A View of Liberty
By Matt Reed

Inside the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church in April, congregants gathered for a three-hour celebration. It was Easter Sunday, and decked-out immigrants from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana sang choir music in unison. Rev. Philip Saywrayne, himself a Liberian immigrant, rose to deliver his sermon.

Saywrayne addressed members of Staten Islands Liberian community, which has grown to approximately 8,000 in the last decade. The congregants have come to rebuild their lives in New York after leaving their war-torn West African nation.

Photo by Matt Reed

Ramatu Soko demands answers from election candidates at a Staten Island Liberty Community Association meeting on April 16.


Watch community leaders make the new Liberians their priority on Staten Island.
Watch young Liberians talk about their experiences in New York City.
See and hear Staten Island's Liberians celebrate Easter.

Staten Island’s Clifton neighborhood is home to the majority of Liberian immigrants. Most live in a row
of former public housing buildings along
Park Hill Avenue. When Liberian community leaders speak about Park Hill, they speak gravely of the young men who reside there.

The leaders agree that the hundreds of young men who lived through civil war in Liberia
and then came to New York as refugees in
the last decade present the most important challenge for the neighborhood. Many of them once fought — against their will — in
the Liberian civil war. Now they are
dropping out of school, getting kicked out of the homes of relatives and joining gangs.

“We have these teenagers that people call bad kids and ex-combatants and rebels,” said Ramatu Soko, who came to Staten Island as one of the first Liberians in 1981. “They hang out on the street on Park Hill. Some call them drug dealers…. They need to be rehabilitated. They need our help.”

Liberians worry this problem could become worse if it is not addressed.

A young woman from the neighborhood plans to move to Atlanta in the coming months.  Living in a neighborhood where brawls are a daily occurrence, and gunshots are fired several times a month has become too much to bear.

“It’s too violent,” said Ninnah Roberts, 19. “There are too many fights. People getting shot for stupid things. When it’s the summer time, it’s going to be very bad.”

Esther Brown, the owner of Korto’s restaurant — a popular gathering spot for Liberians — said the former child soldiers grew up without families or formal schooling. Soldiering was all they knew before they went to refugee camps and came to America. Once here, living a normal life and going to school can be too much of an adjustment, she said.

“They don’t know any better,” Brown added. “So, they get frustrated. They go to their friend’s house. They sell drugs.”

There are about 60 former soldiers in Staten Island’s Liberian community, according to Jacob Massaquoi, the director of African Refuge, an organization that offers counseling to West African torture survivors on Park Hill.

Liberians who came to the United States in recent years were granted asylum from refugee camps. They weren’t asked during the asylum process what they did during the civil war, so it is difficult to determine the actual number of former soldiers. Now that they are here, Massaquoi said, they are even less likely to volunteer that information.

At an April 16 community debate, the two candidates for the presidency of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association discussed this issue. George Curtis, the sitting president, talked about the association’s after school programs for the troubled young. His challenger, Jennifer Brumskine, agreed this is a pressing issue that must be addressed. She said that help for former child soldiers would be her top priority if elected president.

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2006 NYC24 is a production of the New Media Workshop at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism