Robert Kleekpo’s circuitous route to America began on a farm in the West African country of Liberia, wound through snowy Russia, veered back to Liberia, then to Egypt and back again to Liberia, where he survived and escaped from one of that continent’s bloodiest wars. By then, he had traveled throughout Europe, had become acquainted with its greatest cities and had befriended citizens from around the world.
So he was somewhat amused when, shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh in 1999, a guide took him and his family to a Giant Eagle supermarket to show the family shelves stacked neatly with food, all well organized.
“This is a supermarket,” the guide explained.
Mr. Kleekpo’s children looked at him and each other then laughed.
“What is she thinking, that we’d never seen a supermarket?” they wondered.
That’s the stereotype, Mr. Kleekpo says. If you’re from Africa, you’ve spent your life in the jungle, you wear loincloths, and you’re baffled and amazed by the existence of stores containing huge amounts of food.
Mr. Kleekpo spent much of his youth in a teeming city, the Liberian capital of Monrovia, which has a population of nearly 1 million. His parents were farmers in Nimba County in northwestern Liberia. With no schools in his home county, he was sent to live with a cousin in Monrovia to get an education and proved to be a quick learner.
After high school, he entered the University of Liberia in 1979. A year and a half later, Mr. Kleekpo got a scholarship to study agriculture at a Soviet university in Krasnodar, Russia. There, he experienced his first winter.
“I’d only seen snow in movies,” he says. “First, the air became colder and colder. Then one day, I looked out the window and saw white stuff falling on the cars. The dean of the dormitory where we lived had called a big meeting and told us how to dress for winter and explained how long the cold was going to last.”
Everyone went outside to take pictures and throw snowballs.
Mr. Kleekpo’s world was growing. He learned to speak Russian, and during vacations and holidays, he and a group of other students from Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean would travel by train throughout Europe, an itinerary that included Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, France and England.
Mr. Kleekpo earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree then headed back home to Liberia. There, he secured a government job.
His home country, however, was lunging toward instability and violence. A corrupt, brutal dictator named Samuel K. Doe ruled Liberia at the time. He had taken control in a 1980 coup. In 1989, a former official on Doe’s regime, a man named Charles Taylor, led an army of rebels in an invasion of Liberia from Ivory Coast.
Less than a year later, Mr. Doe was captured and executed. Rebel forces turned against each other. Liberia had become a very dangerous place in a matter of months.
As conditions in Liberia deteriorated, Mr. Kleekpo went to Cairo, Egypt, where he studied rice cultivation. His three-month stay stretched into six months because of the tumult at home. When the situation in Liberia calmed a bit, he returned, only to watch his country enter one of the bloodiest phases of its history. The civil war that raged from 1989 to 1996 cost the lives of an estimated 200,000 Liberians. A million more became refugees in neighboring countries.
Several warlords battled for control of Liberia. One was a man named Prince Johnson, who, like Mr. Kleekpo, was a native of Nimba County.
On several occasions, Mr. Johnson invited Mr. Kleekpo to his headquarters in a Johnson-controlled portion of Monrovia. Mr. Johnson offered Mr. Kleekpo food, and the two men would talk. Mr. Johnson sought educated men for his forces, men like Mr. Kleekpo. During one visit, Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Kleekpo to join. Mr. Kleekpo considered Mr. Johnson a friend, but the warlord was volatile and violent.
“One moment he’s the nicest guy you ever met, the next moment he’s killing pregnant women, killing innocent people,” Mr. Kleekpo said.
Brutality reigned in Liberia. Children as young as 8 were recruited into “Small Boys Units” and taught to kill with automatic rifles. Before he was ousted, Mr. Doe sent Liberian forces into Nimba County to burn villages and execute civilians. Children were tossed into wells and buried. Mr. Johnson finally captured Mr. Doe. The dictator’s torture and execution were videotaped and viewed around the world.
Mr. Kleekpo had decided he would not be a part of an organization committing atrocities, and for his act of refusal, he was severely beaten. Mr. Johnson “almost killed me,” Mr. Kleekpo said.
Within months, he and his family escaped from Liberia, traveling to Sierra Leone then to Senegal. There, a chance meeting with a Pittsburgh pastor changed his life.
The Rev. J. Van Alfred Winsett of Ebenezer Baptist Church on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District and members of his congregation were doing mission work in Africa. Mr. Kleekpo coincidentally met the group at an airport in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and became friends with Rev. Winsett. The pastor began assisting Mr. Kleekpo’s family, sending money for food, transportation and education for Mr. Kleekpo’s children.
Finally, in 1999, Mr. Kleekpo, his wife, Alla, whom he met while a student in Russia, and children Roberta and Steven traveled to Pittsburgh. Today, Mr. Kleekpo works as a grower at Phipps Conservatory and maintains a part-time job at Home Depot in East Liberty.
Liberia has calmed in the years since Mr. Kleekpo fled. After a second civil war, Liberia conducted what is considered the most fair and free elections in the country’s history. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, was chosen as Liberia’s first female president. She was re-elected in 2011 and that year won the Nobel Prize.
Mr. Kleekpo occasionally travels to Liberia to visit his relatives and regularly sends money.
“I make sure my mom and dad eat every day,” he said. “I’m proud of them for sending me to school, especially my father. He’s very intelligent, very smart, but he did not go to school.”
He paused and then added, “He’s proud of me.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of the Odysseys project through which the Post-Gazette is trying to track immigrants from 193 countries in the United Nations, folks who made Pittsburgh their home. Read about countries we have found, and help us with those we are yet to make a connection at post-gazette.com/odysseys