Up the Creek

Image by Andre Lambertson. Liberia, 2007.

Driving through Paynesville, one of Monrovia's many slums, Junior turns to me and says, "Welcome to our capital. This is our Washington D.C." He's laughing out loud, but you can hear his heart is not. He also laughs when he talks about the $5.00, the bottle of water, and the packet of crackers the United Nations High Commission of Refugees gave to each of the refugees returning to Liberia after the war.

Since 1994 Junior has been playing the immigration lottery, or D.V., hoping to be one of the lucky 55,000 around the world who wins a green card to the United States. His cousin Chico, on the other hand, hit the jackpot. With the help of his mother he came to the U.S. in 1999 as a refugee. But his luck ran out in 2005 when he was deported back to Liberia after spending 4 years in prison.

Now he sits in front of his house in Paynesville talking about the good old days when he hung out on the streets of Park Hill with his cousins Kenje and Isaiah.

The one memory of growing up with Kenje and Isaiah in Liberia that sticks out in Chico's mind is the time that he ran into the creek and they followed him. He got away unscathed. But the two boys were punished. It's the only time, he says, that they got into trouble for following him. Later, I remind him that Kenje was put in jail for following in his footsteps — selling drugs in Staten Island, just like his older cousin. Chico just laughs and shakes his head, saying Kenje is his own man and needs to live his own life.

When Chico sits still for a second, his memory tends to get the better of him. He starts thinking about his two children, a girl and a boy, whom he left in Staten Island with their mother. They both think he's still in jail. Anything's better than the truth: that he may never see them again.

Unlike Chico, most Liberians were not given the opportunity to go to America. Junior, for example, remained throughout the war, dreaming of the day his family would be able to send for him. Edison, Chico and Junior's uncle, says it's "pathetic and regrettable" that Chico squandered his one chance to make a better life for himself. But what Edison doesn't realize is that whether reintegrating in Liberia or assimilating in America there are challenges for Liberian youth on both sides of the ocean.