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The Liberians of Staten Island

The Liberians of Staten Island
In 1989, Liberia, a West African country founded by freed American slaves, was torn apart by a fourteen year bloody civil war. It took more than 200,000 lives, and injured many more.

Almost one million Liberians fled the war. In the chaos that ensued as people sought safety, Liberians families were often separated. Many people wound up in refugee camps, both within Liberia and throughout other African countries. Some of these displaced persons, through the help of international relief programs, were given refuge by the United States; thousands of them wound up in the Park Hill section of Staten Island.

Like others living in the Diaspora, many of Staten Island's Liberians refugees left behind family members. Caught between two worlds, these new New Yorkers struggle to make news lives in a foreign country, while still maintaining emotional and financial attachments to Liberia. And many hope to see the day when they can return to their homeland.

Rufus Arkoi and Jacob Massaqoi have emerged as community leaders who help their fellow Liberians to adjust to a new life in the U.S., which is often difficult for many refugees. Adults struggle with high illiteracy rates, the need to work long hours to support both family members in New York and back in Liberia, and the struggle to raise children in a society very different than their own. Young adults struggle with school and with peer pressure. Everyone struggles in their own way to deal with the lasting effects of the brutal war.

Most of Staten Island's Liberians are here under Temporary Protection Status (TPS) by the U.S. government, which does not necessarily entitle them to permanent residency. In October, thousands of these refugees were scheduled to be deported back to Liberia, but that has been delayed by the US and Liberian governments, as Liberia is still trying to restore its destroyed infrastructure and deflated economy, and to maintain peace.

To address the nation's war wounds, the Liberian government has set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which will collect people's stories of violence and suffering, and then use these stories to make recommendations for how the government should go about creating a lasting social peace.

Jacob's group, African Refuge, will help gather Staten Islander's war stories. For these refugees, the work of the TRC may just determine the future of Liberia and whether or not they ever return.

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The Liberians of Staten Island: Thousands of war refugees are caught between two worlds.

The Liberians of Staten Island
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