Published May 3rd, 2023 at 6:00 AM10 minute read
Ralph Yarl, “Ralphie,” as he’s sometimes endearingly called, is protectively guarded by hundreds of local Liberians.
Not so much by their physical presence, but this son of Liberian-born parents is being cared for in distinctive ways by his immigrant community.
It’s the Liberian way.
Ralph receives prayers at church services. There are three in Kansas City that minister to predominantly Liberian congregations.
His trauma, and its link to American racism, ignited a heightened attention to the emotions and concerns of children among Liberian families.
And he’s the focus of a project by the Liberian community’s bi-state association, which has produced t-shirts with the unequivocal statement: “RINGING A DOORBELL IS NOT A CRIME. #JUSTICE FOR RALPH YARL.”
“When one person hurts, we all hurt,” said Rona Roberts, the newly inaugurated president of the Liberian Community Organization of Kansas-Missouri (LICOKM). “If there’s an injustice within one of us, it’s an injustice for all of us.”
Last Saturday, about 20 members of LICOKM gathered for their monthly meeting, this time held within a space at a strip mall on North Oak Trafficway.
The first agenda item: Ralph Yarl initiatives, including choosing a vendor for the shirts.
The t-shirt’s message is how Ralph went from a relatively unknown student at Staley High School to a nationally, if not globally recognizable face.
One evening in mid-April, not too far from his own neighborhood north of the Missouri River, the 16-year-old innocently rang the wrong doorbell.
He’d been sent to pick up his twin younger brothers, who were with friends one street over. Ralph had the correct house number, but it needed to be on Terrace, not Street.
Instead of answering and redirecting the teen, the homeowner allegedly opened the door holding a revolver.
Andrew D. Lester, 84 years old, has been charged with two felonies for shooting Ralph twice — once in the head and a second time in the arm after Ralph fell. Lester entered a plea of “not guilty.”
Liberians came out in force, attending two rallies. The first was shortly after the shooting to protest why the man, who is white, had been released from custody and wasn’t yet charged. And another, outside the federal courthouse downtown, to continue pressing for a thorough investigation into the possibility that race was a motivator for the shooting.
To many, an impetus for the shooting was racial animosity, Lester’s irrational fear of a dark-skinned young man on his stoop.
Liberians see American racism, bias and prejudice discussed on social media and in news reports of hate crimes.
“You hear about it all the time,” Roberts said. “But this is the first time it’s happened within our own community. So, it definitely shook a lot of us to our core.”
Many local Liberians have their own stories of being belittled or judged simply for having an accent. Or being asked insulting questions about Africa, with U.S.-born people assuming that Africans all live in huts and walk with baskets atop their heads.
As a certified medication technician, Daniel Masah works in area nursing homes. He’s had elderly white clients ask if someone else is available, not wanting to be touched by him.
Masah said he believes that some white Americans in their 80s and 90s, like the man accused of shooting Ralph, perhaps didn’t grow up around other races.
“It’s a failure of what should have been done, learning how to live with one another,” he said.
He places more faith in younger generations, hoping that they will shift away from a culture that places more value on property than human beings.
“My prayer is for the children,” he said. “Americans now in elementary, middle and high schools that they will change things.”
For the more than 50 Liberian families in this bi-state region, their pathway to the U.S. was often as college students, for some, as graduates pursuing master’s degrees.
Others arrived as refugees, displaced by their nation’s brutal civil war.
Some slowly reunited with family members, immigrating after waiting years for a legal path.
Roberts, a registered nurse, immigrated from Monrovia as a 5-year-old with her mother. The family decided that as the youngest, she needed her mother the most.
Another decade would pass before her father and siblings could join them.
Enduring such strife with patience and discipline is part of what it means to be Liberian, Roberts said.
Liberia was founded by freed, escaped and rescued formerly enslaved people. Resilience is in Liberian DNA, many said.
“There’s nothing we can’t come back from because we literally have seen the worst,” Roberts said. “And we still came out on top because we’re here. We are alive and we’re together.”
Even in these most serious of circumstances, Liberians find joy.
As the LICOKM group decided which company to use for the t-shirts, jovial ribbings were shared, drawing laughter, a release from the grim reason for their task.
Members sat on folding chairs, in a space offered to them by Fire Generation Church, which also has Liberian members.
They discussed the organization’s finances and formalized a meal train for the Yarl family.
The t-shirts are primarily for the Yarl family to wear at an upcoming hearing in the case against Lester, the homeowner charged in the shooting case.
They’ve also raised more than $1,200 among themselves, for the family’s more immediate needs, such as groceries and gas.
It’s to be the community’s gift, separate from the more than $3.4 million that was generated when a GoFundMe account for the young man went viral. Those funds, organized by Ralph’s aunt, will be used for medical costs and other long-term care and help.
Each time a Liberian family experiences a death, or in this case a significant trauma, a bereavement donation is made from the organization’s funds.
After the shooting, media accounts of Ralph often focused on his musical talents. He’s an excellent clarinet player and maintains high grades academically.
Ralph’s discipline, a dedication to education and hard work, is more typical than not within the community.
A fervent belief in the promise of opportunities in America is profound within this immigrant community, which is only about two generations deep. The first arrivals came in the early 1980s.
“We’re always trying to be one step ahead,” Roberts said. “If not 10 steps ahead. Because we know there’s so many challenges that we automatically face because we aren’t from this country, because we are immigrants.”
