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Head of the Class: Fleeing the War Zone


Vol. 39 No. 5
By Tonnya Kennedy Kohn

KARMA BAILEY’s ancestors were freed American slaves who left South Carolina with hopes of a better life in the new African nation of Liberia. Generations of her family prospered there. But less than a hundred years after her ancestors fled the oppressiveness of the American South, Bailey and her family were forced to flee a Liberia torn apart by civil war.

For months after the fighting began, Bailey and about 40 members of her extended family took refuge in her grandmother’s home near the U.S. Embassy. “That was the safest place in the country during the war,” says Bailey, now a third-year student at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

“Although there were 40-plus people living in my grandmother’s three-bedroom home, we were able to survive mainly unscathed by the atrocities outside the neighborhood,” she says.
Head of the Class: Fleeing the War Zone
Many of her Liberian friends and classmates were not as fortunate, especially the boys. Many of them were conscripted into the rebel army, and died fighting or were killed because they would not join rebel forces.

Bailey’s mother and youngest sister, who was an American citizen born when her parents were Fulbright scholars at Tulane University, were evacuated first. Bailey, her father, and two other sisters stayed behind. “We had three false starts. The first two times that we tried to leave, rebels found out and we were stopped,” says Bailey, who was 10 years old at the time. On the third try they boarded a cargo ship bound for Sierra Leone. From there they flew to Atlanta and ultimately settled in South Carolina, the same state her ancestors originally fled.

Bailey became a naturalized citizen at 22, graduated from Winthrop University, worked as a social worker in South Carolina, heads the tutoring program at USC’s law school, and, perhaps fittingly, plans to work in immigration policy or practice immigration law.

“Coming to the States the way I did, I see that there is a need for people who understand where immigrants are coming from, to advocate more zealously on their behalf, and to help shape the country’s immigration laws,” says Bailey, voicing her opposition to the broad and strict Arizona immigration law that was enacted  in 2010. “I see things that I just don’t think are right, and I want to be able to use my experiences to inform the debate.”

Bailey, 30, who began the 11-year process to become a U.S. citizen at age 10, was not keen on the idea at first.

“My parents always said that American citizenship would open up doors for me later. As a 10-year-old, I didn’t understand what they meant, nor did I want to become an American citizen,” she says. “I believed that by becoming an American citizen I would no longer be an African, and that bothered me.”

“My identity had always been that of a proud African. I didn’t want to assimilate because, to me, it meant I would lose the most essential part of me.”

Bailey will always have strong ties to her native land.  “It is my home,” says Bailey, who plans to visit regularly for herself and her four-year-old son, Cole James. “I want him to know where I came from. I want him to understand what being an African American really is. I want him to understand that how we raise him is based in Liberian culture, and it is really important that he knows where his values and upbringing come from.”


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