The Gift of a second chance

A young woman who lost her family in the Liberian civil war returns to her homeland

A young woman who lost her family in the Liberian civil war returns to her homeland
Gift Bender, center, embraces a former staffer at the Monrovia, Liberia, foster home where she stayed before she was adopted to the U.S., June 2, 2016.


Kuni Takahashi has been working on a long-term project on the effects of the Liberian civil war on its children. Over the past 12 years, he has visited seven times, and the result is this two-part series.

Gift Dorkus Bender is knee deep in a pond. It’s 8 a.m., and the grass is still wet with morning dew. The air is fresh, the forest quiet. This is not the Liberia she remembers.

“I used to be terrified to return,” she says about the land where she was born. “But now, I’m so glad I did.”

Bender is one of hundreds of children who were adopted by American families at the end of the Liberia’s 14-year civil war, which left a third of the population displaced and more than 250,000 dead. Her own story is filled with loss. When she was an infant, her parents were tied to a tree and shot. That was in 1991, two years after the war broke out. She has no memory of either of them. Her four older siblings raised her, but they died too, in 2003, just days before the fighting ended. A mortar fell on the tent where they were living as displaced people, outside the American embassy in the capital of Monrovia. Bender had stepped outside mere moments before to look for food. In an instant, she had no family.

“I burned all my photos of them,” she says. “The memories were too painful.”

Gift weeps after learning that her younger brother was killed by a rocket attack, in 2003. Photographer Kuni Takahashi first met Gift, then known as Gift Sumo, during the Liberian civil war. (Click to enlarge images)

No one knows exactly how many children were orphaned during Liberia’s civil war. But in the years immediately after, the number of orphanages across the country tripled. Between 2005 and 2006, adoptions from Liberia to America rose from 183 to 353. Bender was 14 years old when she was adopted.

The attack that killed her siblings would ultimately bring her to the United States. Photographer Kuni Takahashi happened to be nearby during the attack and snapped a photo of Gift’s grief-stricken face. It was published in The Chicago Tribune. A widowed American woman saw the photo and was moved to reach out. In 2006, Bender boarded a flight for her new home.

Now, she’s visiting her homeland for the first time as an adult.

In Zwedru, far from her current home in the city of Auburn, Alabama, Bender is counting fish. At 26, she has made a new life for herself, finishing high school and then college before moving in with her friend Mollie Smith. It’s Mollie who has brought her back.

“We’re going to count them and weigh them,” says Smith, referring to the fish. “It’s not farming till you start keeping records. It’s just like any other crop.”

The crop is tilapia, and Smith has arrived to conduct research for Auburn University, where she works as a coordinator for the school of fisheries. The goal of the project is to help Liberians become more self-sufficient. While the nation has developed quickly in the years since the war ended, the countryside remains plagued by food insecurity. When Bender learned of her friend’s plan, she was eager to volunteer.

“I feel like I’ve come here to do something,” she says. “Even if it’s counting fish. It just makes me feel good that I can come here and help people.”

In the years that have passed since Bender left Monrovia, the country has advanced dramatically. “Things are getting better here,” she says. The roads have been paved, and the buildings are growing taller. There are brand-new supermarkets and gas stations on every corner. “It’s great.”

Bender’s life, too, has improved. In the days immediately following her siblings’ deaths, she moved in with a neighbor who promised shelter in return for housework. But what seemed like a fair deal soon turned into indentured servitude, with Bender working from 4 a.m. until 9 p.m. “There was little time left for school,” she recalls. Young and alone in the world, she stayed until a friend intervened and took her to a nearby orphanage.

“That’s when life started to get better,” she remembers.

Slideshow: Gift's journey

  • Gift is blessed at the Trinity Assembly of God Church in Monrovia in 2006. (Click to enlarge images)
  • After Takahashi’s photos of Gift appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Jody Bender of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, stepped forward to adopt the young girl and bring her to the United States. In this 2006 photo, Bender comforts Gift at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia before they leave Liberia. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Bender, now 15, gets ready for church at her new home in Pottstown, in 2006, two days after arriving from Monrovia. Her adoptive sister Noemi Elsa Bender watches from the floor. (Click to enlarge images)
  • In Pennsylvania, Bender attended the Coventry Christian School in Pottstown, where Takahashi photographed with her classmates in 2009. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Bender works by herself in a classroom for follow-up study at the Coventry Christian School in 2009. A year after she arrived in America, she began to suffer PTSD from her experiences in the war. (Click to enlarge images)
  • In 2015, Bender, now in college, returned for the first time to Monrovia. During that trip, she visited the foster home where she stayed before being adopted. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Bender joins her friend Mollie Smith at National Fisheries in Zwedru, Liberia in May, 2015. Smith, an aquaculture specialist working at Auburn University, helped make Bender’s return trip to Liberia possible. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Since covering the war in Liberia, photographer Takahashi has returned to the country several times and photographed Gift. In 2005, she spoke of her experience in the Liberian civil war when her parents, three sisters and a brother were killed. (Click to enlarge images)

She returns to that orphanage on the outskirts of Monrovia. She slips past the blue gate and into a brightly appointed compound. Some of the old orphanage staff remains. “Mary!” she exclaims and throws her arms around the slight frame of an older woman. “Do you remember me?”

“How can I forget you?” says Mary. “You never wanted to sleep.”

They smile and laugh about the passing of time. How Bender has grown and where the other adoptees from the orphanage have ended up. Before she leaves, Bender paints her name in bright blue on the orphanage wall. “This place has changed a lot,” she says with a big smile.

But it’s the compound at Greystone that has changed the most. Back in 2003, during the final days of the conflict, the housing complex, located across from the U.S. embassy, was besieged by rocket-propelled grenades and mortars from well-armed rebels intent on overthrowing Charles Taylor’s bloody regime. The compound was flattened, and dozens of Liberians who had come to Greystone seeking refuge from the violence were killed.

Bender is apprehensive as she climbs out of the taxi to pay her respects. The place has changed completely; the new American embassy, now a sweeping fortress on 12 acres, also encompasses her old home at Greystone.

But there are clues that this is still the place she once called home. The trees that lined the back road to the compound are still standing. Now, artists hawk wares to tourists under them. She wanders between the stalls seeking trinkets to take back to America.

At the front of the embassy stands a memorial. It was built to honor all the victims on the war, but for Bender, the significance of the spot where it stands and her own history can only remind her of one thing: family.

“Never more shall this nation be devastated by the scourge of war,” she reads aloud, her voice breaking. “Mommy,” she cries out, tears wet on her cheeks.

It’s raining hard now. Bender runs her hands along the four panels of the monument. The first depicts a bloody conflict, meant to represent the civil war. The second represents the elections, held in 2006. The third shows the era of reconstruction, which occurred once new leadership was established.

The final panel reflects reconciliation.

But Bender isn’t able to reconcile the past with the present.

“I wish they were here,” she whispers, “to share this moment with me.”

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