Eric Gibson escaped from Liberia's civil war only to end up on a different battlefront: the Park Hill Apartments in Staten Island.
As he looks around the brick buildings and tall fences of the projects, Eric, 34, says he feels trapped. The people, the smell, the gunshots outside his window remind him of Liberia.
Welcome to Park Hill — the place where the realities of life as a refugee collide head on with the American dream.
Members of the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan grew up in Park Hill; they call it "Killer Hill" or "Crack Hill" because of the violence and crack cocaine found on the streets. On a recent October weekend three shootings took place in front of 55 Bowden, the six-story brick building with the reputation for being the most violent. When Eric stands in front of the building, with his oversized jacket and his too-big pants slung down low, he keeps his back against the wall for security. He's seen one too many young people shot or jumped from behind to know that anything can happen at anytime.
"We've got to be our own security out here," he says.
This is a far cry from where Eric was at 16. In 1988, he won the best rapper competition in Liberia and was getting ready to head to the West Africa competition in Sierra Leone the following year. But then the war came.
Schools were closed. Bullets were flying. Dead bodies lay in the street. And there were no more rap competitions. Instead, Liberians as young as eight years old were fighting for rebel factions, raping, robbing, and murdering their way across the country. Some were abducted and forced to fight, usually under the influence of drugs. Others joined for revenge or protection. All were traumatized.
When the fighting intensified on the outskirts of Monrovia, where Eric lived with his mother Anne, he decided the only way to survive the war was to go behind rebel lines. The areas the warlord Charles Taylor had captured had food, electricity -- and protection. Eric thought if he befriended the rebels he could bring food back and forth to his mother. He didn't know that shortly after he arrived they'd stop allowing anyone in or out.
The last thing Eric remembers is his mother giving him a Bible and telling him to pray. No matter what you do, she said before he left, never hold a gun. Anne didn't know if she'd ever see Eric again. Eleven years went by before she did.
Eric walked for weeks seeing dead bodies lying on the road along the way. His feet swelled up and he ate whatever he could get his hands on. At the time rice, one of the staples of the Liberian diet, was called gold dust because it was so valuable. Civilians traded in their possessions for one cup of cooked rice.
At checkpoints along the way Eric was beaten and tortured. He rolls up his pants and shows the round scar where a stray bullet struck his right leg. A rebel slashed his right arm above his elbow. Once a pregnant woman was killed right in front of him, her unborn baby torn from her stomach. Eric and five others were forced to bury her. At those times Eric said he learned to cry in his heart and move on. Those that cried out loud were killed on the spot.
At times like this Eric wanted to become a soldier. "I thought if I could get a gun than I would have advantages too," he said. "No one would tell me to bury someone and not to cry. We'd all be equal."
But his mother's pleas not to fight always stuck with him.
When Eric arrived behind rebel lines he survived by performing rap shows under the pseudonym Ebony Prince. He became a favorite of the Special Forces, mercenaries Taylor hired from other countries to fight for him, and even performed for Taylor's daughter's birthday. He served as the secretary for the group reading and writing whenever necessary because, unlike the others, he was educated. Eric lived with Jack the Rebel, one of Taylor's top fighters, who protected him from the many dangers of the war and the many people who threatened his life. But Eric said he always knew he'd eventually have to flee. "I didn't want to end up like them," he said.
Those lucky enough to escape the war fled to nearby countries. Eric moved between the Ivory Coast and Guinea before eventually settling in Gambia, where he was able to parlay his rap skills into a job as a radio broadcaster. He worked for several stations and even had his own radio shows. He traveled to Europe for gigs. From the rubble of the war, Eric was able to create a life for himself.
Until he arrived in America.
Eric's father applied for him to come to the United States as a refugee. For Liberians, the United States was seen as the ultimate refuge. The reality is that Eric found the same poverty, drugs, and violence in Park Hill that he was trying to run away from in Liberia.
By the time Eric touched down in Staten Island, his mother had already been living there for almost a decade. Even though she wanted Eric to come live in her one-bedroom apartment with her, she was worried about him too. She saw enough Liberian youth selling drugs outside her building -- smoking their lives away to forget the war -- to understand the challenges Eric would face. She knew America was the land of opportunity, but she also knew most of the youth weren't using it. When Eric arrived she warned him: "If I catch you smoking any drugs I'll call the cops on you myself."
Now as she sits on her couch, which doubles as her bed, Anne admits life is hard for Liberian refugees like Eric. The ones who don't sell drugs see the fast cash and expensive clothes of those that do. It's hard not to be influenced, she says.
The deck is stacked against refugees who try to do the right thing by working a low-level job and going to school. When Eric goes to the local mall to apply at a Payless ShoeSource, they ask to see his work authorization form. Even after he shows the manager the words "employment authorized" on his I-94 visa, he's refused the job. "We don't have time to verify," Eric's told, there are plenty of people who will work for minimum wage.
