Inspiring Tale Reaches From Liberia To Madison, From African Refugee Camps To An Orthopedic Surgery Residency
March 9, 2015
The rebels came at dusk. They announced themselves with gunfire, blasts from machine guns. It was 1990 in West Africa. Sylvester Youlo was 14, and on his own.
Months earlier, his mother had left, bound for the United States, promising to send for him. His grandmother, with whom Youlo had lived for most of his life, left their small town of Pleebo, in Liberia, for the capital, Monrovia. There was the assumption Youlo would live with an uncle, on a farm. But Liberia was in turmoil — a brutal civil war had commenced — and Youlo remained in Pleebo.
He stayed because he wanted to attend school, but rumors that the rebel forces, led by Charles Taylor, were approaching Pleebo was enough for employees of the Samuel Doe government, including teachers, to flee. There was no school, there was only angst. Then, the gunshots.
"I hid underneath what was once Grandmother's bed," Youlo noted later, "closed my eyes in fear, and waited for a rebel to pull me from underneath the bed for my execution."
His father, whom Youlo barely knew, was from Doe's tribe, a death sentence for the son if the rebels found out.
He lived through the night.
"As the next morning approached, the gunfire turned sporadic," he said.
Before long, Youlo would be in a refugee camp, across the border in the Ivory Coast, then another in Ghana. He took with him a dream, unformed, something he alone imagined for himself.
"I wanted to be a doctor," Youlo said.
We sat down recently to chat — he's been in Madison since 2010 — because Youlo, 38, has now published the story of his life, in a book titled, "The Boy from Pleebo."
The book begins with tears. It was unusual. Even as a boy, Youlo didn't cry much.
"Crying was for the weak," he notes. "A man crying and showing emotional outbursts was looked upon as weak in our culture."
But Youlo had returned home with a poor third-grade report card. His grandmother — Youlo's mother moved to Monrovia, a city of much more opportunity, shortly after his birth — looked at his marks, and said, "Do you want to end up like your father?"
Youlo was confused. He'd only seen photos of his dad — he, too, was in Monrovia — but he looked prosperous. Youlo idolized him from afar.
"Your father could have been anything he wanted," his grandmother said, but he let it slip away. "What did he become? A drunkard, without a job."
Youlo wept, and made a vow not to end up like his father.
Though his parents were absent, Youlo's Pleebo childhood was tolerable, and he hoped to one day join his mother in Monrovia. He had visited her there, driving with his grandmother, when he was 7. The city left him wide-eyed. He had never seen a toilet, an electric fan, or freezer. The latter amazed him.
"My mother would put water into a cup, place it into the freezer, and before long the water would solidify into ice. I couldn't imagine how this was possible, but I would take the ice and lick it. I loved licking the ice," he said.
In late 1989 — Youlo was 13 — his mother came to Pleebo. They had a happy reunion. His mother knew of his recent successes in school. She was proud of him. As for herself, she was going to the United States, to join her old sister. Youlo was wide-eyed again.
The United States?
"The place that was reportedly better than Monrovia," he said.
His mother said she would send for him when she could.
It was a hopeful interlude that didn't last long, for after his mother departed for the United States, his grandmother left for Monrovia.
Youlo was on his own in Pleebo. While the situation calmed after the first scary night with the rebels, he never really felt safe.
Eventually, Youlo walked seven hours across the border to the Ivory Coast. He had a phone number for his mother in the United States; he wrote it on several scraps of paper that he hid in his wallet and clothes.
Once Youlo reached the Ivory Coast town of Tabou, it took three days to reach her. There was one phone in Tabou, and 100 people in line to use it.
His mother — happy that he was out of Pleebo — pledged to send money to Tabou, so Youlo could continue his school. It took weeks, but the money arrived, with a letter explaining that his mother was working as a nurse's aide in Washington, D.C.
Youlo traveled to Ghana, where he had an older brother, Christopher — another relative he hardly knew — and settled into a pattern of attending school when there was money, sent by his mother, and living in refugee camps, where there was never enough to eat, when there was not.
Finally — it seemed a miracle — Youlo and Christopher got their papers to come to the United States.
Their mother sent plane tickets. They arrived at JFK on Aug. 2, 2000. There is much more to the story, but Youlo's long ago dream has come true. He will finish his medical residency in orthopedic surgery at the UW Hospital and Clinics in June. He's married now, with two children.
His mother was there the day he graduated medical school at Wright State University. When the dean called his name — "Dr. Sylvester Youlo" — she wanted to run on stage, but settled for a joyful shout.
"My cultural upbringing didn't allow me to show too much emotion, but I wiped away a tear," he said.
Source: Doug Moe - Wisconsin State Journal