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Rima Merhi Headshot

'The Face of America in Africa' Must End Constitutional Racism

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Founded in 1822 to free the black slaves of America, the Liberian constitution makes it mandatory for citizens of Liberia to be black of African descent. I am one of many white children born in Liberia to non-African parents and denied nationality and citizenship rights due to the color of my skin and roots.

But the "face of America in Africa" cannot legalize racism, as it runs contrary to the values of Christianity, liberty, and tolerance that define the heart of Liberia, a nation born from America, its mother. No country in Africa embraces America like Liberia. The Liberians have close kinship ties to America and are inspired by American political figures, particularly President Barack Obama. The Liberian national flag bears a close resemblance to the American flag with just one star, and American culture is very popular, with the Liberian market flooded with bestselling American brands.

Liberia today lies at a crossroads: Either it will continue to live in the past or find more progressive ways to preserve its identity, culture, and roots without alienating its white non-African children.

As it stands, there are no reliable statistics to determine the number of people who are affected by this constitutional discrimination. But Liberia is native home to many Europeans, Americans, and Arabs. Most severely affected are the Lebanese people born in Liberia, and this is a very serious issue for Liberia, given that the economy is largely dominated by Lebanese traders and businessmen who have been in Liberia since the 1960s.

"When all the Liberians were leaving the country as a result of the war, we, the Lebanese, stayed here to keep our businesses running," said a Lebanese businessman who has spent 50 years in Liberia. "We pay our taxes like any Liberian. We respect their laws, we make investments in the economy, but after all this time I can't effect any decision that impacts my life or own more than the trouser on me."

Despite the atrocities of a 14-year civil war that raged until 2003, a nation that refuses to sell its land cannot sell its children. Having grown up in Liberia, I've seen many Liberian families sell their children to non-African white families to work as maids and nannies in their homes, due to extreme poverty. One maid I know lived with a family outside Liberia for over 30 years, and when she decided to come home to Liberia to marry and start a family, she died giving birth, due to poor hygiene and medical services.

Last year, I visited my childhood home in the capital Monrovia. The lease had ended during the bloody Liberian civil war, a time when no one was able to enter or leave Liberia, and with it was lost the family home we had kept for decades. I was deeply saddened to see our house in a completely worn-out state and our supermarket locked with huge metallic bars. This corner used to bustle with people, beggars, and saleswomen, and had my father continued to own the premises, there is no way we would have turned a blind eye to a place that is so precious to us on both a personal and professional level.

Liberia must take serious steps to amend this constitutional discrimination. A review of the outdated constitution will reinforce Liberia's commitment to international human-rights laws and norms and allow it to become a more progressive, credible actor on the world stage. At the same time, this shift in government policy would encourage greater investments in the country at a time when Liberia remains one of the poorest five countries in the world; it would also allow Liberia to benefit from the skills, education, and expertise of a second generation of Lebanese youth who are, as it stands, important players in the economic survival of Liberia, given that the majority of Lebanese living in Liberia set up family-owned businesses over the years.

Going forward, there is clearly a need for the UN to set up a committee of experts made up of Liberians and whites of non-African origin to revise the Liberian constitution and make recommendations. These revisions must include a plan to develop the national identity of Liberia, and a financial strategy to empower Liberians in the long run. There is also a dire need to collect statistics about the people who are affected by these discriminatory provisions in the constitution.

To President Johnson Sirleaf (a Harvard alumna) and President Obama, I say my time at Harvard and in America taught me to speak up and fight for human dignity and life. No constitution in the world should be allowed to discriminate against its people for the color of their skin or their origin, especially not the face of America in Africa.