"I ain't getting no younger," Eric says, defeated. "This is taking a toll on me right now."
Anne says that many of the young Liberians she knew when she first arrived in Park Hill in 1994 have been deported back to Liberia because they got involved in drugs and violent crimes, shooting guns. "I blame it on the war," Anne says.
Chico was one of them.
Chico was deported from Staten Island in 2005, after his conviction for selling crack and a stolen gun. "I was looking for all the wrong things at the time," Chico admits, in an interview outside the concrete house where he now lives in Paynesville, a slum section of the Liberian capital city of Monrovia.
Chico even taught his younger cousins how to sell drugs. Soon enough they were making $600 to $700 a day. At one point he estimated he had $30,000. For a young man from the slums of Liberia, who had imagined that in America money was found on the streets, Park Hill was a dream come true.
Now Chico, 25, dressed in the black Yankees cap and Nike sneakers from his days in America, spends most of his time in the video club in Paynesville, watching American movies. He doesn't work or go to school. He just waits for the occasional checks from his parents back in Park Hill so he can buy food and have some pocket change. Every so often he speaks to his 8-year old daughter and his 5-year old son who stayed behind with their mother in Staten Island. They think he's still in Rikers Island, the largest jail in New York City. Anything's better than the truth: that he may never see them again.
Part of the challenge of working with Liberian youth like Eric and Chico is that funding for rehabilitation services on both sides of the ocean is limited. The Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration program (DDRR) in Liberia promised former soldiers and those associated with the fighting forces almost $300 to put down their guns and pick up a book. But insufficient funding led to the rehabilitation portion of the program being cut short or in some cases not implemented at all.
In 1995 there were less than 4,000 Liberians living on the north shore of Staten Island; now that number has more than doubled. No one knows exactly how many of those are former child soldiers, but some say over 50% of the Liberian youth who are on the streets witnessed or participated in the war. One thing is clear: whether or not young Liberians fought all of them grew up surrounded by violence.
"We were brought here blindfolded," Eric says. "Kids fought in the war and they killed innocent people and you brought those people over here. You got to have a mentor for them. You gotta teach them. You gotta show them."
In Liberia war lords and rebel leaders recruited youth to fight; in the ghettos of Staten Island gang leaders and drug dealers do much the same, luring these same young people with promises of fast cash. In the last six years, murder in the 120th precinct, which includes Park Hill, shot up 128.5%; rapes jumped 26.6% and robberies 17.2%. In the same period murder declined 8.1% for the city of New York as a whole; rapes fell 23.7% and robberies 15.4%.
Eric says the problem is that refugees like himself are just left on their own without mentors or guidance in neighborhoods with the same hate and violence that they left behind in Liberia. "I never thought that America was going to be all drugs and guns," he explains. "They tell you about the ones who are making it: washing dishes, driving cabs, working in factories. They say we're taking you to live the American dream. Unfortunately we're not living the American dream."
Jacob Massaquoi, the director of African Refuge, a drop-in center for West African youth in Staten Island, says that bringing Liberian youth to Staten Island is like taking them from the battlefront to another more brutal war: Young people battle to fit in, they battle against peer pressure, and they battle with all kinds of social vices on the street, like other American youth growing up in the projects. "In order to fit in they have to be like those on the streets," Massaquoi says.
James Kollie, a case manager for an agency that brings Liberian refugees to Staten Island, says that everyone has failed – from the organizations that set out to help the youth to the governments of both Liberia and the United States. Kollie has seen newly-arrived youth sleeping in the hallways and staircases of buildings because the families who are supposed to take them in are overburdened. He's seen teenagers drinking and drugging their days away because they have nothing to keep them busy as job training programs are largely unavailable and local resettlement offices, which would provide jobs and resources, are under-funded or concentrating on newly-arrived refugees. "It's like you're fighting crime and then creating criminals," he said.
Anne says she has never spoken to Eric about what happened during those eleven years they were separated during the war. She doesn't know that he was tortured and forced to bury a woman he saw murdered right in front of him. He's never heard about how she stayed up at night praying for God to protect him, not knowing if he was even still alive. These days they only communicate about their daily lives: her job as a home health aide, his struggle to find work, his visa troubles, what she's going to make for dinner. Sometimes they watch videos together. Neither of them mentions the war because it brings back bad memories.
On Sundays Anne goes to church and prays with the other Liberians, many of whom have children that are struggling to survive in Staten Island. She asks God to make Eric a useful member of society. "He has to stand on his own two feet," she says.
Eric wants to feel productive also. "I am strong. I could work two, three jobs," he says. "Someone just has to tell me what to do next."