WILMINGTON — Ludan Gbaye officially became a citizen of the United States at the same time her mother did in December 2013, but it didn’t feel real.
Gbaye got her citizenship because of her mother; she hadn’t been recognized on her own. That changed on Dec. 30, 2014, during a ceremony in Philadelphia, and now Gbaye can finally call the only country she has really ever known home.
“I had seen other (ceremonies), but it was weird for it to actually be mine,” the Padua junior said. “It was really moving because I had spent … 11 years in America and I wasn’t a citizen. Then I finally became a citizen.”
Gbaye, her parents and three siblings came to America from Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, on Dec. 15, 2003, when she was 5 years old. She said she remembers the date because it was the first time she’d seen snow.
Gbaye, 16, said her parents decided to emigrate because there was a civil war in Liberia, and they thought their children would have a better future in America.
“There was just a war between the indigenous people and the slaves that came from America. Most of the stuff that wars happen for,” she said.
Liberia was founded in the 1820s by freed American slaves with funding from the U.S. Congress. It was occupied by local Africans before the United States began sending freed slaves there. Members of the American Colonization Society believed former slaves would have more opportunities in Africa than they would ever get in America.
The country experienced two civil wars in recent years. The first lasted from 1989-97, and the second from 1999-2003. Gbaye, who lived in the capital city, Monrovia, said her most prominent memory from her homeland was war-related when she was around 3 years old.
“The war was raging on. I remember I was sick, and my mom made me something to eat. Then I went to my front door, and I remember … guys in a pickup truck with guns going fast down the road,” she said.
Her family settled in New Castle, where Gbaye attended Our Lady of Fatima School. Her family is not Catholic, but her father went to Catholic school in Liberia, as did one of her older sisters. She said her parents believed a Catholic education was her best option.
Gbaye said she likes that Padua is “a very challenging school. It’s changed up every day.”
She is a member of the honor roll and Model United Nations, as well as Students in Action. She and a friend, Blair Ellis, coordinate Padua’s volunteer efforts at Emmanuel Dining Room.
She has received questions from others about her home country. Some want to know if she speaks African, but, as she points out, African is not a language. There are approximately 15 tribal languages in Liberia, but the official language is English. The flag looks like its American counterpart, but instead of 50 stars, there is one. But her home now is the United States, and she is thrilled about that.
“I don’t think Americans who are born in America realize how great America is,” she said. “It’s a pretty good country, and you have a lot of opportunities here. If I were to go back home, I’d probably be well off, but I wouldn’t have as many opportunities.”
Gbaye still has nearly a year and a half of high school remaining, but she has made plans for her future. She wants to attend North Carolina State University and become a psychiatrist. She said she wants to know why people do what they do. She would like to work with soldiers who return from war and are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In one of her favorite classes at Padua, she has studied the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. The class fits in with her interests.
“I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust because it’s like, how could someone do that? What was going on up here? How did they become so brainwashed to do something like that?” she said.