Coming Home to Liberia: Charles Dorme Cooper and Chara Itoka Cooper

A talented man and woman move back to Liberia, meet and marry, and contribute to the nation.

Posted: 05/21/2012 10:00 AM EDT
Charles Dorme Cooper and Shara Itoka Cooper

During the period of political unrest and the bloody, 14-year civil war that rocked Liberia, many Liberians left their country. Many moved to the United States, Europe or neighboring countries in West Africa. However, after the country’s political climate stabilized following the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005, they returned to their native country. Many said they had longed for years to return, others contend that moving back was snap decision. But they all speak of the fertile opportunity that exists in business in Liberia and the warmth of the people in their country as factors in deciding to return. In part six of a seven-part series on going back home, BET.com reporter Jonathan P. Hicks talked to Charles Dorme Cooper and Chara Itoka Cooper about their return.

Charles Dorme Cooper and Chara Itoka Cooper both returned to their native Liberia after establishing themselves in their professional lives in the United States. But it wasn’t until their return to Liberia, each within the last few years, that they met and decided to get married. They are both widely recognized here as people with passions for their careers — as well as for Liberia.

Charles Dorme Cooper moved back to Liberia in 2010 after leaving the country in 1991 at age 12, during Liberia’s civil war. His parents remained in Liberia during the war, refusing to leave the country despite the danger (his father was once chief justice of Liberia’s Supreme Court). “My parents are extremely patriotic,” Cooper said. But that didn’t mean they chose to expose their children to the dangers of civil war. So, they sent Cooper and his brother to the United States to avoid the potential threat of being part of the horrors of the war.

They moved to Maryland, where they stayed with relatives and later moved to North Carolina, where he attended high school. Eventually, he would study graphic arts at the Maryland Institute and College of Art and settle in suburban Washington D.C., where he worked for an e-learning company. He lived a typical American life.

“But you always feel like a Liberian living in the United States,” said Cooper, who is now 33.  “I knew I had to come back.”

Chara Itoka Cooper, 30, left Liberia when she was five and moved with her family to Boston. Although she grew up in the United States and attended the American University in Paris before returning to work for the Massachusetts office for refugees and immigrants, “I always knew I was going to come back to Liberia,” said Cooper. 

Her father worked before the war at the country’s petroleum refining company and her mother was a homemaker. “It was always my dream to come back.” It was not just her dream to come back, but she also harbored a fervent desire to assist the number of Liberians who became refugees during the civil war in their re-entry to Liberia.

She was selected to participate in the Scott Family Liberia Fellows program, which recruits young professionals to support the government of Liberia as it recovers from 14 years of brutal civil war. These young professionals filled a huge capacity gap and worked in Liberia as special assistants to senior Liberian government officials, primarily Cabinet ministers. She moved back to her native country and worked for the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, and rose to the position of deputy executive director.

In addition to her work with the government, Chara Itoka Cooper also does some private sector work with her sister, Phyllis Itoka, running a clothing concern called the Piso Collection. It’s a sustainable, ready-to-wear line of clothing manufactured in Liberia and named for Lake Piso, the nation's largest lake. The company seeks to empower Liberian workers through higher wages and safe working conditions and to develop the nation’s textile industry.

“Seeing your home country being rebuilt — and doing your small part in making that contribution — is the most gratifying thing about being back,” she said. “My life has come full circle. I was born here, returned to work, and met my husband, who is also on the same mission to contribute and learn from our home. All things work together for good.”

Previously in this series:
Part One: Coming Home: Barkue Tubman
Part Two: Coming Home: Musa Shannon
Part Three: Coming Home: Mary Broh
Part Four: Coming Home: Hesta Baker Pearson
Part Five: Coming Home: Karton Zawolo

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(Photo: Jonathan P. Hicks/BET)

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