by Scott Kindberg
September 1, 2002
A Family’s Mettle
Clymer Star Travels Long Road To Success
Not with what I’ve been listening to on my tape recorder.
I transcribe every word into my computer, anxiously awaiting the moment when I can actually start writing the story.
There will be no rest until it is completed. There can’t be.
For in all the pieces I’ve written in 19 ½ years at this newspaper, this one has seized my undivided attention like no other. It’s graphic. It’s heart-wrenching and it has a happy ending. But, most importantly, it’s a story about the triumph of the human spirit and the love of family against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“It’s getting easier to talk about,” said Bonita Karr as she sat on the front porch of her home Friday in Findley Lake with her two children Mardea and Jehu Caulcrick. “I understand that’s the only way to get it out, because I’m afraid that it might come back some time to haunt them.”
The picture says it all.
Jehuu, Clymer Central School’s all-state running back, has a football tucked under one arm and an ear-to-ear grin on his face. The photograph was taken for the The Post Journal’s annual Gridiron, which previews area high school football. It is scheduled for publication later this week.
Of course, Jehuu and smiles aren’t mutually exclusive.
Spend any time at all with the 6 foot, 225 pound senior and you’ll find him to one of the friendliest teen-agers around, not to mention one of the most athletically gifted.
But all-state recognition in football – he has rushed for more than 4,300 career yards and scored a Western New York record, 514 points with one season still to play – and a Class C-D state shop put championship are only one side to the story about Caulcrick, who will be attending Michigan State next year, and his family.
The other side – the ability to overcome hardship, mistakes and disappointment – was molded during his early years growing up in Liberia, which is located in western Africa, bordering the north Atlantic Ocean.
It was there that Jehuu and Mardea endured years of horror during a civil war that left the country socially and economically devastated.
All the while, Bonita was thousands of miles away in the United States with her then husband, American businessman, Mark Karr, whom she had met at a Liberian golf resort.
“I had known him nine months and then he came over to the States,” said Bonita, who remained in Africa. “We talked on the phone for 15 months trying to get a visa, which I couldn’t get.”
Ultimately, Bonita obtained a fiance’s visa, and she was married within 90 days of her arrival in the United States.
“Mark wanted the kids to come over when I did, but I didn’t know what it would be like to come to the States. I had never been here (before),” Bonita said. “I didn’t want to bring my kids and then things didn’t work out. I decided to leave there (with her mother, Joanna) and see what it was like here before they moved.”
The timing, as it turned out, couldn’t have been worse.
By 1991 the civil war had erupted, pitting the Liberian government against the rebel forces.
“After we started to process the papers, the civil war broke out and we had no communication for two years,” Bonita said. “There was no mail going out, no phone lines. It was really terrible.”
Bonita was so distraught that she would excuse herself from her job at Aurora Foods in Erie, Pa., to use the bathroom. Once inside, she would “stuff tissue in my mouth and scream and cry. Then I’d walk out and smile again because I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me.”
In a cruel irony, though, the lack of communication may have been somewhat of a blessing. For what was going on in Liberia was a mother’s worst nightmare - times 10. Once considered the wealthiest of citizens, Bonita’s mother and father were forced to flee with the children, going from house to house, as the rebel forces closed in.
“We’d stay (at one place) a few days and then we’d have to go,” Jehuu said.
Homes were riddled with bullets. Many times Marda and Jehuu could hear the bullets whizzing by their heads, inches from ending their lives before they really began.
But they were the lucky ones.
Many, many people died during the war, including Mardea and Jehuu’s biological father, who was part of the Liberian government. Rebel forces, Bonita believes, killed him.
“I’d seen his name in the paper and I never heard anything about him again. I just assume he was a victim.”
The casualties became an all-too-familiar part of life for Jehuu, Mardea and their grandparents.
“One time they were traveling with a neighbor,” Bonita recalled, “and my mom went to go help her, but the soldiers kept kicking her (Joanna) and told her to get going. She wasn’t allowed to stop. When they came back, the neighbor was dead.”
Incredibly, Bonita’s family survived. “My grandma was strong and into praying,” Mardea said. “That’s all we did, 24-7.”
They also sang African gospel hymns, including Joanna’s favorite, “What a Mighty God We Serve.”
