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Story Publication logo March 3, 2008

There Is No "Land of the Free"


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Reporter Ruthie Ackerman and photographer Andre Lambertson travel from Staten Island to Liberia...

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Eric Gibson. Image by Ruthie Ackerman. Liberia, 2007.

Eric Gibson escaped from Liberia's civil war only to end up years later on a different battlefront: the Park Hill Apartments in Staten Island.

As he looks around the brick buildings and tall fences of the housing complex, Gibson, 34, says he feels trapped. The people, the smell, the gunshots outside his window remind him of Liberia.

Staten Island is home to the largest community of Liberians in the United States, earning the borough the moniker "Little Liberia." Most live in the Park Hill Apartments, a group of six-story brick buildings that fill one city block in one of New York's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Liberians began coming in the 1980s, then sent for family members, a wave that grew as the war dragged on. Today, as many as 8,000 Liberians live in Park Hill.

From 1980-2003, more than 27,000 Liberian refugees settled in the United States, according to the United Nation High Commission of Refugees.

The U.S. government's policy aims to help refugees on the road to becoming Americans.

"The debate is: When does that road stop as a government and when does it continue?" said New York State Refugee Coordinator Thomas Hart. "When you have limited resources, the road doesn't go far enough for many people."

Especially in Park Hill.

Members of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan grew up in Park Hill; they call it "Killer Hill" or "Crack Hill." One weekend last fall, three shootings took place in front of 55 Bowden, the building with the most violent reputation.

"We've got to be our own security out here," Gibson says.

It's a far cry from when Gibson won the "best rapper" competition in Liberia at age 16. He was getting ready to head to a competition in Sierra Leone in 1989.

Then, the war came.


Liberia, which means "Land of the Free," was created in 1822 as a colony for freed American slaves. But tension quickly arose between native Liberians and settlers, who came to dominate for more than a century.

In 1980, Samuel K. Doe took power in a military coup fueled by anger against the Americo-Liberian settlers. Doe began giving his own people powerful positions in the government.

Civil war began in 1989, with rebel factions recruiting children as young as seven to fight. Rebel leader Charles Taylor was elected president in 1997, but the war continued, ending in 2003 when Taylor was forced to step down.

The child soldiers had been promised money and education, but most never received anything except what they could loot.

Some were brought to the United States.


During the war, Eric Gibson's family lived between two opposing rebel groups.

Like many young Liberians, Gibson survived by going behind rebel lines, where there was food, electricity — and protection. He thought if he befriended Taylor and his rebels he could bring food back and forth to his family.

Before he left in 1991, his mother gave him a Bible and told him to pray. "No matter what you do," she said, "never hold a gun." She would not see him again for 12 years.

Gibson walked for weeks to reach the town of Harbel, headquarters to Taylor's rebels. Bodies lay on the road. His feet swelled and he ate whatever he could get.

At checkpoints he was beaten and tortured — he still displays a round scar on his right leg from a bullet. Another marks the spot where a rebel slashed his right arm above the elbow.

But the wounds that can't be seen cut the deepest. A pregnant woman was killed right in front of him, her unborn baby torn from her stomach. Gibson and five others were forced to bury her. At times like those, he says, he learned to cry in his heart and move on. Those who cried out were killed on the spot.

Shortly after he arrived in Harbel, the rebels stopped allowing anyone in or out. He lived among them and struggled with the temptation to become a soldier. "I thought if I could get a gun then 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 plea not to fight stuck with him; he prides himself on never having had to carry a gun.

He survived by rapping for top commanders. He even performed at a birthday party for Charles Taylor's daughter. But he always felt he was wasting his life. "I didn't want to stay like them," he said.

Gibson made several attempts to escape. In 1993, he finally left, living in the Ivory Coast and Guinea before settling in Gambia. There he was able to parlay his rap skills into a job as a radio broadcaster. He even had his own radio shows and traveled to Europe for gigs.


Although he was doing well, his family was always on his mind. His parents had divorced and relocated separately to the United States. Both begged him to come to America.

Gibson was reluctant to give up his life in Gambia, but he applied for and received refugee status, moving to the United States in 2003.

His mother, Maryann Page, was glad he moved into her one-bedroom Park Hill apartment, but was worried. She saw Liberians selling drugs outside her building.

She knew America was the land of opportunity, but most of the youth weren't taking advantage of it. When Gibson arrived she warned him: "If I catch you smoking any drugs, I'll call the cops on you myself."

As she sits on her couch, which doubles as her bed, Page says life is hard for Liberians like her son. Those who don't sell drugs see the cash and clothes of those who do.

When Gibson goes to apply at a shoe store, the manager asks to see his work authorization form. Even after he shows the manager the words "employment authorized" on his visa, he's refused the job. "We don't have time to verify," he's told, and there are plenty of U.S. citizens who'll work for the minimum wage.

"This is taking a toll on me right now," Gibson said.


Page says many young Liberians have been deported because they got involved in drugs and violent crimes. "I blame it on the war," she says, which forced children and teens into lives of crime.

Many made their way to the United States without counseling, job skills or an education. Still, the federal government expects all refugees to be working within 90 days.

In Liberia, warlords and rebel leaders recruited youth to fight; in the ghettos of Staten Island and other inner cities throughout the U.S., gang leaders and drug dealers do much the same.

In the last six years, murder in the 120th precinct, which includes Park Hill, shot up 128.5 percent; rapes jumped 26.6 percent and robberies 17.2 percent. In the same period murder declined 8.1 percent for the city of New York as a whole; rapes fell 23.7 percent and robberies 15.4 percent.

"Kids fought in the war and they killed innocent people," Gibson said. "You got to have a mentor for them. You got to teach them. You got to show them.

"I never thought that America was going to be all drugs and guns. 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."

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 U.S.

He said 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.

On Sundays, Page goes to church and prays with other Liberians, many of whom have children who are struggling. She asks God to make her son a useful member of society. "He has to stand on his own two feet," she says.

Gibson, too, wants to be productive. "I am strong. I could work two, three jobs," he says. "Someone just has to tell me what to do next."



Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


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