Henry Benson got off a plane in his native Liberia to a country resembling nothing of what he left.
Saying Monrovia was destroyed in 14 years of civil war is an understatement. Last month when we flew into the capital city, it was shocking to see next to nothing from the plane window. Monrovia more closely resembles a rural village than a nation's capital.
"When I came back, everything had practically changed," says Benson, now the Commissioner for Engineering for the Liberia Telecommunications Authority. "The weather was the way I left it. But the infrastructure was gone."
Benson spent 11 years establishing a comfortable life in California. He left it behind in Sept. 2009 to move back to Monrovia. He wears a Liberian flag on his lapel. The patriotic opportunism he uses to describe his country would make you think he's from a Liberian branch of the Kennedy family.
"Buildings are erecting every day, crops are growing and telecommunications are maturing, too," he says. "There's this new country that we have just founded. There is a lot of prospect."
Benson didn't always feel that way. He left Liberia after graduating from university in 1998. Charles Taylor had just taken power and the brief period of peace was slowly unraveling.
"I had been graduated a couple of years, had no job, no prospects," he says. "I left as a refugee. I decided to go to the United States."
He built a career in telecommunications based in California, even starting his own computer literacy program. He married an American woman, had two children and achieved the life most dream of when they immigrate to America.
On a 2008 visit, Benson's perspective of his homeland changed. Through the challenges he saw opportunity. His expertise in telecommunications was desperately needed. When the government called, Benson answered.
"I was asked by the Liberian government to come back, especially having been educated and worked in the United States," he says. "One of the motives was to help rebuild the country."
As patriotic as Benson is regarding his decision, we noticed his wife and children close by looking shell-shocked.
"I asked her to move with me," Benson says of his wife, leaving the patriotism behind and taking on a heavy, darker tone. "My wife came along and especially being an American, transition was very terrible for her. At least I was born here."
Benson explained the whole family moved only four months ago, leaving behind their American lifestyle for a post-conflict zone. We pressed Benson on how they were adjusting. He repeated the phrase, "It's terrible for her."
His intentions are altruistic, but we couldn't imagine leaving the comforts of North America to help rebuild Liberia. Rather than the traditional billboards we're used a Californian would be used to, signs advertise the hodgepodge of NGOs in the country or calls for a gun-free Liberia. While the recession has had an impact in the United States, it's nothing compared to the 85 percent unemployment rate and the groups of young men who surrounded our vehicle asking about day labor.
"I'm hoping she gets more comfortable. It seems like she is going to be okay," says Benson, the hopeful tone returning. "But moving to Liberia was something that I thoroughly thought about. I don't see myself moving back to the United States."
There's lots of work ahead of him. All phone lines in Liberia were destroyed in the war. The only phones are mobile and no fax machines make for awkward conversations between government officials and businesses in the United States trying to sign contracts.
In his role, Benson says he's up for the task. Although starting anew is difficult, Benson is inspired with every new development. Never, he says, does he doubt his decision to return home.