Ask a Liberian about their family and the names of children will be recited, along with their occupations and if they attended college, the degrees earned.
The Yarl family emphasized that Ralph was released from the hospital with the knowledge that close family could attend to his health needs. His mother Cleo Nagbe, short for Cleopatra, is an oncology nurse. His aunt is a physical therapist. And another uncle also works in the medical field.
The bullet that entered his left frontal lobe was there for 12 hours before it could be removed.
Ralph continues to recover, according to the family.
His 11-year-old twin brothers are also managing their own trauma.
They recently attended church services at Revival of Hope Ministries with their father, Paul Yarl, spending time in a downstairs room with other children, while their father worshiped in the main church.
Later, they enjoyed the congregation’s buffet: Chuck rice, which is tinted green with a blend of okra and spinach, smoked fish, rich Liberian gravy and other dishes prepared by church members.
In coming weeks, the pastor of the historic Northeast area church, Nicholas Nicol, plans to address the emotional needs of the children in the congregation, allaying concerns stemming from the shooting.
“We live in a world that is not all gold and silver,” Nicol said on a recent Sunday, during his sermon.
He spoke of the Yarl family, who have long been members of the church, and how they’ve been affected, made to be fearful in their own community.
“But we have a God who sustains us,” Nicol said. “Our children need to understand that. God is able.”
Kansas City has a distinct historical connection to Liberia, through one of our most celebrated African American leaders.
After World War II, Kansas City police lieutenant Leon Jordan left for Liberia with his wife, Orchid.
From 1947-1952 Jordan helped reorganize the West African constabulary, or police force, before returning to the states.
He thought the position would later help him move up the leadership ranks of the police department. It did not, a fact that helped prompt Jordan into politics.
Jordan was a co-founder of Freedom Inc., the Kansas City Black political club that formed in 1962 and is still an influential voice in local elections.
He served three terms in the Missouri House of Representatives and is regarded among the most prominent African Americans of his generation.
He was assassinated in 1970, a killing that wasn’t resolved until recent years.
A life-sized statue of Jordan and a park memorializing his legacy is at 31st Street and Benton Boulevard.
Plaques encircling the seven-foot statue are engraved with about 200 names of local civic and political leaders, people honored by this Monument to Freedom, Justice and Courage.
Some of those named attended recent rallies in support of Ralph Yarl.
Yet few Liberians locally know of Jordan.
His role in their homeland is separated by decades from their reasons for leaving — furthering their college education or escaping their nation’s civil war.
Nat M. Pombor-Tulay scrolls through his phone and pulls up a photo. It’s marked “Grandma and Grandpa.” It shows a large group of people, Black and white, adults, children and babies, all posing around a seated couple.
They were Charles and Wilma Campbell of Columbia, Missouri. Both are now deceased. But Charles Campbell worked for the University of Missouri’s extension programs for years, in agricultural development.
“I came close to taking a bullet for him,” Pombor-Tulay said of Charles.
The obituary tells the story.
“In 1988 Charles was asked to assume leadership for MU for a USAID Project in Swakoko, Liberia. There they met Nat Tulay, who became a dear family member. Following a rebel invasion in late 1990 and a harrowing moment where Charles was kidnapped and carjacked at gunpoint, they escaped with a briefcase.”
Pombor-Tulay was the man leading the escape.
He had worked on the project, with his degree in agricultural economics.
In return, Campbell sponsored Pombor-Tulay’s relocation to America as a refugee.
It took a decade for him to bring his wife and daughter to the U.S. The family has since had four more daughters, with several pursuing advanced degrees.
“I’m a lucky man,” said Pombor-Tulay, who now works as an auditor. “I’m a very lucky man.”
Othello Barrolle, an elder in the community, does know of Jordan.
“The Liberia affiliation with the United States has always been a unique relationship,” Barrolle said.
But the history of Liberia is often simply described as being founded by formerly enslaved people from North America beginning in the early 1820’s, Barrolle said.
But some of the freed people, Barrolle said, were from the Caribbean, some were caught at sea and sent to Liberia and others chose to migrate to the West African country.
The settlers eventually intertwined with the indigenous people.
Barrolle lives about five blocks from where Ralph was shot.
The violence surprised him. The use of a gun, though, did not.
“There are just too many guns in this country, that is the way I look at it,” Barrolle said. “I wish the politicians would do something about the amount of guns floating around here.”
He questioned why an elderly man, perhaps not of sound mind, would own one.
“Only he can tell why he did that to the young man,” he said.
Barrolle first arrived in the U.S. in the early 1980s, as a college student at an international business school that was then located in Arizona.
But when a coup overthrew the leadership in Liberia, he opted to stay.
His later met his wife Gloria, a Liberian who studied at what was then Park College.
He remembers when Ralph’s twin brothers were born. And his wife has taught all the Yarl children in Sunday school at Revival of Hope Ministries.
He chooses not to focus on the indisputable negatives of America, gun violence and prejudice.
Rather, he reiterates a common Liberian narrative on the U.S. — as a nation where hard work and study will be rewarded and the good of Americans overcomes what is bad.
“I’ve been here so long and I’m not going anywhere,” Barrolle said. “I teach my people, my kids, to treat people right and expect it in return.”
He noted the wide array of races that showed up to the rally after the shooting.
“You have to look at America while realizing that this country was built on immigrants,” Barrolle said. “We all came here to seek something better.”
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.