Columbia church hosts 5K to reunite refugee family

Friday, April 30, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 3, 2010
Helena Glay sits in her apartment holding a photograph of her son Marvin on Wednesday. Due to legal and financial reasons, Glay had to leave her son with her aunt in Liberia when she came to the U.S. "It's really painful," she said. "I cried a lot when I had to go." Rock Bridge Christian Church is hosting a charity race Saturday to raise money to reunite Glay and her son.

COLUMBIA — When die-hard runners, recreational joggers and leisure walkers gather at Rock Bridge Christian Church on Saturday, it won't be a "Race for the Cure" or event to end world hunger. This race has a straightforward, tangible goal — to reunite a family.

Movin’ Marvin’s May Day 5K plans to raise money to sponsor a 4-year-old Liberian child, so he can move to Columbia and be with his mother again after three years of separation. 

If you go

What: Movin' Marvin's May Day 5K
Where: Rock Bridge Christian Church, 301 W. Green Meadows Road
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, rain or shine
Registration fee: $20

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Marvin’s grandparents, Moses and a pregnant Annie Glay, came from West Africa to Columbia with four of their five children in 2003. The family had been living in an Ivory Coast refugee camp for 12 years after fleeing its home in Liberia amid a civil war.

The family's 16-year-old daughter, Helena Glay, had been temporarily separated from the family. When the Glays received word they were cleared to leave for America, no one could find her. But when they did, it was too late — she didn't have the necessary paperwork, and the family was leaving in a few days.

Helena Glay had to wait for more than three years before joining her family, and in November 2005, she gave birth to a son. In February 2007, Glay was able to join her parents and siblings in Columbia, leaving 1-year-old Marvin behind.

Mandy Manderino, a Rock Bridge Christian Church member who has worked closely with the Glay family since their arrival, said there was no time to get Marvin’s immigration paperwork done.

“We were just hoping that some kind-hearted person would let them through, and allow Marvin to come, too,” she said.  

That didn't happen, but Helena Glay was told that Marvin could probably join her within four months. Four months turned into one year, and then two.

“The people would say, ‘We’ll call you,’ or ‘You’ll hear today,’” said Helena Glay, who is now 23.

Marvin was born in Ivory Coast and lived with his great-aunt Gertrude Sowey after his mother left. Sowey and her family have since moved back to Liberia with Marvin.

Last October, Marvin was issued a visa through Humanitarian Parole, a program through U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services that allows people in unusual situations to obtain a visa. Rock Bridge has worked with the Catholic Diocese’s Jefferson City-based Refugee and Immigration Services office on Marvin’s case.

Sister Camilla Verret, a nun who works with Refugee and Immigration Services, volunteered to travel to Liberia to retrieve Marvin. Rock Bridge had scraped together the $5,000 necessary for travel and hotel expenses. It seemed all was in order for Marvin’s trans-Atlantic journey, but their plans were made in vain.

The Glay family received word that Marvin had been turned away at the airport three times — the Liberian officials weren’t going to let the child leave the country. A moratorium prohibiting any Liberian children from leaving the country for adoption had been put in effect, unbeknownst to the church.

“It was frustrating because Marvin wasn't being adopted; he was being reunited with his mother,” Manderino said. The moratorium was intended to prevent child trafficking and abuse.

As Verret returned to Columbia in defeat, Helena Glay and her family were heartbroken.

“It was really hard,” Helena Glay, said. “I cried for a week.”

The moratorium is still in effect, and the Glay family is anxiously waiting for it to be lifted while church members raise money for the next — and, they hope, final — attempt to reunite Marvin with his family. In the meantime, he continues to live with his great-aunt and her family. Manderino said Marvin's situation is “less than ideal,” as he is living with nine others in a two-bedroom house, and his great-aunt and her boyfriend are unemployed.

At 4, Marvin is too young to understand the family’s tumultuous situation, which makes it difficult for Helena Glay to talk to her son on the phone.

“When I say, ‘This is your mom,’ he says 'no,'” she said. “He thinks (my aunt) is his mom.”

At the Rock Bridge church, the Rev. Maureen Dickmann said although Helena Glay has found a fresh start in Columbia and has a job and her own apartment, her heart has been heavy with thoughts of her son.

“I think she really, in a sense, hasn’t fully been here herself because so much of her is just longing for Marvin to get here,” Dickmann said.

The church has made Marvin a top priority, and Saturday's race is the next step toward a long-awaited Glay family reunion. Participants can register for the 5K, which also has a 1.3-mile option, online or on-site Saturday morning before the 9 a.m. start. A pancake breakfast and awards ceremony will follow the race, and African music will be performed. Anyone interested in volunteering at the event is welcome. (Update: 142 people participated in the race, and $3,344 was raised.)

Dickmann said the race is a great opportunity for Columbians to help fellow residents in need.

“If you know the Glays, you know they’ve had so many challenges,” she said. “Yet they’re not bitter, and they’re great people."

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