Trying Times in Little Liberia

On Staten Island, Reflections of a War-Torn Country

Staten Island's more than 6,000 Liberians stand as New York City's most vivid living testimonial to the destruction caused by Charles Taylor. Starting from the day in 1989 when the American-educated Taylor, a protégé of Muammar Qaddafi, fought his way out of the bush and into power, a generation of Liberians has fled, many of them to the U.S. The luckiest of the survivors found a new home in the neighboring communities of Stapleton and Clifton, on the hillside overlooking the Verrazano Narrows.

This recent migration to the United States eerily mirrors a migration from here to Africa beginning in the 1820s by a similar number of former American slaves, a movement that led to the founding of Liberia in 1847. Liberia took on the laws and traditions of the U.S., from the strict class divisions adopted from a society of slaves and masters to the stars and stripes of its flag.

Divided though they may be, Staten Island's Liberian émigrés watched Taylor's regime with the same question burning inside. It's like Morris Sesay, a 63-year-old refugee living on Park Hill Avenue, said: "All this time I've been here, I have never been happy. I've been confused. I've been worried. How will God get rid of this man?"

Sesay's question was answered when Taylor finally left Liberia for exile in Nigeria. But that didn't make Sesay's life whole. "I would very much love to go back to Liberia for a visit," he says. "But I have no home. This has destroyed me. My only brother was killed. He was slaughtered like a sheep or goat. My mother was shot in her back—cowardly shot in her back when she was going to rescue her son."

Like Sesay, most Staten Island Liberians have fractured families—some members are dead, others live in fear among armed militias, and some have fled to refugee camps in Guinea and Ghana, where they find themselves in immigration limbo.

Etta Roberts, 70, who has been in the U.S. for four years, battles high blood pressure and raises two grandsons while she tries to reach out to her children in increments of $5. That's the cost of a phone card to dial Ghana, where Jonathan, George, and Estella remain in a refugee camp awaiting approval to enter the U.S. "Ghana camp is a bad place," said Roberts. "A refugee camp is a place where you just have to be strong. People are dying there all the time. There's sickness. When the $5 card finishes, I can't talk with them again and I start crying."

Roberts and other Liberians entered the U.S. in record numbers in the 1990s, when they were guaranteed temporary status as refugees both by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a presidential directive. But after 9-11, those numbers plummeted. "Instead of having a charter flight of 300, we're seeing groups of 35 coming on commercial flights," says Susan Baukhages of the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service, which helps connect Liberian refugees with relatives in the U.S. "What we hear from the State Department is that it is not safe to have circuit riders there." She's referring to U.S. personnel who conduct final immigration processing on the ground in foreign countries. That role has since been transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. "There's a team that has been doing the circuit [of refugee centers] between Guinea and Ghana," says Bill Strassberger, a Homeland Security spokesman. "Immediately after 9-11, we had to pull the circuit riders for security concerns." Strassberger says fraudulent claims of relationships plague many applications, because sanctuary usually depends on Liberians' having a relative already in the U.S. Often these claims are based, he says, on a conception of relationships that doesn't stand up to American conventions and Homeland Security requirements.

Whatever the reasons, African refugee admissions increased 70 percent between 1997 and 2001 but dropped in 2002, and the proportion of refugees admitted from Africa fell precipitously. Most local Liberians live in Park Hill, a neighborhood that shares its name with the dozen or so buildings of a public-housing project on Park Hill Avenue that draws intensive patrols under the NYPD's Operation Impact. The neighborhood can be tough, but it's not as rough as back home. Relatives tell New York's Liberians the familiar stories of rebels—this time anti-Taylor ones—advancing on villages, where they rape and loot and force children to join them as soldiers.

As the U.S. invasion of Iraq unfolded earlier this year, many local Liberians appealed for an intervention on their behalf. But when the U.S. poised a force of Marines off Monrovia, there was little consensus on exactly how such an intervention should happen. Few agree now that this pressure was the root cause of Taylor's departure. But many concur on one thing, as Emmanuel Fallah, 31, the choir director at Christ Assembly Lutheran Church, puts it: "The way the United States has dragged her feet, a lot of people have died."

Many Liberian refugees still feel that they're in a no-man's-land. "Our African American brothers, every time when they see us walking down the street, they try to bother us," says Hassan Fofana, a 20-year-old student at Staten Island Community College who works at a Home Depot. "I mean it's all over the place. Some say we are animals, we don't belong here, and we should go back to our country, because we are here taking their money. So I don't really feel fine."

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