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Zaria Titus This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     My mother realized her dream of traveling to Africa when she was 17, visiting Liberia, in West Africa. There she met an amazing woman named Zaria Titus, who was her host. Zaria lived with her husband in the capital city of Monrovia, and later became the mayor of the village where she grew up. She has always been part of my mom’s life, and she became part of ours too. We knew Zaria as Grandma T.

Years after my mom’s visit, a civil war broke out and Charles Taylor, one of the rebels, became the leader of Liberia. He wanted to get rid of everyone with any connection to the old government. Although Grandma T. was a widow, her husband had held a government office and she was currently mayor, which placed her on the hit list. Therefore, they wouldn’t stop searching until they found and killed her.

The war was at its height when Grandma T. got word that a woman, mistaken for her, had acid thrown on her and had died. Now, according to the government, Grandma T. no longer existed. In truth, Grandma T. was very much alive.

She went into hiding, moving from one location to another, until she was able to board a U.S.-bound plane in disguise. Once in New York, she was reunited with members of her family whom she had sent there months earlier. She, her teenage son, and her 8-year-old nephew came to live with us until she could file for political asylum, find an apartment, and get a job. They lived in our small community for the next two years and we became very close. She was the first African to join our church, which made history since it dated to pre-Civil War days and once had a balcony for slaves.

Even though things were going well here for Grandma T., it was a different story in Liberia. When she got word of all the orphans and devastation, she knew she had to return to help, even though she would be in danger. She made arrangements to leave her nephew with my aunt and uncle, so he could get an education. But before she could go, Grandma T. was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had already spread, and they had to operate. During the surgery, her lung collapsed and she nearly died, but once again, she rose above the circumstances and survived. A second surgery followed with more complications, but she continued to make plans to build an orphanage when she returned.

Then, one day when she was almost ready to go back to Liberia, she had a terrible auto accident and suffered internal injuries, which prevented her from returning for even longer.

Finally, eight years later and in poor health, she was able to return. There she found several homeless people living in her home. As they moved out, she began taking in orphaned children. In the village where she had been mayor, she built a very simple orphanage with classrooms. It was a challenge because the roads and bridge into the village had to be rebuilt and there were no utilities and few skilled laborers.

In spite of the difficulties, the orphanage was soon complete and filled with children. She tried to make Christmas special for all the children. Grandma T. sent us home movies of her and others handing out presents and food to smiling children. I remember watching and feeling like I knew those kids because I knew Grandma T.

She kept the orphanage for three years before transferring it to the Catholic Church just before she died, in hopes that they would maintain it. She had wanted to die in Liberia, and that wish came true in 2002.

It wasn’t just the big things that made Grandma T. my hero; it was the little things too. She was very optimistic, and I recall feeling that I could do anything if she said I could. She was always encouraging. I remember her teaching my sisters and me to stand on our heads. She was so proud of us when we stayed up.

Grandma T. did everything she could to help others. Before the war, she established a village clinic, started a quilting business for local women, and improved the infrastructure. She gave her son and niece a better life by bringing them to the U.S.

After Grandma T. returned to Liberia, Charles Taylor expressed an interest in the orphanage project. Despite the risk, she decided to meet with the man who had previously tried to kill her, for the sake of the orphans.

Grandma T. was an amazing woman who was always ready to help others. She will forever be my hero.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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