had moved to the U.S. after fleeing civil war in Liberia – a war that claimed the life of her son and separated her from her family. Her journey from Liberia to the U.S., and, eventually, the voting booth in November has been long and winding.

In Liberia, before the war, Furkay and her husband were well off. Her husband was a school principal, and she worked on the family’s farm and took care of her children.

Then, one night during the war, the rebels came.

They grabbed her son, who worked for the Liberian police. Furkay tried to hold onto his arm. She remembers crying, “Don’t kill my son!” Her husband and seven other children escaped through a window, but the rebels took her son away.

Furkay ran, alone, to the bush. It was the last time Furkay saw many of her family members.

“I went through a lot in the war,” she said.

She walked alone through the jungle for two weeks without eating. She crossed into the Ivory Coast. In 2004, she won passage to the U.S. in a lottery and wound up, alone, in Texas. It took her an hour to find her caseworker at the airport.

“I was not happy,” Furkay said. “I cried.”

Life for Furkay didn’t get any easier. She was fired after a short time from her first job doing hospital laundry. She moved to Lexington, Neb., and in June 2011, she finally landed in Lincoln.

“America is good and bad,” Furkay said. “It’s good for me, but it’s not good for some people.”

In February 2012, Furkay was joined by her daughter, Angeline Wleh. Furkay hadn’t seen Wleh since she fled Liberia in 1990, and Wleh was now pregnant.

“I was very small when she came here,” Wleh said.

Only days after reaching the U.S. – and a couple of weeks early – Wleh gave birth to a 4-pound son, Benedict Barkpeh.

Bouncing a laughing Barkpeh in their crowded apartment on a sunny day in late September, Wleh said she wishes she could vote, too.

“I love Obama,” she said, smiling widely. “That’s the reason I want to vote. He does a good job. He is a good leader.”

Wleh won’t get the chance to vote for quite a long time. Applying for citizenship, her mother tells her, is not easy.

First, U.S. law requires refugees to wait five years before applying for citizenship. Even after that wait, the process can still prove to be time-consuming, challenging and expensive. Furkay tried and failed to achieve citizenship three times.

“I suffered a lot before I got my citizenship,” Furkay said.

On her fourth attempt, she sought help from the African Resource and Cultural Center in Lincoln.

Mohamed Jalloh, originally from Sierra Leone, works at the center and helps refugees, like Furkay, navigate the often confusing forms, interviews and tests. He translates questions for the refugees, sets up appointments for them, translates and helps them prepare for the test.

“The questions on the test are the most difficult part,” Jalloh said.

Jalloh said achieving citizenship doesn’t only make it easier for refugees like Furkay to bring family members to the U.S., it is also important for living in the U.S. long term.

Sooner or later, the government could ask refugees to go back to where they came from, he said.

“At some point somebody has to make that decision,” Jalloh said.

Furkay finally achieved citizenship, in early September, leaving her only a couple final steps.

She still needed to register to vote yet ­– and she was not sure how.

Lancaster County Election Commissioner David Shively said a voter registration form could either be mailed in by Oct. 19 or filled out at the elections office by Oct. 26.

As long as applicants meet age and citizenship requirements – and aren’t recently convicted felons – they can register to vote. And if people don’t have driver’s licenses, as some refugees may not, they can provide a Social Security number instead.

Shively said he hadn’t heard of anything in the registration process that has been tripping up those new to the country or English language. He also said it wasn’t the office’s responsibility.

“Our job is to make sure that the voting process is ready to go for everyone,” he said.

Wleh may have to wait five years, like her mother did, before she can apply for citizenship. But she is already making an impact on the country’s future in her own way – she helps keep her mother informed.

The mother and daughter watch television news in their apartment to get informed about the candidates. And Wleh makes sure her mother knows what’s being said.

“I can explain it to her,” Wleh said.

Furkay relied on a lottery to get her to the U.S. in the first place.

Today, she relies on the bus to take her to work, and she relies on her daughter to translate some things for her.

But she will not rely on anyone or anything to make decisions about her country’s future leadership.

“I want to vote,” she said. “I want Obama to know my name.”

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