Liberian refugees make transition to New York


NEW YORK - Sundown at the Stapleton Playground on Staten Island can seem an unremarkable tableau, at first blush not much more than a flurry of whistles and whoops and sweaty shins chasing a ball.

Except here, on most days, a smattering of former child soldiers are likely to be on the soccer field, racing after the ball, but also chasing away memories of a gruesome civil war back home in Liberia.

A former banker from Monrovia, the Liberian capital, may be standing on the sidelines, offering a tale of being tortured by a gang of rifle-toting teen-age rebels.

In the swirl of immigrant stories in New York City, the trajectory of the Liberians stands out as among the most peculiar.

A small crescent-shaped country on the West African coast, Liberia was established in 1847 by freed American slaves, some of them hungering for a freedom unimaginable in the antebellum South, others hoping to mine the region's vast reserves of natural resources.

Liberia was a destination, a symbol of American ideas and American power in Africa. The Liberian flag is an offshoot of the Stars and Stripes.

But history has a way of coming full circle. For more than a decade, an untold number of Liberians have been chased from home by the civil conflict that raged from 1989 to 1996 and that still erupts sporadically.

Most of them have scattered to neighboring countries, the luckiest or most enterprising of them ending up here, mostly in the Park Hill and Stapleton sections of Staten Island.

'A pure paradox'

Today, they live in a cluster of squat, cheerless red-brick housing projects, side by side with the American descendants of enslaved Africans who never left this soil.

"It is a pure paradox," said Laurenzo Stevens, a Pentecostal pastor whose New Life Christian Church caters mostly to Liberian refugees, "for us to be coming back to this side."

The Liberians are part of a remarkable wave of recent African migration to New York City. Those who identified themselves as being of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in the 2000 census numbered more than 122,400 citywide, up 127 percent since 1990 and the largest increase, proportionately, of any ancestry category, according to city demographers.

Country-by-country numbers are not available from the Census Bureau, though it is safe to say that along with Nigerians and Senegalese, Liberians are among the most well-established Africans in the city. Staten Island is their seemingly improbable hub: people knowledgeable about the community say roughly 3,000 Liberians live in Park Hill alone, most of them refugees or political asylum seekers.

William Dassin, a young war veteran, was as surprised as anyone when at the soccer field at the Stapleton Playground he saw old friends from a makeshift refugee camp he had lived in in Ivory Coast. "Oh," he yelped, his way of signaling astonishment, "What are you doing here?"

Most Liberians here call themselves indigenous, meaning that they are not descendants of the original American settlers. Stevens' father inherited the name of an Americo-Liberian family, as they are called, and hence, the educational opportunities they were accorded, when he became their child servant.

The Americo-Liberian elite that ruled the country long enjoyed a special relationship with the United States, sending their young to attend school in there, welcoming U.S. business interests, benefiting handsomely from U.S. aid.

A virtual American colony for roughly a century and a half, Liberia was among America's staunchest allies in Africa throughout the Cold War. Firestone, the American tire company, ran the world's largest rubber plantation there for most of the 20th century.

To press some Liberians here about their exodus to the United States is to prick at a well of anger at the U.S. government and conflict in their own hearts. In 1990, the U.S.-backed military ruler, Samuel K. Doe, was violently deposed.

A ruthless, American-educated rebel leader, Charles Taylor, took control. The Small Boys Unit, his crew of child soldiers, was among the hallmarks of Taylor's movement.

"We believe America had the power to stop the war before it escalated," Stevens said. "It wouldn't have gone this far, to the point of bringing thousands of Liberians here."

Dassin was a boy when rebels went to Sanoe County and snatched him up as one of their recruits.

Now 21, a stick-thin high school dropout who flips burgers for a living, Dassin recalls that time like this: Rebel soldiers came to every house. They asked for the eldest boy. He was 10 or 11 at the time. Two years later he ran away and found his family, living with fellow refugees in Ivory Coast.

He says he had the good sense to refuse to go to the front line. He became an errand boy instead, the fate of countless children today in some of the world's bloodiest conflicts. He swept the rebel houses. He served as what he called a bodyguard for a rebel leader. He learned to follow orders.

Only once did he hesitate, when his boss ordered him to fetch a friend's sister. He was strung upside down from a tree.

'I was rough'

He lived, then, by a code of violence - a code he brought here when his family came in spring 1999. "When I first came from Africa, I was rough," Dassin said the other day in Staten Island. On the soccer field, if his team did not win, he would pick a fight with his opponents, he admits. It didn't take too long for Dassin - Doorag, as he is known, or Do Ray as it sounds in Liberian tongues - to drop out of school. He found an apartment. He said he could no longer live under his mother's roof.

Rufus Arkoi, a Liberian and a schoolteacher, felt a chill as he saw his Staten Island neighborhood filling up with belligerent, hot-tempered young men like Dassin. They hung out on the streets. They fell into gangs. "They didn't care," is how he put it.

Arkoi, whose own parents had to flee Monrovia when the rebels took over, goaded them onto the soccer field. He took them by the shoulders, talked them into calming down, coaxed the grim stories out of them. Many of them had been on their own for so long, or had felt abandoned by their parents so deeply, that they ignored adult authority. Many of them lived on their own. Some of them just curled up in the stairwells of the housing projects after their parents threw them out.

The war continues to play out in everyday life on these shores. At one Liberian evangelical church in Staten Island - there are five Liberian churches in this pocket of the borough - the pastor is reluctant to encourage too much testifying about atrocities committed in war. What if victims and perpetrators find themselves side by side in the pews?

The stories of those who flee twisted places like Liberia are, by nature, impossible to verify. Besides, once here, many prefer not to dwell on the details. Still, it is impossible not to be struck by how war, and especially flight from war, has marked Liberian family life. If a family is separated, husbands and wives can grow apart. Parent and child can learn to make do without the other and then not know what to do when they are back together. Those who are in this country with legal papers usually must wait years to bring over relatives.

James Kollie, a onetime well-to-do Monrovia banker, slipped into a religious delegation to get to the United States nearly five years ago. Instead of returning as he was supposed to, Kollie stayed on, applied for political asylum and promised his family he would send for them as soon as he could.

Does he feel like striking out at the former rebels with whom he lives side by side? Kollie shrugged. "They're not all to blame," he said.

But he added, "If I see the guy who attacked me on the street here, I'm going to attack him."

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