Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf , the first woman elected to lead an African nation, spoke Friday to a sold-out crowd at Northrop Memorial Auditorium as this year’s Distinguished Carlson Lecturer .
At Friday’s event, Johnson Sirleaf expressed support for permanent residency and possible dual citizenship for the thousands of Liberians living in the United States. She also received the University of Minnesota’s honorary Doctor of Laws degree for public service.
J. Brian Atwood , dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and friend of Johnson Sirleaf, said during the worst of times, the president “held out hope that she herself could lead her nation to peace and prosperity.”
University Senior Vice President and Provost Tom Sullivan , who spoke at Friday’s event, said the University has many connections with Africa and Liberia, including the 2009-2010 University’s Office of International Programs focus on Africa and global water issues.
“We trust that our relationship with Liberia in the years ahead will only deepen, and grow and mature,” Sullivan said.
Johnson Sirleaf grew up in Monrovia , the capital of Liberia, and married at the age of 17. The mother of four moved to the United States in 1961 after her husband received a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Johnson Sirleaf earned an accounting degree from Madison and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government .
In January 2006, Johnson Sirleaf became president of Liberia and the first woman to lead an African nation. In October 2007, Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award, which recognizes exceptional commendable service.
In a country that is trying to rebuild after civil war, Johnson Sirleaf said Liberian citizens have made progress in restoring it.
“The best progress we have achieved is the restoration of hope,” she said.
During a brief question and answer discussion with the president, Atwood asked Johnson Sirleaf what gives her courage.
“How do I answer that?” she asked.
An audience member yelled, “Because she’s a woman.”
Sirleaf responded with a laugh, “I think she said it all.”
Jonathan Morris , a human services representative in Hennepin County and Liberian native, said he came to Friday’s event to “just see the president and get fresh information from home.”
An estimated 30,000 Liberians call Minnesota their home, making the state one of the largest Liberian communities in the country. In the early ‘90s, many came to Minnesota as refugees from the civil war. An estimated 1,000 of them are here under temporary immigration status.
Morris was born in Liberia and has been living in the United States for the last 12 years. He said he talks to family still living in Liberia every other Sunday, especially his mother. He said he is concerned with Liberia’s security and stability.
In March, President Barack Obama extended the mandatory departure date for eligible Liberians residing legally under temporary status in the United States another year. The extension came only 10 days before the previously granted March, 31 deadline.
Since 1991, these refugees have been granted Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure status under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., joined Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, and other senators in introducing the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 2009. If the bill passes, Liberians in the United States legally under temporary status would be eligible to apply for permanent residency.
Morris said he knew of many Liberians who would have had to return to the African country. He said because of the 12-month extension, it is not enough time to prepare Liberians to go back.
“The country is destroyed, and they don’t have money … it’s just not a right time,” Morris said.
Urban and regional planning graduate student at the Humphrey Institute Noel Nix came to Friday’s event. Nix called the turnaround Liberia has made “a miracle.”
“To see such pride in a country that’s gone through so much is really inspiring, especially if you look at the times we are having here now, it’s really nothing compared to what Liberia’s gone through,” Nix said.
The Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series is funded by a gift to the Humphrey Institute by the late Curtis L. Carlson.
This series brings world-renowned speakers to Minnesota to discuss important policy issues. The lecture series has featured many well-known public figures such as Tom Brokaw, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jesse Jackson.