On the street and in the hallways of school, 20-year-old Yatta Barnett draws attention for many reasons. Her large, dark eyes are set against dark chocolate-colored skin under dark hair frequently worn in an elaborate African hairdo. She is usually dressed in bright African-patterned dresses– many of which she sewed herself– that pop out to any observer’s eyes. When you talk to her, she is initially shy but soon, she shows her humorous, sweet, and kind personality.
She also happens to be in a wheelchair, her legs weakened due to a childhood bout of polio that made walking long distances painful for her.
Barnett’s happy, bubbling personality in fact conceals an often painful and isolated childhood in Liberia, a tiny, usually-forgotten country on the west coast of Africa best known in the West for being an epicenter of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Barnett was born as Yatta Dolo in a small village of around 40 mud and palm leaf-roof huts in Bong County, Liberia, where the villagers grew rice, cassava, corn, and various other foods to support themselves in farms one to two hours away from the village. It was so remote that it did not even have a school.
Because Barnett’s weakened legs made her a target for bullies and made it impossible for her to meet the demands of the agricultural village life and because the village had no educational opportunities, she was taken to an orphanage in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, at the age of 8.
Because of the treatment she had received in her home village, one of Barnett’s first concerns when arriving at the orphanage was not letting the other children know about her disability, because otherwise “[t]hey [would] laugh at [her], hide [her] walking stick, and push [her] on the ground like the other kids did to [her] in [her] village.”
Soon enough, when an older girl was taking her to the girls’ dorm to show her bed, her disability was noticed.
“I saw kids from different distances staring at me with their fingers pointing at my leg and giggling and whispering in each other’s ears,” Barnett remembers.
The bed that was given to her was, in her words, “more uncomfortable than the mat [she had] slept on in the floor in [her] village– or anywhere [she had] ever laid down at.” It was also smelly and stained with urine, but she had no choice but to find a spot on the bed that was cleaner and use that.
In the orphanage, recalls Barnett, the older girls would regularly bully the younger ones. They would put high heels on the younger children’s feet and tie the feet together using rope. They would put hot candle wax on the children and then tell them to use the bathroom before they wet their beds, and then laugh when the children fell on their faces due to the molten wax.
Barnett was even more a target of this culture of bullying because of her disability.
“It is the little witch’s turn,” she would recall the girls saying, which sent shivers of fear down her spine.
To escape the bullies, Barnett would jump out of bed before they came to her– not bothering to hide her disability because everyone already knew– and sit outside on the porch for hours. The only reason the girls did not take her from the porch by force is that she would scream with all her might. Even though Monrovia’s security situation was fairly bad and there were criminals who could break into the orphanage– which did not have a strong-enough fence to protect it– she was more comfortable on the porch, even sleeping there if the girls locked the door, because she would at least be free of their harassment.
Barnett recalls that aside from the bullying culture, some of the older children would take care of the younger children “by washing their clothes, bathing them, putting clothes on them, braiding their hair, and playing with them.” But they never extended the same treatment to her because of her disability.
Calling her a “stinky witch girl,” the older girls would throw her clothes to the ground if they found them in the laundry. The other children also excluded her from their common activities such as storytelling and eating together. When they “included” her, they would share food with everyone except her or slap her hand and laugh at her for being “greedy” while they were giving her a little food.
“I was a hungry, malnourished little girl because I only ate once a day and was cheated with the little food that was given to me by the teens in charge of dinner,” recalls Barnett.
Growing up under such hostile conditions, Barnett would drift off into her own world during her long days in the orphanage. She would dream about her parents visiting her in the orphanage, but unfortunately that visit never happened. She even made an escape plan that involved running away into the jungle, building her own hut, and starting a small farm to feed herself and animals, which she considered her friends because the animals did not hate her as the bullies did.
Over the years, the older children were sent away, one by one, because they were becoming rebellious against the headmaster of the orphanage. Barnett was happy that her bullies were leaving, but as one of the older children now, that also meant she had to do all the household chores that the older children once performed– cleaning the facilities, bathing the younger kids, doing the laundry, cooking, fetching water, waking everyone up in the mornings, making sure the kids were in school, and leading daily morning and evening devotions. The headmaster forced her to do all this work except fetching water, and routinely yelled at her, beat her, or made her redo the work if he wasn’t satisfied, even interrupting her in class to make her clean something up. When he interrupted her in class and she finished the work, he would tell her it was too late to go back to class and lock her in the girls’ dorm, since he did not want outsiders to think that he was not sending the children to school.
“As more years went by, he made me work harder and harder, like I was his slave. He said that I was a witch [and] that I practiced witchcraft and killed one of the orphanage kids,” Barnett says about her later years in the orphanage.
Besides forcing her to work and calling her “witch”, the headmaster would threaten to send her to the streets to live a life as a beggar. In reality, there was indeed a death at the orphanage, but Barnett only learned of it a few years after she arrived there.
She started praying to God as a coping mechanism, hoping to have a new family who would accept her for herself. It was around this time that she met an American nurse who noticed her isolation. While the headmaster told the nurse that Barnett was a “witch” who was “unsafe” for the orphanage and again said that he was thinking about sending her away, the nurse said that Americans did not believe in such things, and looked Barnett in the eye and told her “Your legs may have a problem, but your mind is okay.” The nurse bribed the headmaster to keep Barnett longer, even sending her gifts from America, which the headmaster kept from her.
She later had a dream that she went to America and saw a blue house surrounded by a garden and a hill. Five years later, the American nurse she met adopted her. With the help of the orphanage manager’s youngest daughter, she was able to successfully complete the documents needed to immigrate to America. She even got the chance to visit her birth family before leaving Liberia.
With the adoption, her dream– of the house, of a loving family, and of acceptance– came true. She considers her adoption day the happiest day of her life.
Barnett deeply appreciates the doors that coming to America has opened up for her.
“What I appreciate the most [about] life in America are. . .[having] the opportunity to do anything positive, [being accepted] for [herself] by those [whom she is] around, [having] everything [she prays] for, [going] to college without [loans], [and having] the chance to get [married],” Barnett says.
As someone who went from being the victim of relentless harassment and abuse to being treated like, in her words, an African princess, she wants people to know that no matter what their current struggles may be, there will always be good things in store. She has forgiven the bullies and abusers from years ago, and said that they have actually made her a better person.
Lastly, Barnett hopes that more people can recognize our common humanity. Barnett reflects that she wants “the public here and in Liberia to understand that we are all one no matter what [one’s] condition may be.”
Her extraordinary journey has only strengthened her Christian faith, and her belief that every cloud, no matter how dark, has a silver lining.