As Liberian refugees, the Glay family spent 13 years in Ivory Coast refugee camps waiting for an opportunity to come to America. When the time came to leave, they couldn’t track down their daughter Helena, who had left the camp two years earlier to earn money for the family.
They have been waiting for her in Columbia since 2003.
On Wednesday, Annie and Moses Glay, along with their five other children, made the drive to Columbia Regional Airport for the long awaited reunion — only to learn that Helena had missed her connecting flight from Washington, D.C.
The waiting continued.
At 10:40 Wednesday night, joy and relief filled the small baggage claim area when Helena, now 19, walked off the plane to meet her family. Annie Glay danced with happiness before enveloping her daughter in a big hug.
Separated in camp
The Glay family had fled the civil war in Liberia and was living in a refugee camp in Guiglo, the Ivory Coast. Moses and Annie finally got the chance to leave for America, but they couldn’t find their oldest daughter, and she couldn’t find them. As their departure date approached, the Glays frantically contacted family to see if anyone had seen Helena, who had left the camp earlier to work as a cook and to attend school.
Two days before their scheduled flight, Helena’s aunt found Helena and brought her to the airfield.
Annie Glay’s face strained as she described the momentary glimpse she caught of her young daughter.
“We were already on the bus to the airplane, and we couldn’t stop to talk or anything,” she said. “I saw her, and she was crying, and then I was crying. I cried all the way to America.”
The Glays would have risked losing their chance at a new life if they had stayed to find a way for Helena to join them, said Senad Music, the family’s case manager with the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City’s Refugee and Immigration Services program.
But just as Annie Glay’s arrival in Columbia back in September 2003 had been tempered by the absence of her daughter, Helena’s reunion with her family is also bittersweet. She left her 1-year-old son, Marvin, in Africa.
While Helena was preparing for her journey to the states, Marvin was living with Helena’s aunt, who had returned to Liberia from the refugee camps in the Ivory Coast. “We spent Christmas Day together,” Helena said. “The last time I saw my son was Dec. 26.” It was too late to amend the paperwork to include her son.
Now Helena will have to wait at least four months before reuniting with him, said Mandy Manderino, a volunteer from Rock Bridge Christian Church who has worked with the family since they first arrived.
And while Helena lived in an apartment in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast, waiting for clearance to come to the United States, Moses and Annie Glay and their other children adjusted to living in Columbia. Little in their daily life reflects the distance they have come or what they left behind.
Anthony, 27, is now living in Alabama with his girlfriend.
Patricia, 13, taps away at the computer, exchanging instant messages with her friends. She prefers to spend her time at the mall and is excited to take her sister shopping at Hollister and American Eagle Outfitters. “My art is shopping,” she said.
The watercolors and clay pottery 11-year-old Debo made in art class are scattered around the kitchen. Debo is hoping Helena will teach her how to sew her own clothes. As the self-proclaimed artist of the family, Debo’s art class creations have been included in student exhibits. She proudly displays her paint set, which she got for her birthday last year.
Alex, 8, talks excitedly about the early spring prediction made by Punxsutawney Phil. He plays goalie on his soccer team and doesn’t know much about his sister. He was 5 years old when she disappeared from his life.
Alice, 2, scampers around the family’s Columbia Square apartment with her fingernails and toenails painted bright pink. She has never met her oldest sister.
Moses works five days a week at The Bluffs nursing home, and his shift ends at 3 p.m. so he can spend the afternoon with his children while Annie works evening shifts at McDonald’s.
Helena will live in her own apartment in Tiger Village, walking distance away from her family. “Her new house is ready,” Moses said, proudly holding up a set of keys.
Like the Glays’ apartment, Helena’s new apartment was furnished and filled with food by Manderino and other volunteers from the church.
During her first few days here, Helena will spend her time applying for a Social Security card, enrolling in an English as a second language class, beginning her search for a job and possibly beginning school.
And just as Manderino had helped Moses and Annie settle in their new apartment, find jobs and learn to drive, she plans to help Helena during her adjustment period. “I watched this family get more and more independent,” Manderino said. “Moses will be able to do a lot for Helena.”