Trying Times in Little Liberia

On Staten Island, Reflections of a War-Torn Country

It's all the more troubling to Fofana because, like many other Liberians, he knows he has a strong link to the U.S. "History tells me most African Americans have connections," he says. "I believe that my great-grandparents came from this country as slaves, and I still have the belief that I have some connection to this country."

That connection is a central feature of Liberian identity. Liberians who descended from the former slaves consider themselves Americo-Liberians, a minority that has long received special status and privileges in Liberia. The distinction remains relevant to Liberian politics, both at home and in Staten Island.

A recent election in the Staten Island Liberian Association split along these lines, notes Fallah. "You found most native Liberians supporting the native Liberian candidate and you found the Americo-Liberians supporting the Americo-Liberian candidate." Other Liberian émigrés, however, dispute the impact of that class division. Fallah, whose father was Americo-Liberian and mother wasn't, says, "I don't belong to either group," but he acknowledges that there's a problem and says it "will never go away."

Liberian émigrés in a Staten Island schoolyard on their homeland's Independence Day, July 26
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
Liberian émigrés in a Staten Island schoolyard on their homeland's Independence Day, July 26

For some refugees, like Musu Foryoh, 40, one's homeland identity can be difficult baggage to carry into the U.S. Coming of age in Liberia was idyllic for Foryoh, whose father was a high official who served under three presidents, William Tubman, William Tolbert Jr., and Samuel K. Doe. "I lived all my life in Monrovia," she says. "I lived in the mansion—like the White House. It was so sweet. During those days Liberia didn't even look like Africa."

Her father survived a coup in which Tolbert was executed, but he didn't survive the 1990 coup during which Doe was tortured and executed. Foryoh's mother and sister also died during that fighting.

"None of them have a grave," she says. "Those are things when I sit down and I think about today I cry a lot."

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