“She’s got a direct line phone line to God,” Bonita said. “He answers her prayers just like that. It’s scary sometimes.”
In war-torn Liberia, it was always scary.
Still, that didn’t stop Bonita from finally going to search for her family – alone.
Bonita, determined to find her children, flew to the neighboring Ivory Coast in 1993, took a van filled with passengers into Liberia and endured 40 checkpoints en route to the town where her parents lived.
“Everybody had to get down and be searched. (The Rebels) had guns and everything. At one checkpoint, the van was ready to leave me because they could tell I hadn’t been home (very much) because of my accent… They were asking me what I did for the civil war and how did I help my people. I said that I hadn’t been there and that I couldn’t do anything.”
After two weeks of searching all over the country. Bonita, who hadn’t seen or talked to her family in two years, found her children and parents at, ironically, their original home.
I got out of the cab, my dad’s looking at me and he’s like ‘Bonita, Bonita,’” She said, “He almost died because he couldn’t believe he was seeing me. I kept saying ‘Yes, daddy, it’s me’… He couldn’t believe anyone would show up.”
Jehuu remembers that day clearly. “We were in the backyard,” he said. “All the kids just took up running to the front of the house and saw her coming out of the cab.”
How’s that for a reunion?
“I just never thought I’d see them again,” Bonita said.
Still, the final chapter of this incredible story wasn’t ready to be written. In fact, Bonita was told by American embassy officials that they would not approve her request to take her family home.
Frantic, Bonita offered an ultimatum. She told the embassy officials: Either let her children go with her or keep them until the arrival of the paperwork which would finally grant them a visa. ”He said, ‘Well, if you take them today, I’ll call the United States and we’ll figure this out,’” Bonita added.
Two weeks later, Sept. 5, 1993, Jehuu and Marda had their visas. They would be able to join their mother in the United States. Bonita’s mother and father would eventually, too, beginning their new lives in Texas. Bonita’s father died five years ago, but Joanna still lives in Houston.
Meanwhile, Mardea is a sophomore at Dennison (Ohio) University where she carries a 3.5 grade-point average in pre-medicine, while Jehuu begins his senior year at Clymer this week with great expectations, not only from himself and his team, but from the hundreds of Pirates fans who have cheered and supported him ever since his arrival in Chautauqua County nine years ago.
Randy and Nancy Burkhkolder of Clymer are among Jehuu’s strongest allies. Not only has Nancy kept a watchful eye on Jehuu’s academic progress – she teaches at the high school – but she and her husband have taken Jehuu to campus visits this year at Maryland, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Michigan State. They’ve been there to offer assistance and friendship every step of the way.
“They’re like family to me,” Jehuu said.
“They always take the time to pay attention to him,” Bonita added.
Even in the bad times.
Earlier this year, Jehuu and two others were involved in an extortion scheme in Corry, Pa. But the victim in the case agreed to a plea-bargain deal and lesser charges for Jehuu.
“I just think you can’t give up,” he said. “If things don’t work out your way, you just realize what you did wrong and try and correct it.”
Jehuu’s mom was more direct in recalling the incident.
“He had the world by the tail,” Bonita said of her son. “It would have killed me if had lost it all because of something stupid, but the town didn’t give up on them. They were there for them and stood with them all the way.”
“Randy Burkholder was asked what the experiences of Bonita, Jehuu and Mardea reveal about the human spirit.
The answer came without hesitation.
“Tough times tend to bring out the better qualities,” he said. “Sometimes soft living makes soft character. It’s the fire that tempers the metal.”
When she’s financially able to do so, Bonita wants to visit Liberia with her children. She knows it could be dangerous. She knows that returning could foster ugly, ugly memories, some that still creep to the surface today.
Recently, there was the smell, a stench that Mardea and Jehuu are still unable to forget.
“We were driving to Erie a couple weeks ago… and there was this smell, this rotten thing,” Bonita said. “They both said that it smelled just like back home with all the dead bodies. That’s terrible that they would both remember that smell. He was 9 and she was 11 when I got them out of there, so they were in it for like four years. That’s something that will always be in your mind.”
Still, she feels compelled to return to her former home for one reason.
“They had a nanny there who took care of them,” Bonita said. “I want her to see them, so she can know what they turned out to be.”
Do you believe in miracles?