A band of Sierra Leonean war refugees is trapped outside their country — again

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Marco Werman: Would you got to West Africa now? For many, there’s no simple answer to that — not even for those who have loved ones in the countries most affected by the Ebola crisis. Let me give you an example now by traveling an hour south of our studios here in Boston. In fact, let's leave Massachusetts altogether for a few minutes and go to Providence, Rhode Island. The house we are about to enter is next to a convenience market on a busy street on a working-class part of Providence I had never been to. I'm here to see a musician named Reuben Koroma. We've met before at a music festival in Texas years ago, but I'm not sure what to expect because Koroma hadn't quite remembered me when I called on the phone. Hey.


Reuben Koroma: How are you, sir?


Werman: Do you remember me now?


Koroma: I remember you now. How are you?


Werman: Good. Good. Good.


Koroma: Quite a long time.


Werman: I know. Well, let's see. So when was South by Southwest? It was 2006 or 7?


Koroma: 2006.


Werman: Reuben Koroma is one of the founding members of the band known as "Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars". Their remarkable story was fold told in a documentary film released in 2005. Downtrodden Sierra Leonean musicians escape the civil war there and find themselves in a refugee camp pooling their musical talents and forming a band to keep spirits and moral alive. The movie got a lot of attention. The band got gigs, they toured, they were on Oprah, and they released several strong albums, including one that came out this year called "Libation".


[Song plays]


Werman: Things were going great for the band. There were here in the US again this summer - more gigs, more positive reviews. And then . . .


Koroma: We completed a tour on the 21st of September this year, and before we ended the tour there was a high news coverage about the Ebola outbreak in our country and gets us very scared.


Werman: After speaking with their families back home, the musicians decided to delay their return to Sierra Leone. Reuben's wife, Grace, used to be in the band, but since the All-Stars took off a few years ago, she stayed in Sierra Leone raising their four daughters.


Koroma: We suffer the pain of being separated from them and suffer the pain of being worried for their lives


Werman: Do your families understand that you would prefer not to risk more exposure?


Koroma: Yes. They told me. They said, "You should not come. You should stay there and probably fight for us to be safe. You can help us out of this situation."


Werman: But the helping out part has not been easy. Like all Sierra Leonians back home, Reuben's wife and daughters have been urged to stay home as a way to minimize spread of the disease. That means no school for the four girls. It also means no market and minimal shopping. The economy there is freezing up and here, the Refugee All-Stars' visa extension does not allow them to work. And though the band puts on an inspiring and party-worthy show, let's face it, it's a niche act.


Koroma: It's really a serious [??] of a struggle.


Werman: And as Reuben says, it's not like he and the rest of the band, now in their forties, have a lot of other options to make money.


Koroma: We have been professional musicians since our youth. Like when we were in our twenties. We choose to play music, and to play music to live. And that’s what we do. And it’s not easy to give an old dog a new name. We have been into this, and that’s what we want to do, that’s what we love doing. So we just ask people to help out with more gigs. We’re ready to play them.


Werman: In the meantime, Reuben has been sending money back home. In Providence, he and the band try to keep their expenses down. They rarely go out to eat. It's not like touring where everything is taken care of for them like the internet they get in every hotel room. In Providence, they've been put up by a Liberian friend who happened to have this vacant apartment. Their gear is all set up for rehearsing. In fact, Reuben shared for me a song that he and the other five members have been working on.


Koroma: We're just cleaning from the messes of the war. We're just cleaning from the messes of the war. Here comes Ebola as a stumbling block. Let's get together as a working force. Don't get defeated - you should stand up and fight. Fight this Ebola to get it . . .


Werman: Listening to the scratch version of this tune, it seemed powerless to do anything about a disease that's killed so many people. And then I began to feel the gulf between Reuben and the band and their loved ones back home, especially their kids.


Koroma: The most worrisome thing is that they’re not going to school. That’s the thing that is disturbing us right now.


Werman: Reuben is especially worried about his second-eldest daughter, Livia.


Koroma: She has to complete high school this year and she really has an ambition to go to college and I'm really, really ready to support her. But with this Ebola, I think it’s going to set her back. These are the things we are really crazy about.


Werman: Reuben says he's confident his wife will make sure no one in the family gets sick. But the fact is he and his band are here and their families are there. These musicians who came together as war refugees and thrived are now refugees again - Ebola refugees. And like during the civil war in Sierra Leone, they don't know when they'll be able to go home.