African Refugees Reunited in Montgomery

Bessie Gonleh
Bessie Gonleh
John Gonleh
John Gonleh

By Mark Bullock - bio | email

Montgomery, AL (WSFA) - An amazing tale of survival came to an emotional conclusion Monday night at the Montgomery Regional Airport. Two children -- trapped for years in a war-torn country -- were reunited with their parents. WSFA 12 News was there.

It's been three years since Bessie and John Gonleh escaped the civil war-ravaged country of Liberia. But when they left,  immigration rules forced them to make a painful decision -- to leave their children behind. They have been working to fly them to the U.S. ever since.

The Gonlehs got the help they needed at Montgomery's First Baptist Church. Eleanor Mcelvy's husband, Doug, helped them win their legal fight.

"It just takes a very long time," Mcelvy explained. "There's a lot of child trafficking that's a problem and they had to make sure these children belong with these parents."

With the legal hurdles finally cleared, the Gonlehs welcomed their teenage son and daughter to Montgomery during a tearful reunion.

"Their story is a story of God's miraculous salvation," First Baptist Pastor Jay Wolf told the crowd.

It was salvation from ethnic persecution. John Gonleh, a Baptist minister himself, almost didn't survive a mass murder in Liberia.

"As I said, 'let us pray,' I heard gunfire and dropped to the ground," he recalled. "Bodies fell on top of me and I removed the bodies by pushing them off, soaked in blood."

It was after that incident, that a relative in Montgomery helped secure the Gonleh's safe passage to the U.S. Somehow, their children were left off the immigration papers.

Three years later, as they get reacquainted with their children, the Gonlehs say they are grateful for this moment.

"I'm so filled with joy," Bessie Gonleh said. "God is so good!"

The reunion was a bittersweet occasion, since the Gonlehs lost three children in the fighting in Liberia. And they have four children still living in the country. They say they will continue fighting to bring them home.

Story Inspires Book

The Gonleh's story didn't inspire just members of First Baptist Church. A Texas businessman says he felt compelled to write a book about the family's struggles. Bruce Beakley was in town Monday to witness the reunion and write his final chapter.

Beakley says he met the Gonlehs in a chance encounter at an airport three years ago as John and Bessie were fleeing to the U.S.

"I met them in the Continental departure lounge in the Brussels airport," he said. "I never set out to write a book, but a whisper said to me, 'Bruce, you need to go help them.' And with great fear and intrepidation, I actually did it."

Beakley's book is entitled Refuge: A True Story of Faith and Civil War. It is scheduled to be released in the coming months. For more information, log on to